Posted by Peter Tatchell on
* This African country claims to be a democracy but its persecution of gay people is pure tyranny.
The arrest on August 5 of 18 men at a private party in the northern state of Bauchi is the latest incident in a wave of ongoing homophobic persecution in Nigeria - much of which is incited by Christian bishops and Muslim imams.
Bauchi is a predominantly Muslim region that has adopted sharia law. Police officers acted on a tip-off from the hisbah Islamic anti-vice squad of the Bauchi sharia commission. They seized the men, aged 18 to 22, in rooms at the Benko hotel in Bauchi.
Those arrested were alleged to have "dressed in women's clothing" and conducted a "gay wedding". The latter allegation continues to be repeated by sharia officials and the Nigerian media, despite no evidence of wedding paraphernalia such as marriage certificates or the presence of any minister of religion or marriage registrar.
The men were initially accused of vagrancy, cross-dressing and practicing sodomy as a profession, contrary to section 372, subsection 2(e), of the Bauchi state sharia penal code. A sodomy charge carries a sentence of death.
Fortunately, at their hearing on August 21 in the Tunda Al Khali area court, Judge Malam Tanimu Abubakar ruled that the 18 men should not be charged with sodomy - only with vagrancy and cross-dressing. Nevertheless, even if they are found guilty of these lesser charges, they could face up to one year in prison and 30 lashes.
All the defendants pleaded not guilty. The judge released five of them on bail and remanded the other 13 men in prison, pending a further hearing on September 13.
According to the Weekly Trust newspaper, the prosecuting counsel, Aliyu Ibrahim Idris, was not happy with the lower level charges. He requested the adjournment to "look for the possibility of changing the charges in order to ensure fair judgment as contained in the Bauchi State Sharia Penal Code". This has raised fears that at the reconvened hearing on September 13 the prosecutors may yet press for more serious sodomy charges.
All of the 13 men who remain in detention are believed to be Muslim. Given reports that only the non-Muslims were freed on bail, some Nigerian human rights activists have expressed concern that the Muslim detainees might be singled out for special punishment in the staunchly Muslim state of Bauchi.
There are vociferous local demands for the men to be stoned to death. At last week's court hearing, an angry mob of Muslim homophobes assembled outside the court. They shouted anti-gay epithets and demanded that all 18 men be sentenced to death. Furious at the judge's decision to opt for non-death penalty charges, they pelted the defendants with rocks as they left the court, attacked the police, and attempted to lynch the judge and to set the court building ablaze, according to the Nigerian newspaper, ThisDay online. To their credit, the Nigerian police protected the defendants, firing tear-gas canisters and shooting their guns in the air to disperse the queer-bashing mob.
Last Friday, August 24, in a continuation of the anti-gay rioting, vigilantes tried to force their way into the prison where the 13 remanded defendants are being held. The Nigerian news agency NAN and News24.com reported that prison chief, Mohammed Nata'ala, said the mob had attempted to lynch the detained men.
Joel Nana of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) attended the court hearing last week. He confirms the atmosphere of hysterical, violent homophobia:
"Both the prisoners and their lawyers were dehumanized and attacked by the crowd," said Nana. "It seemed as if these men had already been tried and convicted."
IGLHRC notes that although female guests were also among those initially arrested, they were swiftly released.
Joseph Akoro of the Nigerian gay human rights group, The Independent Project, reports that contrary to police claims, the arrested men were not dressed as women when they were arrested.
"This leads us to believe that the charges have been drummed up to incite hatred against gay people," Akoro said.
Akoro added that the arrested men were, in fact, guests at a straight wedding.
The official version of the arrests is also questioned by Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of the gay Christian group, Changing Attitudes Nigeria (CAN). He is on the run and in hiding, following repeated death threats. The Nigerian police would sooner arrest him than provide him with protection. But Mr Mac-Iyalla is defiant.
He confirmed to me that five CAN members were among the 18 men arrested in Bauchi. Mr Mac-Iyalla is concerned that although the Christian detainees were bailed, most of the Muslim men were not.
"I am shocked by the arrest of these 18 men," said Mr Mac-Iyalla. "They had met in a private capacity in a hotel and, according to the news reports, were not engaged in any kind of s-xual activity ... They were arrested because they were alleged to be ... taking part in a gay wedding, which isn't legally possible in Nigeria."
Condemning what he sees as the odd priorities of the Nigerian government and police, Mr Mac-Iyalla cited recent riots in the southern city of Port Harcourt, which left 18 people dead, and said:
"While this violence escalates, the government uses powers to invade private parties and bedrooms to arrest and imprison innocent ... people.
The arrest of these men shows that Nigeria is a very dangerous country ... Violence against gays is widespread and official harassment is common ... Members of Changing Attitude Nigeria have also been arrested on different occasions because of police suspicions about their s-xuality.
Neither the government of Nigeria nor the (Anglican) Church of Nigeria has any solution to prevent these dehumanised situations, and yet they find the resources to attack gay people ... Archbishop Peter Akinola has been stirring up homophobic prejudice ... He has helped create the homophobic atmosphere that encourages police harassment and vigilante attacks.
Sharia law prevails in the northern states of Nigeria. It stipulates the death penalty for same-s-x relations. Article 214 of the Penal Code prescribes up to 14 years imprisonment for a male person who permits another male to have carnal knowledge of him ... So long as these sanctions remain, Nigerian gay people will continue to be at risk of blackmail, arrest, jail and execution.
Changing Attitude Nigeria calls upon national and international human rights organisations, and on the Archbishops of Canterbury and Nigeria, to challenge the breach of fundamental human rights in Nigeria, which are affecting the lives of tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bis-xual and transgender people."
Nigeria's anti-sodomy laws contravene the anti-discrimination provisions of various African and UN human rights conventions that Nigeria has signed and pledged to uphold. These include the African charter on human and peoples' rights, which came into force in 1986. It affirms the equality of all people, without discrimination. Similar provisions are included in the UN international covenant on civil and political rights to which Nigeria acceded in 1993.
Nigerian lesbian and gay rights campaigners like Davis Mac-Iyalla are merely asking their government to honour the human rights conventions it has signed. Specifically, they are calling for the repeal of the laws that criminalise same-s-x relations. They also want the introduction of comprehensive hate crime laws, to tackle the widespread prevalence of homophobic discrimination, harassment and violence.
The persecution of gay Nigerians is symptomatic of a wider tyranny, which tramples on individual freedom and civil liberties, as documented by Human Rights Watch.
Given these manifold abuses, Davis Mac-Iyalla and his gay activist colleagues rightly stress that the struggle for gay equality is only one aspect of the broader battle for human rights. Building alliances with other human rights organisations and progressive social movements is, together with international solidarity campaigns, the key to queer liberation in Nigeria. Bravo!