ICARH and the plight of LGBTs in Nigeria

Nigeria has adopted a range of laws targeting LGBT people. One Nigerian organisation, however, is trying to confront the dire situation by providing healthcare, counselling, and protection of LGBT people.

By Loke Bisbjerg Nielsen • 2016

Away from prying eyes, down a side road behind a big, black steel door in a quiet neighbourhood in the centre of the Nigerian capital, Abuja,  a human rights safe haven is located. Here women, men, queers, transpersons, intersex persons and everything in-between can find a place to be themselves.

This is the headquarters of the International Centre for Advocacy on Rights to Health – an organisation that works with health and human rights for sexual and gender minorities. The operation of a health clinic constitutes the core of the organisation’s work. They have two consultancy rooms, where people without many other places to go can receive treatment and counselling. In addition, they have a small research facility and an office that provides legal advice and runs awareness campaigns. One of their main focus points is the prevalence and stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS among sexual and gender minority groups. Next to the clinic is a common room where meetings are held and people can hang out, watch a movie, and meet each other. Here it is possible to flirt in a safe environment, or to try on a new dress without having your identity violently questioned.

“What has Nigeria ever done for us?”

In addition, they have a human rights office. Here I meet my two contacts: the gay activists Ibrahim and David. As I enter the office, I walk into a heated discussion on something that concerns everyone at the moment: the revitalized Biafra separatist group in Southeast Nigeria. The engagement of people in the organization extends to many areas of politics, culture, religion, and identity.

Above the working desk in the modest office where the human rights lawyer, Ibrahim, is sitting, is a small, proud Swedish flag. When I ask them what the flag means, the answer is clear: human rights. The Swedish flag has, in some ways, come to replace the usual rainbow flag – which is not easy to find around these parts – as a symbol of pride and equal rights, as the Swedish embassy has supported the organisation in the past.  Of course, not many of them have ever been to Sweden. They are therefore not aware that neither Sweden, nor Europe in general, is a promised land for LGBT people.  They are not necessarily aware of the continued discrimination against LGBT people all over Europe, or the systematic violations of the claims of LGBT asylum seekers from the very countries supporting them in Nigeria.

But from their perspective, the money the organisation receives and the Pride Parades, drag shows, movies and pornography they watch online and use as existential and everyday inspiration, all come from outside of Nigeria.  This highlights the claustrophobic situation they live in – trapped in their own country without much local support. Opposite the Swedish flag, in symbolic contrast, the Nigerian flag is half placed and half thrown, like a green lump of cloth. When I ask the activists why that is, they shrug and say: “What has Nigeria ever done for us?” And the truth is: not much.

The order of nature: love is a crime

In 1990, the Nigerian government passed a law stating that any person who has ‘carnal knowledge’ of another person against the ‘order of nature’, or who permits someone to have ‘carnal knowledge’ against the ‘order of nature’ is liable to imprisonment for 14 years (criminal code, chapter 77, laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990 174, section 214). In addition, a law was enacted in 2014 – signed personally by then president Goodluck Jonathan –  providing a seven year prison sentence for anyone belonging to a gay organisation, supporting same-sex marriage, or displaying same-sex affection in public. Furthermore, Nigeria’s federal system allows individual federal states to enact their own laws. This means that LGBT people in 12 states in northern Nigeria are doubly penalised because of the implementation of sharia law that, among other things, prescribes the punishment of “sodomy” with lashes and even stoning. According to Amnesty International, this law has luckily not yet been enforced.

Street justice

The 2014 law had an immediate effect, leading to the arrest of several LGBT people in Nigeria. Furthermore, the law has significantly increased the vulnerability of LGBT people, making them victims of street justice and giving vigilantes the impression that they enact the law, when they attack LGBT people. A month after the law was adopted, a mob, reportedly seeking to “cleanse the community” of homosexuals, attacked several LGBT people in Abuja, dragging them through the streets and beating them with nail studded clubs and whips.

Although the law is not strictly enforced, the consequences for the LGBT community, as a result of this outright criminalization of love and identities, are harrowing. As David told me, the LGBT community cannot count on the police for help if they get attacked, as they can face arrest or plain indifference to their suffering. This gives homophobic opinions, which sadly prevail in Nigeria, free rein when it comes to discrimination against LGBT people. As a result, LGBT people have to disguise their identities to the extent possible, and live in constant fear of being assaulted if discovered.

Even though transpersons are not mentioned as such in the discriminatory law, they are still victims of the rigid, socially enforced gender expectations of Nigerian society as well as the homophobic opinions the law enhances. This forces transpersons to perform the gender ascribed to them by the surrounding society in order to avoid assaults and ostracism, causing serious mental trauma, depression, and potentially self-harm. Deviations from socially recognised and enforced gender norms are subjected to often violent corrections and people can, based on mere appearance, be accused of being gay and thus subjected to the Nigerian laws describing “unnatural behaviour”.

Persecution of LGBT people and asylum in Denmark
In 2016, three lesbian women from Uganda had their asylum claims rejected by the Danish system. They were sentenced to deportation to Uganda, where they risk persecution and violence, and where homosexuality is punishable with life imprisonment. In the beginning of August, one of the women was granted a reprieve in the eleventh hour, when her case was reopened on the same day she was supposed to be deported. A few days later, the Danish Refugee Appeals Board decided to reopen another of the three cases. But the third asylum seeker remains imprisoned in Ellebæk awaiting her deportation.
Denmark in principle grants asylum to people who have well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country for belonging to a particular “social group” – and LGBT people may constitute such a group. Moreover, any asylum seeker risking torture, death penalty, or inhumane treatment in their home country has the right to protection in Denmark – on paper.
But in reality, this is often far from the case. As the group LGBT Asylum among others has pointed out, the trying of asylum cases of LGBT persons leaves a lot to be desired. The Danish Refugee Appeals Board has been criticised for not providing sufficient information from the beginning of the asylum process, and for placing too much of the burden of proof on the asylum seeker. If any part of an asylum seeker’s story is deemed “inconsistent”, the whole case may be rejected, regardless of the asylum seeker’s sexual orientation or gender identity being the central asylum motive.
When Danish politician Martin Henriksen from the Danish People’s Party advises gay people in Uganda to “just not make a big deal out of the fact that they are gay,” it reveals a blatant lack of understanding of the dangers LGBT people face – in Uganda and all over the world. This lack of understanding is unfortunately symptomatic of the Danish asylum system.
Uganda has attracted quite a lot of international attention for its discriminatory, anti-gay laws and for continuously debating the death penalty for homosexuality. Similar harsh laws and discrimination against LGBT people are imposed by many other states, including the Nigerian state.
The debate surrounding LGBT people’s asylum claims in Denmark often plays out in an atmosphere of misconception regarding the realities for LGBT people in countries with discriminatory laws. These laws may seem vague to some observers, or perhaps it can be documented that the laws are not strictly enforced. But LGBT people in countries with such laws often experience physical and psychological violence from outright purges to negative familial expectations, as well as extortion, religiously sanctioned hate speech, social corrections, enforced gender roles, and many other types of discrimination and oppression. This travel report from an LGBT organisation in Nigeria gives a small glimpse into the plight of LGBT people.

The constant threats of violence

As people in his neighbourhood know that he is gay, David has personally experienced violent harassment. Some “area boys” (gangs consisting of young men roaming the streets at night) known as the “Vikings” broke into his home one night. Luckily, he was not home, and did not have much they could steal, but the area boys knew that he would not risk reporting it to the police because of his sexuality. They can therefore act with impunity. This was the case when they later returned one night, and threatened to attack David in his house. As he lay in his bed with his boyfriend, both holding their breath and praying that the steel door would not give in to the assailants’ violence, shouts of “Homosexual! Homosexual! Come out!” filled the night. The following day David went to the market and bought an old rusty machete, which he now keeps under his bed. If they one day succeed in smashing in the door, he has promised himself, he will not go down easily.

David has experienced his friends getting brutally assaulted or disappearing. He fears that the disappeared people have been killed and may be buried somewhere unknown. The most common kind of harassment against LGBT people in Nigeria, however, is extortion. Both civilians and the police can threaten people with jail, beatings, and other things, which forces LGBT people to pay big sums of money to avoid arrest, avoid violence, or to keep their jobs. In a country like Nigeria, with widespread poverty, extortion is a big problem for people who already have little. When the money runs out, they face the saddening consequences.

The lack of support and organisations

Besides ICARH in Abuja, there are only a few other LGBT organisations in Nigeria, a country of 190 million people. David is trying to change this fact and is in the process of establishing an organisation similar to ICARH in Nigeria’s South South region. The organisation is also focusing on healthcare, but indirectly seeks to promote human rights and protect the interests of LGBT people in the region. David is trying to obtain financial and social support to establish his organisation, which will be an important contribution to the LGBT struggle in Nigeria. But as any organisation supporting or promoting activities contradicting the discriminatory Nigerian laws is prohibited and punishable by a 10 year prison sentence, David is mostly reliant on the limited external support he can get. Many Western countries are economically and politically involved in Nigeria, which has Africa’s largest economy, an enormous consumer base, abundant natural resources, and other things interesting for Western economies. But support to the LGBT Nigerians often does not figure into these calculations.

In an unprecedented action in April 2016, the Nigerian government stated that they were going to launch an investigation into the private affairs of the Swiss ambassador to Nigeria, Eric Mayooraz, because it was “suspected” that he had brought his “gay partner” with him to Nigeria. Although the investigation was not carried through, it should still be mentioned that conducting such an extension of domestic discriminatory laws against foreign dignitaries testifies to the seriousness of the oppression and persecution of LGBT people in Nigeria.

Sinners and hellfire

Overall, LGBT people in Nigeria live an undercover and secluded existence, where love, sex, and personal identity can only be expressed under the ever-present danger of violence, extortion, disappearance, and possibly death. Basic awareness about safe sex, the establishment of positive sexual relationships, and sexually transmitted diseases is lacking, causing homosexuals to engage in dangerous sexual practices at high risk of contracting HIV. As David also explains, relationships are very difficult under these circumstances. Because people are afraid, and because people seek to get out of Nigeria, it is difficult to develop a long-lasting relationship, and many people are afraid of falling in love.

Nigeria is a very religious country, with roughly half of the population defining themselves as Christian, and the other half defining themselves as Muslim. Religion is therefore a big part of Nigerian identity. This applies to the LGBT community as well, where most people are either Christian or Muslim. David is Christian. For many years he continued to go to church but, in the end, he could not stand the promises of death and hellfire which he was told awaited “sinners” like him. He felt sickened and despairing of the hate emanating from the pulpit that resonated positively in the congregation. He still believes in the love of God, and he has built himself a small altar in his little room. In many ways, it seems like it is the experience of being shunned from his faith that has affected him the most. He dreams of getting married one day, in the church before God, but it is difficult just to find a partner in Nigeria, as people are too afraid to fall in love.

Nigeria experiences a dual development of economic growth and growing inequality. It faces security challenges from violent rebellion in the north-east, separatist movements in the south-east, and a political system divided between South and North, Christians and Muslims. It is deeply affected by the destabilising and retarding effects of corruption and political mismanagement, and by outside actors acting with impunity and indifference in their pursuit of Nigerian resources and its vast mass of consumers. Under these circumstances, the plight of LGBT persons can be, and often is, easily overlooked.

This article was written in collaboration with an activist from ICARH. The names of the people in the article have been changed. They are known to the author.