In Nigeria, gay rights activists see hope in US Supreme Court ruling

A new poll shows a modest drop in the percentage of Nigerians who support a draconian law against homosexuality. But advocates say a long road lies ahead.

Afolabi Sotunde/ Reuters
Nigeria's outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan (L) congratulates incoming President Muhammadu Buhari after the handover at Eagle Square in Abuja, Nigeria May 29, 2015. Since President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act last year, rights advocates say there has been increased violence towards gays. President Muhammadu Buhari has yet to speak on the issue since coming into office.

It has been 11 years since Bisi Alimi chose to come out as gay on live television while on Nigeria’s then-most popular talk show.

It caused an immediate splash: The popular actor immediately lost his job, and many friends and family relationships along with it. All future guests on the show had to be screened by the Nigerian Television Authority, the first of many such censorship efforts, and helped further what has become a decade of gay rights advocacy in Nigeria.

But, according to Mr. Alimi, that now infamous interview forced the conversation on same-sex relationships to move into the public sphere  — a development that could be far more important in easing the potent anti-gay bias that flows through Africa’s most populous country.  

“Before my coming out on Funmi Iyanda show, there was hardly anyone talking about the gay [rights] on mainstream, “ he said via e-mail. “It was talked about as something that happens in some faraway land, and my coming out brought the issue home and it never went away since then. [Recent years have] seen the debate getting into major television and radio stations.”

The issue came to the fore in Nigeria this week with the US Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage. The news reinvigorated gay rights advocates, coupled with a report from a rights group that called on new President Muhammadu Buhari to repeal the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act — one of the more draconian anti-gay rights laws in Africa — and a new poll revealing that the percentage of Nigerians who agree with the law had dropped 9 percent from five years ago (though still high, at 87 percent).

But virtually all observers acknowledge that a long road lies ahead. Bernard Nwachukwu, a security driver for a local bank in Lagos, says there is little chance that America’s latest achievement on human rights would pass muster in Nigeria. Nor would he want it to.

 “Gay marriage is not what we Nigerians are known for. It is not our culture,” he says. “Our culture is against it and there is no way we can support it.”

His sentiments were echoed throughout the week by politicians and church leaders and in column pages and blogposts. 

“The gay marriage issue goes beyond religion and human rights,” argues Iche Ukpai Kalu, a professor at Abia State University.  “On both grounds it will continue to fail any acceptance test in Nigeria until we are recolonized by its advocates.”

A challenge to Buhari

The new report, released Monday by  PEN American Center and the New York-based Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, details the increased violence towards gays since former President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act last year.

“In effect, it puts at risk anyone who expresses any form of LGBTI identity or support for LGBTI rights,” the report says.

The law not only prohibits engaging in an intimate relationship with a member of the same sex, but also attending advocacy meetings and operating gay organizations.  Punishment can include 14 years in jail for gay marriage and up to 10 years for organizing or belonging to a gay group.  

Since the bill passed, Nigerian groups have documented 105 human rights violations against gays, the report says.

Whether President Buhari will take up the challenge to repeal the law is in unclear, but also unlikely. One month into his term, his agenda is focused on the Boko Haram insurgency, Nigeria’s finances, and appointing his cabinet.

 He has also never spoken about the issue on record, even though he was accused during the campaign of working with Western countries to repeal the law once he was elected.

As for expectations, Alimi says it would not be fair to push the issue for immediate action, but he still wants a dialogue.

“I will want to hold him on his inaugural speech about human rights for every Nigerian, and demand that includes everyone irrespective of gender, sexuality, tribe, sexual orientation or disability.”

Change among youths

Repealing the law would be difficult and run against the national tide, despite the drop in the percentage of those who support it. 

“This result is a great shift,” says Alimi, adding that that the shift over the past five years was important for advocates, who face arrest and persecution. “This poll has just given my hope a boost.”

But generational shifts may bring change. Younger adults, ages 18 to 25, are 30 percent more likely to be familiar with some who is a gay, a promising number for future advocacy, says Alimi.

“Change always happens with young people. It is always the ways of the world. They are the future of the world,” Alimi says. “That’s why I am very particular about youth investment.”

But for Sarah Nwosu, a graduate who fits the youth demographic that is most likely to change their perceptions on gay rights over time, the law is a good thing.  

“I support the law that bans it and it should stand,” she says. “Anyone involved in it should be given the maximum sentence as prescribed in the law.”

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