“He is supposed to be killed.”
- Nuhu Idris Mohammed, Sharia Court Judge in Bauchi who sentenced a man to 20 lashes for being a homosexual. (Source: “Wielding Whip and a Hard New Law, Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays”, New York Times, February 8, 2014.)
Kill them. This sentiment has been expressed about homosexuals in Nigeria, both in the streets and in the media, especially since the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act came into operation on January 7, 2014. In a rare moment of country-wide support, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan received praise from Christian and Muslim groups and well as from members of the legal profession and opposition political parties. Most persons hailed the new piece of legislation as being in line with Nigerian religious and cultural values and chided the West for what some called hypocrisy and double standards. In fact, some of the strongest proponents of the legislation to criminalize gay activities and behavior and the support of same with long prison terms, come from the opposition. Abike Dabiri-Erewa for example, a journalist and federal legislator from Lagos State who is described on her Wikipedia page as having “warmed her way into the hearts of many with her gallantry efforts of using television as an effective tool to draw attention to the millions of Nigerians suffering from the pains of poverty and injustice.” (Dabiri-Erewa has also sponsored a bill for the elimination for violence against women. Her website describes the proposed legislation thus: “The bill also seeks compensation for victims of rape. It also deals with domestic violence, political violence, harmful traditional practices, and protection of widows among others”). When the anti-gay bill came up for debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, Dabiri-Erewa said that the idea of the solemnization of same sex marriage has “no place in Nigerian culture” and is “repulsive”.
Just what is this piece of legislation that seems to be at the centre of both controversy and contradiction? The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, one of the scantiest pieces of legislation in the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (7 sections and less than 600 words), is a remarkable law in many ways. For the first time, actions outside the act of homosexuality itself (albeit corollaries to it) are being punished. For example, the law punishes acts such as the direct or indirect “public show of same sex amorous relationship”, a nebulous term not defined in the legislation, as well as the “registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, their sustenance, processions and meetings”. Further widening the scope of persons capable of being punished, the law prescribes a 10 year jail term for persons who as much as witnesses any of the offences, whether the solemnization of a gay marriage, the registration of a gay club or a meeting of a gay society.
Indeed, it is safe to say that a majority of Nigerians, sold to the idea of the legislation primarily by its title (which purports to be mainly about prohibiting gay marriage in Nigeria), are in support of the law. Nigeria, a country deeply divided along crisscrossed ethnic and religious lines, is a country fanatical about religion and the profession of religion. Most persons, whether practitioners of religion or not, claim some affiliation to one of the two major religions, Christianity or Islam, whether at social events, in the workplace or even for the purpose of filling political quotas. Samira Askia*, for example, who in an uncommon act of bravery, revealed her gay sexuality in an article online, identifies as “gay, Muslim…and Nigeria[n]”.
Many persons applauding the new anti-gay legislation cite the preservation of their culture and religion as strong reasons for their support of this clampdown on gays and those sympathetic to them. The head of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Rev. Felix Omobude, pronounced in a statement hailing the passage of the anti-gay law that same sex unions are “contrary to Nigeria’s culture” adding, “if you even remove Christianity and Islam, and to the very tradition of the people, we abhor same sex marriage.” In a separate reaction, the head of one of the branches of the Nigerian Bar Association, Nigeria’s umbrella body for lawyers, said “[Nigerian] culture supports sexual purity and natural means of conception.”
It seems however that most of these references to culture and religion force a narrow reading of what Nigerian culture is and has been, at least outside Christianity and Islam. In at least one example from Northern Nigeria, there are rich historical and even contemporary sources that suggest this narrow reading of Nigerian culture may be excluding a large part of the history of pre-Islamic culture and tradition. In a study dealing with the role of ‘yan daudu, ‘transgendering men’ in Hausa society and more precisely in bori cult- an old spirit possession cult where the practice of homosexuality is rife- scholar Maarit Sinikangas makes several references to respected sources in explaining how the bori religion operated (and still operates) in parts of Northern Nigeria. Drawing reference from Fremont E. Besmer’s “Horses, Musicians & Gods: The Hausa Cult of Possession-Trance” (1983), Sinikangas writes in his 2004 thesis “Yan Daudu -A Study of Transgendering Men in Hausaland West Africa”:
Bori is fundamentally a communication between this world and the other world. It is a set of beliefs in supernatural spirits that can communicate with the people in terms of good or evil will. The spirits, always being present in people's lives, can cause several misfortunes and make the people ill, but they have also the power to cure and bring luck.
He also points out that even in contemporary times, “some Muslims take part [in] bori ceremonies or seek medical help from bori practitioners.”
Many ‘yan daudu participate in bori performances and dance like women, donating money to cult-adepts, “especially when the spirit Dan Galadima appears”. J.H. Greenberg, in “The influence of Islam on a Sudanese Religion” suggests that the origin of the term ‘dan daudu is from Dan Galadima, a son of Galadima in the spirit pantheon, Dan Galadima being a loose living, handsome man who is popular among women. Umar H. D. Danfulani in “Factors Contributing To The Survival Of The Bori Cult In Northern Nigeria” alludes to the fact that dancing, sex orgies and daudu homosexuality” are often associated with bori dances even though he argues that “daudu homosexual relationships found in some sections of Hausa society is not a particular characteristic of the bori cult.”
There has been the argument that ‘yan daudu are not homosexuals, in the strict sense of the word but merely transsexuals or transvestites. Sinikangas argues that while partaking in same-sex actions is neither necessary nor a sufficient criteria for the status of ‘dan daudu, their status being defined through their work and their most visible feature- gender crossing-, many of the ‘yan daudu do have sexual relations with other men. This argument is reinforced in Rudolph Gaudio’s much quoted scholarly article, “Male Lesbians and Other Queer Notions in Hausa”. Gaudio, a scholar and linguistic anthropologist who himself is a gay man and has spent decades living in, visiting and researching in Northern Nigeria, asserts that although “‘dan daudu” is an occupational categorization, most ‘yan daudu are in fact homosexual. Explaining the minor difference between the homosexual ‘dan daudu and the Western ‘gay’ sexual identity, he explains:
Despite the lack of significant contacts between Hausa and North American gay communities, certain similarities in the discourses of both groups are sufficient to justify my use here of ‘gay’ and related terms to refer the Hausa men who have sex with men. If ‘gay’ is seen to refer only to the overt, politicized gay communities that have emerged in the West in the past one hundred years, it surely does not apply to the Hausa I met in Nigeria, most of whom have little if any knowledge of Western gay life. If, however, ‘gay’ is understood to refer to men who are conscious of themselves as men who have sex with men, and who consider themselves to be socially (if not temperamentally) distinct from men who do not have this kind of sex, then these Hausa men are undoubtedly gay, and it is in this sense that I use it. This is not to say that Hausa men understand sexuality as do North American gay men. For example, Hausa people generally refer to homosexuality as an act rather than a psychological drive or predisposition, and homosexual men are more often described as men who do homosexuality than as men who want other men sexually. The most common in-group term for men who have sex with men is masu harka, ‘those who do the business’, often abbreviated to masu yi, ‘those who do [it]’. Moreover, homosexuality is not seen to be incompatible with heterosexuality, marriage or parenthood, which constitute strong normative values in Hausa Muslim society.
There is ample scholarship on bori, ‘yan daudu and homosexuality as an undeniable sub culture in (Nigerian) Hausa society as well as on several other non-traditional gender and sexuality expressions across cultures in Nigeria and Africa. The bori, straddling both culture and religion, is one glaring response to the claim that homosexuality is alien to Nigerian culture.
Much of the modern homophobia in Nigeria, and indeed many parts of Africa, seem to be connected to the incursion of monotheistic religions into the continent and the supplanting of existing cultures and polytheistic religions which accommodated a plurality of belief systems. More recently there have been well documented reports of American evangelists who have sponsored and lobbied for gay crackdowns in Africa. Scott Lively, a controversial Massachusetts based anti-LGBT evangelist, is well known for his role in Uganda, where as a result of his aggressive advocacy and representation to the Ugandan parliament, the Anti-Homosexuality bill was proposed. Lively has been known for asserting, in ‘The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party’, that “homosexuals [are] the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities.” This in spite of several sources recording the imprisonment, torture and killing of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. He further links homosexuality to murder by arguing that eight of the top ten US serial killers were homosexuals. While some commentators have asserted that American right wing evangelists have reached countries like Nigeria to lobby for harsh anti-gay legislation, it is not clear if anti-gay campaigners like Scott Lively directly influenced the passage of the Nigerian anti-gay law.
In Northern Nigeria, the Sharia Penal Code, re-introduced in a stricter version in 1999 starting with the Zamfara State Government and spreading to as many as 12 Northern states, prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality. Many of the recently arrested suspected homosexuals in these Northern states, (notably Bauchi) have been charged under the Sharia penal code as seen in the outset of this article.
In a country where direct violence is often the preferred method of solving issues from land disputes to religious slights, mobs have become emboldened to carry out targeted acts of violence against persons perceived to be gay. In Rivers State sometime in late January, barely three weeks after the anti-gay law was passed, a viral video emerged showing two alleged male homosexuals being molested by a mob and forced to have sex with each other. On February 12, coordinated attacks on the homes of several activists and others perceived to be gay were carried out by a mob in a suburb of Abuja in the Federal Capital Territory. Nearly 14 persons had their property stolen or destroyed and were rendered homeless. The mob warned that if they returned to their homes they would be killed. Rumours of many more attacks in other parts of the country exist.
While it may take a whole new conversation to understand the root of this boldness of violent anti-gay rhetoric and physical attacks, one thing is certain: many persons do not relate with homosexuality as a human issue. They simply refuse to believe that there are ‘normal’ people who have a sexual orientation that does not fit that of the majority. Lydia Polgreen, the Deputy International Editor of the New York Times, wrote on April 12, 2012 on her Twitter account: “I interviewed arch-conservative Nigerian Anglican Bishop, Peter Akinola, who told me he had never met a gay person.”
As a result of decades of living in the closet as well as the complex notions of sexuality which do not always fit foreign labels like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, many persons whose sexuality involves having sex with persons of the same or similar gender are forced to fit into culturally assigned roles for males and females. Thus people -women more so- are pressured into marrying and having children and fitting the role of the gender they were assigned at birth. Routinely, homosexual men and women get married and bear children while maintaining closeted same sex relationships. Hence, gay persons have had no visibility in Nigeria, making it easy for people to conclude that homosexuality is a Western concept and alien to our culture. Even ‘yan daudu, while sometimes referring to themselves with feminine pronouns in Hausa, hold to the gender categories that label them men and stick to those roles- for example they follow the strict Islamic rules which prevent men from entering houses which seclude women.
Samira Askia* mentioned earlier, explains why visibility matters in the discourse around homosexuality.
I am hoping that attitudes will change after spending time with a real life gay person and leaving with their humanity, religion, relationship and heterosexuality still intact. I usually have the one question for them: now that you know me, do you still think I should be in jail for 14 years?
Nigerian homophobia appears to be very gender specific, expressing disgust mostly at male homosexuality. A woman in expressing her support for the anti-gay law and her shock at homosexuality said: “I can understand two women. But two men? How do they even do it? What pleasure do they derive?” Indeed, almost all of the persons arrested by authorities or attacked and beaten by mobs have been males.
A lot of homophobia finds roots in popular myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about both homosexuality and gay persons. Foremost among these seems to be the previously mentioned claim that homosexuality is a Western perversion seeking inroads into Nigerian society- a claim that falls flat in the face of concrete evidence like bori practices among others.
Some have claimed that anal sex is not only wrong but leads to diseases. First, this claim is simplistic in limiting homosexual behavior to anal sex, totally cutting off lesbian practices or even non-anal male homosexual practices. It is also based upon the premise that only homosexuals engage in anal sex. A random sampling of heterosexual pornography for example, shows that anal sex (mostly males anally penetrating females) features prominently in heterosexual sex. On the claim that anal homosexual sex causes diseases, while it is a fact that the HIV prevalence is much higher among male homosexuals, all unprotected sex, vaginal, anal or even oral, expose those involved to sexually transmitted diseases.
Murray Lipp, a social justice activist in response to the stereotype that gay men focus on anal sex, writes that “the core feature of male homosexuality is sexual attraction to other men, not an exclusive focus on a particular behavior [like anal sex]”. He further explains that while anal sex is one possible sexual activity between gay men, it is not “an activity that all gay men participate in, nor is it one that heterosexual people never engage in.”
However, perhaps the most dangerous of all the myths is that which seeks to compare or even equate homosexuality with pedophilia. It is common to have minority groups which are hated by the majority branded as being dangerous to the community or worse, to the vulnerable persons of that community. This helps to justify and legitimize the public expression of hate. In this way, as Dr. Gregory M. Herek writes in his article “Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation”, “Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices [and] black men in the United States were often lynched after being falsely accused of raping white women.” Herek writes further:
…the mainstream view among researchers and professionals who work in the area of child sexual abuse is that homosexual and bisexual men do not pose any special threat to children. For example, in one review of the scientific literature, noted authority Dr. A. Nicholas Groth wrote:
Are homosexual adults in general sexually attracted to children and are preadolescent children at greater risk of molestation from homosexual adults than from heterosexual adults? There is no reason to believe so. The research to date all points to there being no significant relationship between a homosexual lifestyle and child molestation. The… adult male who sexually molests young boys is not likely to be homosexual (Groth & Gary, 1982, p. 147).
In a later literature review, Dr. Nathaniel McConaghy (1998) similarly cautioned against confusing homosexuality with pedophilia. He noted, "The man who offends against prepubertal or immediately postpubertal boys is typically not sexually interested in older men or in women" (p. 259 [McConaghy, N. (1998). Paedophilia: A review of the evidence. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 32(2), 252-265.]).
On the most basic level, the attempt to link homosexuality with pedophilia ignores one of the most common child sexual abuse scenarios: the sexual abuse of girl children by male adults. It also disregards the sexual abuse of male children by female adults. This is not to say, however, that persons who have previously identified as gay or homosexual cannot molest children. Homosexuality does not confer sainthood upon individuals. There exists, just as among heterosexual populations, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ homosexuals. Indeed, the entire spectrum of general human behavior among heterosexuals is replicated among homosexuals. It is likely that if gay persons lived freely in our communities, people may begin to see them as real humans and not just rumored perverts. In at least one report from victims of homophobic mob attacks in Abuja following the anti-gay law, an apparently fascinated policeman made one of the suspected gay persons show him his anus and penis. It is not clear what the policeman sought to achieve from that exercise.
Debates around homosexuality and the acceptance, tolerance or otherwise of it continues around the world, even in more liberal and secular countries where respect for human rights is less selective. Nigerians may just need to be more open about discussing sex, sexuality and sexual identity especially now that legislation has forced the issue into national consciousness. Samira Askia sees her sudden refusal to hide who she is to make people comfortable in their homophobia as forcing them to confront their feelings about the topic. She believes that the more visible gay persons are, the sooner Nigerians will stop speaking of them in the abstract. Perhaps, then there will be a sizeable population of Nigerians who understand that, in Ms. Askia’s words, gay persons “do exist, eat, laugh, love, sleep and work: just like heterosexuals do.”
*Not her real name