Nigeria: LGBTI remains a taboo that presidential hopefuls won’t dare to break

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Wednesday, 14 September 2022 08:33

A protest in Kenya in support of LGBTQ rights in 2019 © Ben Curtis/AP/SIPA

Several issues have dominated political discussions in the build-up to Nigeria’s critical elections slated for early next year: The dwindling government revenue, rising insecurity, crude oil theft, and the alarming rate of children that are out of school. However, the victimised lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) community remain a taboo in Africa’s most populous country.

When Labour Party candidate Peter Obi nominated former senator Yusuf Baba Ahmed as his running mate on 8 July, many of his young tech-savvy supporters quickly took to Google to check the credentials of the man who could potentially be Nigeria’s next vice-president.

A former governorship candidate in Kaduna State and founder of Abuja-based Baze University, Baba Ahmed is the son of an illustrious cattle herder and Islamic cleric who migrated from Mauritania to Nigeria over seven decades ago. Beyond his credentials, a deeper search would lead to what many might have missed about him – his views on homosexuality.

As a senator, Baba Ahmed was condemned by some activists after he called for the murder of homosexuals during a debate in the legislative chamber on 29 November 2011, shortly before the anti-same sex marriage law was passed. “Such elements [homosexuals] in society should be killed,” he said.

Tight-lipped

Baba Ahmed has since refrained from addressing the issue. When asked in a recent interview about his running mate’s comments, Obi said: “2014 to today is about eight years … we all have made comments that we believe in and it is allowed.

“I […] am tolerant of people’s views and their lifestyle […] as long as it doesn’t affect my interest. […] we have more critical issues to deal with today and that is what I will be concentrating on.”

They will never commit to supporting gay rights, even at gunpoint

Other frontline presidential candidates are also tight-lipped on LGBTI issues. When The Africa Report spoke to Paul Ibe, spokesperson for presidential hopeful Atiku Abubakar, he refused to comment on the matter, and so did Bayo Onanuga, spokesman for the All Progressives Congress candidate Bola Tinubu.

“Our manifesto is not yet out. That is all I can say for now,” Onanuga said.

Analysts tell The Africa Report that though supporting LGBTI rights could help a presidential candidate gain the support of liberal Western nations, it could be political suicide at home.

“I think the reason candidates are leaving out issues of LGBTI rights is because Nigeria is very sensitive about it,” says public affairs commentator, Deji Adeyanju, who once ran digital communications and strategy for the PDP.

UK support ahead of election

The UK government says it will support those who protect the LGBTI rights in Nigeria.

“We regularly engage with individuals and civil society organisations representing the LGBTI+ community in Nigeria about the challenges they face, including the challenge of actively playing their full part in the democratic process as citizens of Nigeria,” Dean Hurlock, the head of communications at the British High Commission in Nigeria, tells The Africa Report via email.

According to the British High Commission, the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC) – an intergovernmental group of 42 member states and over 120 civil society organisations aiming to protect and promote LGBTI rights around the world – will work for the benefit of LGBTI community in Nigeria ahead of the presidential election.

In 2011, then UK Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut financial aid to African countries that victimise homosexuals. He slashed the aid allocated to Malawi by £19m (around $22m) after two gay men were sentenced to 14 years in prison.

However, such efforts did little to assuage the plight of the LGBTI community in African nations, including Nigeria.

Homophobic nation 

Members of the LGBTI community are often physically assaulted in Nigeria, which is known for its religiosity. According to the gay rights group Queer Alliance, in 2014, the LGBT community recorded 105 cases of human right violations.

Queer behaviour is a bit tolerated in liberal cosmopolitan cities like Lagos, where cross-dressers like James Brown and Bobrisky have become well-known internet personalities.

However, in most of the 12 northern, predomentantly Muslim states, homosexuality carries a death penalty pursuant to their version of the Sharia law. In July, a Sharia Court in Bauchi State sentenced three men to death by stoning for homosexuality.

All the major candidates will not likely talk about it because for them, winning votes is the ultimate goal.

Reports say the convicts – Abdullahi Beti (30), Kamilu Ya’u (20) and Malam Haruna (70) – were not represented in court by a lawyer before pleading guilty to the charges against them, a development that the UK opposed.

A 2018 poll conducted by NOI Polls, in partnership with The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), found that 90% of Nigerians supported the anti-same sex marriage law.

When President Muhammadu Buhari paid his first visit to the US to meet his then counterpart Barack Obama in July 2015, he ruled out the possibility of repealing anti-gay laws.

Anti-gay laws

In 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which makes same-sex unions a criminal offense punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment.

It also penalises any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations, directly or indirectly. Such acts, according to the law, could lead to prison sentences of up to 10 years.

The situation surrounding Nigeria’s LGBTI community is set to take a turn for the worse as federal lawmakers are now considering a law that prohibits cross-dressing. The bill proposes six-month imprisonment or a fine of N500,000 (around $1,169) for anyone found guilty.

“The laws in Nigeria on LGBT are stiff. All the major candidates will not likely talk about it because for them, winning votes is the ultimate goal. They will never commit to supporting gay rights, even at gunpoint,” says Adeyanju.

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