Nigeria: Persecuted Gay Community Cautiously Seeks a Voice
May 7, 2004
U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
ABUJA—Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Nigeria,
but gay rights groups made their first ever appearance at the country’s
fourth national AIDS conference in the capital Abuja this week.
They called on their fellow countrymen to recognise and
protect Nigeria’s gay community, pointing out that it has been hit hard by
the AIDS pandemic.
In Nigeria, homosexual practice can carry a 14-year jail
sentence under federal law. In 12 northern states that have adopted Islamic
Shari’ah law, adults who are found to have engaged in homosexual intercourse
can be stoned to death.
However, most of the time, people deny the existence of
“MSM’s”—men who have sex with men—as male homosexuals are generally
known in Nigeria.
“It means that, for most of Nigerians, MSMs are not
human beings—they simply don’t exist,” said Oludare Odumuye, president
of Alliance Rights Nigeria, an organisation representing sexual minorities in
“Recently, some of us have been arrested by the police,
thrown into jail and raped in the cells,” Odumuye told a handful of
journalists and conference delegates who turned up to hear his message at a
“One out of 50 lawyers we have contacted has accepted
to defend their interests. The others were too afraid to be associated with
homosexuals, even if they were homosexuals themselves!” he continued.
Things are particularly bad in the Muslim north,
according to Odumuye.
“Because of the application of the Shari’ah code,
they kill men and even young secondary school boys in the north of the
country,” he said. “We know that it’s still happening today. People are
expelled, dismissed, arrested—they bug us!”
With his beaded bracelets, flashy snakeskin shoes and
refined manners, Odumuye caught the attention of watching policemen—five of
whom installed themselves on a nearby sofa to get a better view.
“You see, they didn’t intervene,” he said with a
nod in the direction of the police officers. “Some progress has been made
since the start of the struggle!” he added with a large smile.
Odumuye began battling to publicise the plight of the gay
community in the early 1990s. In July 1999, with a group of friends, he
founded the ARN for “Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transexuals and Queers” across
From the eight founder members, the organisation has
grown to a membership of 8,000—most of whom are men forced to keep their
true sexuality in the dark.
But the fact that homosexuality is widely ignored in
Nigeria is having a negative impact on the spread of AIDS in the country.
The Nigerian gay community has been largely forgotten
about when it comes to AIDS awareness campaigns. These have always focused on
preventing the spread of the HIV virus through heterosexual relationships.
“It’s unfortunate but homosexuals, because no
educational programme targeted them, have become one of the main high risk
groups in Nigeria. This is causing a lot of damage among our [gay] community,
but also to those around them,” Odumuye said.
Because of the stigmatisation of homosexuality, many gay
men have girlfriends and even marry to be seen to conform to cultural and
societal norms. It is not uncommon, said Odumuye, for men to insist on using a
condom with a woman but not bother with a male lover since they do not always
realise that AIDS can be caught from sex with another man.
According to Odumuye, around 40% of MSMs are married, but
they continue to have sex with male partners covertly—putting their wives
and families at risk of HIV infection.
Confined to the fringes of society, Nigeria’s gay men
also face huge problems in finding proper health care.
“For instance, if they announce to the doctor that they
have anal wounds, you can be sure that they won’t get proper care,”
Odumuye said. “However, health care should meet the needs of sexual
Professor Femi Soyinka, a leading human rights activist
in Nigeria, agreed that MSMs are pushed to the sidelines of society. But he
told IRIN that until they feel comfortable enough to identify themselves
publicly, it will be very difficult to help them.
“If somebody, who is an MSM, goes to the hospital, of
course he will not want to be identified as being an MSM,” Soyinka said.
“For this reason, it’s very difficult for us to know how they would be
received as they’re not identifying themselves.”
However, Odumuye was positive that things were improving.
“Three or four years ago, it wouldn’t be possible to
hold such a meeting, talking freely about our concerns.” he said. “The
situation is gradually getting better.”
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