Last edited: February 28, 2005

Pink Refugees

Rainbow Network, May 7, 2003

By Adam Levin, Planet Syndication

Sunday night at the Summit Club in Hillbrow. Anita, a pint-sized Whitney Houston lookalike in white micro-mini and fuck-off platforms, is belting out a flawless lip-synch of Miss Whitney’s classic, ‘It’s not right, but it’s OK’. Anita’s upturned almond eyes sparkle as the red stage light brushes her high, honeyed cheekbones. She gyrates, bends, touches her toes, and flashes that impossibly broad white smile. Her energy is total. The audience—mostly black, male and heterosexual—chug down their Black Labels and cheer raucously. Little do they realise the title of the song has a certain hidden poignancy.

First up, Anita is not a woman, but a young Nigerian man called Azubike Udogo, known to his friends as Azu. Azu is currently in the process of applying for refugee status in South Africa on the grounds of his sexual orientation. “I can’t go back to Nigeria,” he fumes over a glass of Lemon Twist in his Troyeville apartment. “I’ll go somewhere else if I have to. Anywhere. If I go back to Nigeria they’ll kill me or they’ll throw me in jail and that’s it.”

Just how well founded this claim is, however, is a matter for the adjudicators at South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs. As a signatory of a 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, South Africa is obliged to grant refugee status to asylum seekers who have been victims of systematic persecution in their home countries. Not only must they offer proof of this persecution; they must show the inability or unwillingness of their governments to offer them protection.

While asylum seekers await judgement, which can take anything up to six years, they live half-lives without ID books or access to bank accounts. Although they are entitled to work, the asylum seeker’s permit must be renewed every three months. Given the transience of this legal status, it is extremely difficult to secure employment or even a lease. But luckily, Azu is a fighter. He has a day job in the call centre of a Randburg attorney’s office, while at night Anita fills the breadbasket. Azu studies French, performs, socialises. Yet, having first presented his case in June 2000, he is, understandably, feeling rather frustrated at this stage.

Azu was born 29 years ago in Lagos, the economic capital of Africa’s most populated country. Though he realised he was gay from an early age, he was always too frightened to admit this to anyone. Not only would his family reject him, thanks to a strict Victorian penal code, homosexuality is still illegal in Nigeria, and two men found having sex are liable for up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Furthermore, it is alleged that in Lagos there are private groups of vigilantes who prey on gay men, humiliating and harassing them.

Worse still, in the country’s Northern states—where Islamic or sharia law has recently been implemented—homosexuality is punishable by execution. While at least one gay man has been flogged publicly, last year a young man in Kebbeh province—accused of having sex with a male minor—was sentenced to death by stoning.

Even in Lagos, Nigerian society is a long way from liberated when it comes to gay rights. While historically it was customary for powerful Hausa men to share their wealth with young male lovers as well as their female harems, in Post-Colonial Nigeria it is almost impossible to be an out homosexual. According to the affidavit of Adolph Mabunda, a young, gay Nigerian in Johannesburg, “I am regarded as a public disgrace [in Lagos]. At University, I was often insulted by being called derogatory names like [H]’Omo Detergent’. I was rejected and excluded from the mainstream... I am an enemy to my family because they say I have brought shame on them”.

Ironically, the situation is so dire that Alliance Rights, an underground gay organisation, which cannot be registered, spends much of its resources helping persecuted gay Nigerians to leave the country.

Azu worked as a travel agent in Lagos. He drove a decent car and enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. As his family was from River State, where Ken Saro-Wiwa had recently been killed, Azu participated in some peaceful anti-government demonstrations. Secretly he had also begun dressing in drag. Armed with fierce dancing skills and that killer smile, he had won two major titles in the city’s underground drag contests—Miss Lagos and Miss Nigeria. He had also established a secret relationship with a man but this had ended when—under extreme pressure from his family—the man had been persuaded to marry.

It was back in 1996, while walking one evening on the streets of Lagos, that Azu was arrested on suspicion of homosexuality—a charge that carries a seven-year sentence in its own right. The police held Azu in the cells without laying a formal charge. They beat him. Indeed, he still has the mark on his back from where he was whacked with a policeman’s baton. Eventually, after a week behind bars, the charge was changed to “Late Wandering.” Azu paid a fine and was released.

Around two years later, Azu was visiting what he calls a “Man to Man” bar in Lagos. Though nothing as overt as a gay club, the venue was known to have a partly gay clientele. Late that night, police raided the premises, throwing more thirty patrons into a van and yelling “You are worse than dogs!” Had Azu not had sufficient money on grease the officers’ palms, he would have been imprisoned again. It was then that he decided to flee the country. “If I couldn’t be who I really was,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to live anymore”.

Azu had read on the Internet about South Africa’s progressive stance on homosexuality. As the only African country with anti-discrimination laws in its constitution and strong gay rights movement, it seemed a likely place of refuge. And so he gave up everything he’d established in Lagos and began the long journey, by road, through Cameroon, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, arriving eventually in Johannesburg in late 1998. As he had no idea that sexual orientation was grounds for asylum, Azu applied on political grounds.

With an asylum seeker’s permit granted, he began making his life in Johannesburg. He made new friends and got accustomed to the liberty of living openly as a gay man. “Finally, I didn’t have to hide,” he says. “I could just be myself and feel safe. It was magic.”

Azu also began making his name on the drag circuit, belting through Jennifer Holiday and Aretha Franklin at Monte Casino and private parties. At one point, he was flown down to Cape Town to perform at a Camps Bay restaurant. It was only after two years in the country that Azu heard, via the grapevine, of Abeeda Bhamjee, a young Moslem and Legal Counsellor for Refugees at Wits Law Clinic. “Azu came and told us his story,” says Avida. “And we took his case to Home Affairs”.

Azu is not the first gay African to apply for asylum here. Wendy Isaack, Legal Advisor at the National Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Equality, has processed around ten similar cases in the past few years. They have included nationals from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While nine have been successful as asylum seekers, only one has actually been granted refugee status so far.

In October 2001, Azu was summoned for an adjudicators’ hearing at Home Affairs. Four months later, he received a letter of response. His application had been declined. Home Affairs had not accepted his claims of persecution. They also stated that he was able to take legal action against antagonists back home—though the fact that Nigeria’s legal system runs against the liberal tenets of our constitution was ignored. The implication—and one that I, as a gay man, find offensive—was that he should return to Nigeria and simply live in the closet.

Understandably, Home Affairs is in a difficult position. There are more than six hundred million people on this continent. At least half of them live in countries where human rights abuses occur and the modern liberties we have become accustomed to are but a dream. Toss in the needs of our own indigent population and the hordes of economic migrants creeping desperately over our borders and it is clear that the refugee question is one of the major challenges facing this country.

Furthermore, as Bhamjee points out, during the Apartheid years African countries offered residence to exiled South African activists and helped them mobilise against the regime. Surely, given Thabo Mbeki’s grand NEPAD drive, there is room for some reciprocity?

In the nine years that have passed since democracy however, South Africa has been less than generous in its stance towards those who are fleeing. We have accepted around 70 000 asylum seekers, of which 18-20 000 have been granted refugee status. While this may sound like a large number, it compares feebly with much poorer countries like Tanzania, which have camps housing up to a million people at a time.

In South Africa, we have no refugee camps. Asylum seekers are housed in urban areas and are offered very little support from the government. Furthermore, while refugees are legally entitled to apply for citizenship after five years in a country, according to Abeeda Bhamjee, “to my knowledge, none has been granted.”

While Home Affairs protest that a high workload prevents them from processing cases quickly, Bhamjee says the amount of time most asylum seekers wait for judgement is unreasonable. Indeed, there have also been various allegations of bribery at Home Affairs—specifically that asylum seekers are required to pay bribes to renew their permits. When they are granted refugee status however, they do not require renewals, and this alleged under-the-counter income dries up. If this is true, it is in the interests of corrupt Home Affairs officials to prolong the process.

In March 2002, Avida Bhamjee launched an internal appeal at Home Affairs. If this fails, Azu could take his case to the High Court at a minimal cost of around R15 000. If that fails, Azu may need to return to Nigeria, where he may be in greater danger after having lodged such a public appeal. Indeed, other clients of Bhamjee`s have decided against lodging applications based on sexual orientation for fear of rejection from their communities.

Whether or not Azu is entitled to refugee status remains a very tricky ethical question. When I discuss his experience of harassment with a black, gay, local friend, he exclaims, “Well, who wasn’t? The guy should go home and fight for gay civil rights in Nigeria. They need him.” For me, however, the ultimate reckoning lies neither in the degree of persecution Azu could suffer back home nor in the unlikeness of his finding protection. For me, the mere fact that Azu cannot be who is in Nigeria is a gross violation of a basic human right to individuality and self-expression and should, alone, be grounds for asylum.

It is clear from their correspondence that Home Affairs has little experience in dealing with such cases. The fact that adjudicators asked Azu to “prove” he is gay displays an insensitivity to the complex issues of sexuality. Ultimately, whether or not Azubike Udogo is granted refuge, the onus lies on brave gays and lesbians here and throughout this continent to stand up, roll up their sleeves, toss their fists in the air and state, “It`s not right!”

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