Liberty or death – it is this or nothing for queer Nigerians

  • By Ado Aminu

There is a theory that was once the reign I trusted to lead my life to some conclusion – whole if not satisfied. It goes thus, ‘if you just live your life quietly enough, pick the occasional lover now and then with careful precision, you will be just fine.’ I learned that it is naive to forget that my body – my sexuality, is political and that my life will be shaped by an ideological struggle that isn’t even my own.

Islam, the religion of my parents – with which I have a wholly personally defined relationship – will only abide my queerness at the point of complete erasure.

Christianity – the cool cousin I sought once at 13 because it promised unconditional love – straddles the unique if unoriginal position of having room for my love on the condition that I don’t, “practice homosexuality.”

I care for the stance of neither on the matter of my being, yet, here I am. Defined, hounded and made to shrink by both religions in a world they claim to be righting but which by their ignorance they are hurting.

When the first gay man to openly declare his queerness on live television – Bisi Alimi, was interviewed on NTA – of all channels – in 2004, I was only eleven years old. My immediate concerns were navigating the bullying I had to endure for being an effete-presenting boy in Kano. I will come to learn of the significance of that interview much later when I began to understand that my struggle cannot afford to remain personal because my existence is a matter of open debate by people I neither know nor care about.

Bisi Alimi was forced to flee the country in the aftermath of that interview – unable to return to the University of Lagos where he was an undergraduate student. The show host – Funmi Iyanda, lost the ability to have a live show thereafter.

I didn’t have a language for the violence that forced that outcome then – queerphobia is a term I will learn much later, but I knew about losing non-conforming friends to the swift and often violent retribution of social ostracism. Jamilu – one of only two other effete and unbending men I knew at the time whose house I could go to for momentary sanctuary – still lives in my mind after he died from the very social ostracism I understood then as the consequence of not conforming. He wouldn’t be my only loss to queerphobia.

Queerphobia – A fear or hatred of queers or homosexuals. – Pullquote.

Unbeknownst to me, queer people who were older than me at the time were fighting behind the scenes – erased by a media that wouldn’t touch their stories at the time. I learned years later from a much older lover that they had been lobbying to be guaranteed the promise of equality for all citizens that the 1999 constitution touted, buoyed by the hope of a newly democratic Nigeria.

Perhaps that interview inspired the first iteration of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, first placed to the National Assembly by Justice Minister Bayo Ojo on January 18, 2006. My former lover thought so. I was only 13 and clueless that strangers were working overtime to criminalize my existence.

Queer people were facing violence then, same as now, but it wasn’t a violence that was televised before our bodies became the main course at the political discourse table in the years leading up to the passage of the SSMPA.

I knew then of the necessity of community for queer people to thrive somewhat shielded from the violence that often waited just at the doorstep of those communities. I knew about the ‘Yan Daudu of Hausa Land and the community they kept with sex workers. They meet their lovers there, made a living and could have somewhat of a life. Yet, Islamic violence also erased them right at their communities.

Something shifted in me and in Nigeria in the years leading up to the passage of the SSMPA, an apprehension on the part of the marginalized queer community – on my part, and a vile excitement for the legal validation that queerphobes saw in the SSMPA. It landed with a vengeance even before the ink dried on the presidential signature that solidified that piece of horrendous law.

As soon as the law was passed, scores of people suspected of engaging in same-sex relationships were rounded up by the Nigerian police and the hisbah (Sharia police) on the streets, arrested at their homes, and taken into custody. Some had been “reported” by their neighbours.

The tragedy at Gishiri, Abuja stays with me the most.

A mob armed with wooden clubs and iron bars, screaming that they were going to “cleanse” their neighbourhood of gay people, dragged 14 young men from their beds and assaulted them. Four of the victims were marched to a police station, where they were kicked and punched by police officers who yelled pejoratives at them, said Ifeanyi Orazulike of the International Center on Advocacy for the Right to Health. My former lover is one of the few who escaped. 

He was barely surviving at the time on a job that paid peanuts, Gishiri being the only community, however poor, he could thrive among his kind. His anger at that horrific injustice – I realized later as I watched in real-time the daring protests of Matthew Blaise in 2020 during the #EndSARS protests and Victor Emmanuel in 2021 – plunged him into LGBT rights activism.

A video had surfaced on the internet that immediately went viral. In it, 2 men in Imo state, disguising to be gay, set up a gay man, extorted, and then murdered him afterwards. This sparked the #EndHomophobia online protest initiated by Matthew Blaise that saw hundreds of queer people sharing their often-near-death experiences at the hands of homophobes – emboldened by the SSMPA – who extort and sometimes violate queer people to the extent of murder as was the case of this young man.

Loss of queer friends, acquaintances, and valuables – like the many I have had over the years, is not new to queer Nigerians. That particular incident of the extortion and murder of a gay man in search of affection in Imo might have been the tipping point for Matthew, the way my former lover’s loss of Gishiri was the tipping point that forced him to choose liberty or death by pursuing public LGBT rights activism.

It is impossible to continue to hold on to, ‘if you just live your life quietly enough, pick the occasional lover now and then with careful precision, you will be just fine’ when even minding your business can have you killed as a queer person in Nigeria.

Minding our business is not enough. It has never been. We die when we are silent, and we could die when we speak up – Bisi Alimi was forced in the aftermath of that interview to go into hiding before he finally left his home country due to death threats from queerphobes.

For me, after years of walking around eggshells – only to come to the bitter realisation that walking around eggshells doesn’t work, begging to be allowed to live my life too won’t do – the solution after that was a no brainer. It is my life, mine to live on my terms, and I will do it as loudly as I determine in my own time. Criminalization of my being be damned. 

For my ex after years of working hard to just secure a space for himself away from violence, only to be met by it in his shanty excuse for accommodation in Gishiri. I have a saying I remind myself often, “Sometimes your soul can be so flattened that you can go nowhere but up from there.” My ex lived this saying. He rose from living on his knees begging to be allowed space to his full height, unapologetic but extremely cautious, and he claimed space for himself and others after he remembered who he is. You can go nowhere but to the top once you’re at the bottom.

For Matthew after being broken by watching in a timestamped video the unrepentant confession of the murderers of that hapless young gay man. It is the defiance in their eyes that kindled his own defiance and in so doing made him realise he is so much bigger, brighter than these people skittering after us, waiting at every turn to meet us with violence.

For Victor who knows firsthand the pain of queerphobic violence, the choice of liberty or death isn’t so much a daring as it is a staking of our claim to humanity.

We are human, through and through. Only flawed in the sense that humanity can be when we forget ourselves, and no less deserving of the dignity all human beings are owed because we exist. But we are so much better, brighter, infinitely alive, and because queerphobic beings – and us too sometimes – forget who we are, we are locked in a dance of death when we could uplift one another. They – although they don’t see it as we can attest from what’s happening in Ghana to what happened in Ivory Coast and Uganda – need us. We make them remember by existing sans apology.

We can’t afford to not enjoy the human life granted us by Gods, in the unique queer humanity Gods blessed us with. We have already taken of death from queerphobia, at too many turns. Now the only thing we are doing is life, dignified.

Liberty is not too much to ask for – it is fact ours, and we must have it back. It is this or nothing.

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