Africa’s Gays Await Nighttime Door Knock as Crackdown Widens
When Ayo answered a knock at his door one evening last month, four Nigerian secret service officers barged in and found gay pornography on one of the phones and laptops he and six friends had in the apartment.
The officers announced they were taking everyone to jail for being gay. Ayo, 27, and four of his friends gained their freedom by bribing the police the equivalent of $600. Two others had no cash and spent three nights in detention.
Ayo, who’s gay, is sure they’ll be back. “I don’t want to be used as business for whenever police need money,” he said in the southern city of Ibadan, speaking on the condition that his full name wasn’t used for fear of further harassment. Oyo state police spokeswoman Olabisi Ilobanafor said no arrests were made.
While gay sex has been illegal in Nigeria since before its independence from the U.K. in 1960, President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law last month that bans gay groups, imposes a 14-year jail sentence for same-sex couples who live together and 10 years for people who make a “public show of same-sex amorous relationships.”
Homosexuality is a crime in 38 of 54 sub-Saharan Africa nations, according to Amnesty International. From Senegal, where a conviction for gay sex can mean five years in jail, to Sudan, where it can bring the death penalty, Africa’s gays are facing an unprecedented crackdown.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has decided to sign a bill that carries a life sentence for multiple convictions of having gay sex, according to a Feb. 15 e-mailed statement from his office.
“I totally agree with everybody that anybody who is promoting homosexuality we must stop him,” he said in the statement. “This must be stopped by law and harshly.”
Since the Ugandan parliament passed the bill in December, two people were arrested and forced to undergo anal examinations to prove they weren’t having same-sex relations, Amnesty International said in a Feb. 9 statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned Museveni’s decision to sign the bill in a Feb. 16 statement, saying it will “be a step backward for all Ugandans and reflect poorly on Uganda’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its citizens.”
The experience of Ayo and his friends was relatively mild compared to that of 14 gay men who were dragged from their houses in the capital, Abuja, at about 1 a.m. on Feb. 13 by a mob wielding iron bars and sticks, according to Ifeanyi Orazulike, executive director of The International Centre on Advocacy for the Right to Health, a non-governmental organization that works with sexual minorities.
Four men were beaten and dragged to a nearby police station and spent the night on a cement floor, Orazulike said. The local police chief set them free the next morning, saying they hadn’t been caught having gay sex, he said.
“How do you subject people to such torture simply because they are gay?” Orazulike said. “I feel terrified.”
Abuja police spokeswoman Altine Daniel said by phone yesterday that she hadn’t received confirmation from the local police chief that the attack had occured.
National police spokesman Frank Mba said concern about the new law is unfounded and the authorities will “be firm, but we will also be fair.”
In northern Nigeria, where some states follow Shariah, or Islamic law, the consequences for someone convicted of having homosexual sex can be far worse: death by stoning.
Nigerian officials play down the impact of the new legislation, which presidential spokesman Reuben Abati described in an interview as consistent with the country’s “cultural and religious beliefs.” That view was echoed by Ugandan Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo, who said “all cultures of Uganda condemn the homosexuality acts.”
Museveni also signed a bill this month that bans “provocative” clothing, including short skirts, as well as pornography, Lokodo said.
Cameroon, Nigeria’s eastern neighbor, has the worst record in Africa in terms of persecuting gays, according to Human Rights Watch. “People are often arrested and prosecuted simply for ‘being gay’ -- ostensibly indicated by the way they dress, their mannerisms, or their personal tastes,” the head of the group’s gay rights program, Graeme Reid, wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to the Pope.
Gay activist Eric Lembembe, head of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, was found dead in his home in July with his neck and feet apparently broken, Human Rights Watch said.
Increasing anti-gay legislation may be a deliberate attempt by governments to deflect criticism from policies that have failed to create jobs and improve the quality of life for their citizens, Neela Ghoshal, a Nairobi-based senior researcher on gay rights for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview on Jan. 27.
“When the public gets worried about economic and governance issues, politicians try and swing it back to social issues the public can identify with, and poise themselves as the defenders of the African people against homosexuality,” she said.
U.S. evangelical missionaries too have found traction in Africa by championing the issue. Their role has been portrayed in “God Loves Uganda,” a documentary directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams.
“They are much more active in Africa than elsewhere and they have really taken hold of the idea of homosexuality as a threat to the African family,” Ghoshal said.
In Nigeria, elections next year and the growing opposition to Jonathan’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party may be playing a role, said Charmaine Pereira, the director of the Abuja-based Initiative for Women’s Studies in Nigeria.
“You often find politicians trying to find scapegoats at times of political transitions,” she said in a telephone interview. “It seems designed to create a moral panic, create an idea in people’s heads that there are hordes of people rushing out to marry each other. People here weren’t clamoring to get married in the first place.”
Rights groups say the vagueness of Nigeria’s new law makes everyone susceptible to extortion by law enforcement officers and blackmail from rivals.
“The way that law is worded now, it’s open season on everybody,” said Abayomi Aka, human rights officer at Lagos-based The Initiative for Equal Rights. “It doesn’t call for any evidence.”
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