Unjustified humiliation, fear and suffering are the outcome of queer lives in Nigeria where the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) is law. The law which is officially aimed at prohibiting union between people of the same sex is, in reality, used as a tool by the police to legalise arbitrary arrests and harassment of people ‘perceived’ to be gay.
It is truly astonishing that in a country where so many hardened criminals roam free, it is these individuals, who pose no harm to anyone that the authorities focus on. And for what purpose? If you mentioned extortion, you may be right.
In 2015, the Sharia police in Kano invaded the birthday party of one Faruk Maiduguri, under claims that it was a ‘gay marriage ceremony’. They then proceeded to arrest 12 young men, because as the head of the local Sharia Enforcement Group said, they “looked and acted feminine.”
In the 12 states that operate under the Sharia law, the maximum punishment for Same-Sex activity is death by stoning. But the purpose was not to charge them but to threaten them with punishment in order to extort money from them.
According to an interview with the Human Rights Watch, one of these victims said they were held in police custody for 4 days and then released without charge but not before they paid bribes ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 naira.
Another 22-year old Nigerian man narrated how, in April of 2015, he and five of his friends were arrested by police in front of his friend’s residence in Lagos on “suspicions of homosexuality.” According to him, the six of them were taken to the police station, stripped naked, beaten up and photographed. For 7 days, they were detained without charge and were only released after they each made a payment of 200,000 naira each.
Another Nigerian man narrated how, in August of 2015, a group of men gang-raped him and reported him to the police for ‘being gay.’ Rather than take up the matter with the rapists, the police beat him instead with belts and gun butts. They even went as far as sticking a stick into his anus. He was only released after his parents paid 78,000 naira as ‘bail’ (read bribe).
In November of 2019, Kitodiaries reported how a young man was arrested by the police simply because he was a male model. According to him, one of the police officers said, “All male models are gay” right before walking him to a bus. They then proceeded to harass him based on his long hair and chains.
“…see your hair, see your chains, man dey get time dey fine like woman like this?” they said to him while searching his phone for supposed ‘evidence of same-sex activity’. When they found none, they began to grab on to flimsy things such as emojis as evidence. They then asked him to pay 100,000 naira or else they would expose him and sentence him to 14 years in jail.
The VICE News also reported another incident last month where poet and song-writer, Logan February who was in a taxi on his way back from a routine HIV test was stopped by the police. He was then accused of same-sex activity based on the condoms and lubricants given at the hospital.
These are only a fraction of the cases that exist. Xeenarh Mohammed, the executive director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS) in Lagos told CNN that they often handle cases where the law is used to intimidate members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“We are handling cases of people who were arrested because they had a certain hairstyle or dressed in a certain way and perceived to be gay… forced to pay bribes because they are threatened with 14 years in jail if they don’t pay up.”
What makes the situation worse is the fact that because of the law which imposes a 10-year sentence on organisations affiliated with gay persons, even human rights organisations are targeted by the police.
In June of 2014, in Kaduna, the police arrested members of an Abuja-based HIV prevention organisation because they organised a HIV-education session. According to the Executive Director of the organisation, because of how many of the members looked, the police raided the session, confiscated the condoms and lubricants that were used for training and detained the 14 peer educators.
“Six of the members were taken into the interrogation room; they were flogged and tortured and forced to write statements admitting that they were gay. One of them was a 15-year old boy.” According to him, they were released only after paying bribes.
On another occasion in 2014, a peer educator told Human Rights Watch of how he was attacked during a HIV-education meeting he held behind his house. The attackers then proceeded to call the police who then arrested 12 out of 24 of the gathered people. According to him, they spent three weeks in detainment and were finally released after paying 100,000 naira.
Representatives of at least 3 other human rights organisations which catered to queer people told Human Rights Watch that their offices were raided by the police.
In Nigeria, the Violence Against Persons Protection (VAPP) Act, signed into law in 2015, is designed to “eliminate violence in private and public life, prohibit all forms of violence against persons and to provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment of offenders.” This law should naturally protect queer people and those associated with them from such treatment.
However, it seems that when it comes to queer people or straight people that ‘look queer’, these laws cease to exist. The government forgets that it has an obligation to all its citizens, including its queer citizens, to protect them from violence and discrimination, and to uphold their rights to freedom of expression and their rights to health services.
Until these acts of police violence are directly condemned, Nigerians are not safe, queer or not.