Nigeria’s Queer Population is Facing an Impossible Decision
Two years ago, during the Endsars peaceful protests in Nigeria, the younger generation did something that shocked the whole country and Nigerians everywhere. They walked and worked in unity and in peace, demanding an end to police brutality and bad governance. Even the youths involved were surprised to see that they were achieving the impossible. For two weeks, armed with social media as a conduit to the rest of the world, they generated resources and ran something similar to an independent government on the streets of different cities across the country. They provided food and drinks for refreshment on protest grounds, DJs and sound systems were available for entertainment, stand-by ambulances for medical needs, and private security for protection. Nigerian youths spoke with one voice and one mind. And each day, when the protest was over, they left the streets cleaner than they found it, like they were never there. No one in Nigeria had seen anything like it before then.
The differences in religion and ethnicity these youths had been raised to view as great demarcating walls suddenly crumbled to dust. From Lagos to Port Harcourt and down to Enugu, it did not matter if you believed in the Christian God, Allah, the gods of your ancestors, or nothing. It did not matter what ethnicity you were. The only thing that mattered was that you were tired of the targeted brutality of young people by the police force.
On Friday evenings, Christian protesters formed a ring around their Muslim counterparts as they prayed, and on Sunday, the Muslim protesters, in turn, protected the Christians during Mass. Even evangelical Christians, all of a sudden, thought the Catholic Mass was Christian enough for them. Everything seemed new, everything seemed perfect until the gays said they, too, deserved to live.
This has always been the case. The Nigerian population turns to queer people for support in times of a national crisis, but turns on them the minute they attempt to point out how this crisis affects them because of their sexuality and identity. It’s as if cishet Nigerians are constantly telling queer Nigerians, “we want you to stick around, we want you to bring your bodies, we want you to make up the numbers, but we do not want you to speak about you.”
In Nigeria, Queer people are a convenient population—a disposable card. They are needed to make up the numbers for the good of the rest of the country, but never deserve any of that progress for themselves.
When some queer people and allies came to protest grounds with placards with “#Queerlivesmatter” scribbled as footnotes, they were bullied. The placards were torn, and they were asked to leave the protest grounds if they were going to mention the violence young queer Nigerians faced because of their queerness. To them, that was a distraction. But the right to live free of violence when you have not hurt anyone is no distraction.
In 2014, amidst unresolved security problems plaguing Nigeria, a sinking exchange rate of the naira against the dollar, unemployment, and underemployment rising to levels we had not seen before, the legislature passed a bill to ban same-sex marriage. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the president at the time, signed it into law. Many Nigerians rejoiced and praised him. It did not matter to them that at that moment, what they said was “it is okay if we are kidnapped, and our currency has no value; it is okay if we have no jobs and cannot afford food; it is okay if the indices of development read against our favor. So long as you stop Nigerian queer people from getting married, all is well and good.”
It gets comical when you consider the fact that no queer person in Nigeria was actually asking the Nigerian State to bless a queer union.
The right to live free of violence when you have not hurt anyone is no distraction.
It’s even more insane when you look deeper and find that the same law prohibits oral and anal sex—activities not exclusive to queer Nigerians—with the same level of punishment for when a man is caught in a coital position with another man or a woman with another woman. The height of ironic realization that dawns on you when you contemplate the words of this law is that the closest thing to same-sex marriage existing in Nigeria has nothing to do with sexual attraction, but with customs of certain parts of Igboland where women marry women to bear children in their names for certain male relatives. But none of this matters to Nigerians invested in a homophobic state.
While we’re on the subject of ironies, let me talk about the upcoming national elections. For the national elections slated for February 2023, only one man has caught the heart of millions of Nigerians—the Labour Party candidate Peter Obi. After a two-term tenure as governor of Anambra State, Obi broke some records. He transformed education and healthcare in the State, paid off owed salaries and pensions, built roads, paid off accrued debt the State owed, and still found a way to leave over 70 billion naira in cash and investment for the State. It is only natural that Nigerians want him to come and replicate these same acts on a national scale in a time when the country has sunk hopelessly.
Garnering support from everyday Nigerians was not the trouble Obi had to face; that came naturally. What was difficult was finding a member of the political class who had no allegations of corruption or mismanagement of public funds to his name (a nearly impossible thing in Nigeria) and who was also preferably younger than Obi is, as he would like to systemically end the tradition of aged men deciding the fate of Nigeria’s future when they will not be around to suffer the consequences of their poor decisions.
He found someone, a senator: Dr. Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed.
The choice of Datti delighted Nigerians because he symbolized everything we had hoped for. He is a successful businessman who is not only well-traveled and well-read, but owns a university. He is young, northern, and Muslim, which fits with Obi being southern and Christian perfectly—a nod to equity.
But the joy from this choice was short-lived for some Nigerians. A video of Datti from 2014 was soon dug up, one in which he demanded that queer Nigerians should be killed as punishment for their queerness. To him, the slated 14 year imprisonment term was not harsh enough. Capital punishment was the proper punishment for one being who one truly is. With this video now circulating, queer Nigerians and allies have had to examine and interrogate their support for the candidacy of Obi.
Capital punishment was the proper punishment for one being who one truly is.
But for the rest of the Nigerian population that wants Obi as president, this is not the time for questions. To ask ‘but what does Datti think of us now?’ like all the other queer-specific questions and comments in Nigeria’s history, is a distraction. But if queer Nigerians do not ask these questions now, when do they get to ask them? If they do not worry about their existence now that they have the power to influence who becomes the next president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, when will they get to worry about it?
Queer Nigerians could very much decide to fold their hands and watch what the outcome of the elections will be. Unlike cishet Nigerians, they have navigated oppression their whole lives and would be alright one way or the other.
What these cishet Nigerians fail to understand is that if anything were to happen to Obi, Datti would very much become the president of the country. Therefore, those whose survival depends on his views know where they stand. If Nigeria’s history is anything to go by, we would understand that the views of those close to the head of state matter very much. Gowon, for instance, agreed to the Aburi Accord and its ruling, but those close to him dissuaded him from keeping to a treaty he had signed. Of course Peter Obi is very different from Gowon, but should queer people risk finding out how different?
If queer Nigerians do not ask these questions now, when do we get to ask them?
Having questions does not translate to a cancellation. Queer Nigerians and allies with questions have not said that they will vote against Obi in the election. They just want to know where his chosen VP stands on the subject of their existence today. We still know that the other two biggest contenders who share charges of corruption, illegal practices, and incompetence between them also have some proximity to conservative, homophobic views. One is married to a known bigot who co-sponsored the bill in the House of Senate in the first place, and the other chose a homophobe for a VP. Given the choice between the proven, capable hand that will work with an equally capable—albeit homophobic—leader and any of the other two who are old, incapable, clueless, and corrupt, it is easy to know what queer Nigerians would vote once they are done asking their questions. But these questions need to be asked.
It will be unfair and unjust to suggest that Nigerians do not show support for the queer people among them when they are the third highest consumers of gay porn around the world. Nigerians, in 2020, were the third highest users of Grindrin the world. Nigerians are also against bans on marvel blockbusters for containing homosexual content. They support the idea of having queer people march alongside them on protest grounds and vote with them on election day. They just do not support actual Nigerians being queer in real life and showing it openly. They support the queer community—if only that community will drop their queerness when they are among them.♦
Ernest Ifeanyi Nweke lives in Abuja, Nigeria. He writes about his people, their histories, their cultures, and the things that affect them.