In January, when Nigeria signed a law that not only banned gay marriage but imposed a 14-year jail term for same-sex relations, the country's new policy placed it at the heart of a global schism over gay rights.
But while Nigeria's new legislation may have captured worldwide attention, the hostility toward homosexuals in Nigeria wasn't new.
For example, take the case of Bisi Alimi, a gay rights activist who is believed to have been one of the first Nigerian gay men to come out on national television back in 2004. Alimi was later forced to flee Nigeria after a number of threats were made against him. He now resides in London and has not been back to Nigeria since.
Alimi was recently in Washington, D.C., where, as an Aspen New Voices Fellow, he had been asked to talk to the World Bank about how they should be handling Nigeria. Alimi was kind enough to talk to us about his own remarkable circumstances ("it's like, 'Did this actually happen to me?' "), the realities of LGBT rights in Nigeria, and what, if anything, the international community should do to help.
Excerpts of our conversation are below, edited lightly for clarity.
WorldViews: Could you explain how you came to leave Nigeria in the first place?
Bisi Alimi: In 2004, a friend of mine came to my house and dropped an envelope on the table and said, "You have to open it." There were pictures of me and [my boyfriend] kissing, or just sitting by the pool. ... It was at that point I knew that my life was going to come to an end.
I was discussing it with my friend, and I realized I had two options. I have to kill myself now. Or, I do it my own way, and I come out. I have an image. [Alimi was an actor in a prime-time TV series at the time.] I'm sure people will listen. I wasn't sure what the backlash will be, but I have a feeling people will listen. There's this big, famous TV show in Nigeria called "Funmi Iyanda's New Dawn with Funmi," and I was sitting at home watching it, and she was talking about her experience of coming to the U.K. and going into Soho and seeing gay people, and she hadn't believed gay people existed – there are no gay people in Nigeria, y'know? To go back a little, before then the Nigerian president had made a statement when Rev. Gene Robinson was about to be ordained. He said, there are no gay people in Nigeria.
These issues are going on in my life, and I knew I had to find a way to resolve the crisis. So I picked up my phone, and I rang the producer and I said, "I'm a gay guy and I'd like to talk about it on your show." That was in May. Between May and October, when I eventually got on the show (she was scared having me on the show), when she said come on the show I was really scared. I think what really pushed me was, I knew that [Nigeria's largest student magazine] was going to go to press with that story [about my boyfriend]. I knew I was basically going to be kicked out of school anyway and I was in my final year, so I realized that all my years would be a waste, so I told her I would do it. I went on her show, and I talked about my sexuality. That was the first time anyone would do it in Nigeria. It was a very crazy thing to do, I wouldn't encourage anyone to do it. And immediately after that, my life went into a roller-coaster.
I was always attacked. I was always beaten. My house got broken into. My show was cut off the following week. So I was going through this very difficult period of my life, until 2007, when I was able to eventually, with the help of a conference in the U.K., get out of Nigeria.
But I went back. When I was in London I was on BBC Network Africa, and I granted an interview about HIV, corruption, and many other things in Nigeria. So when I got back, I was arrested at the airport, and I was released two days later. This was in March. Between March and April I was in and out of police cells, and I did not commit any crimes: The only crime I committed was because of my sexuality. I've been telling the Nigerian government, up until today, to come out with any security evidence of any crime I may have committed. On April 9, my house was broken into. I was with my then-boyfriend and we were tied up and beaten. I thought I was going to be killed. That was the first time I saw a gun ever in my life. I'd only seen them in movies, never in real life. But I escaped, and the next day I packed my things for the U.K. I've never been back since then.
WV: To a lot of the international community, gay rights in Nigeria really came into the spotlight in January, with the ban on gay marriage. Have things gotten worse, or is it just a continuation of what you experienced?
BA: I think to say that it wasn't until this year that the whole "gay agenda" issue – the harassment of LGBT – actually got in the mainstream ... I'd say that's a little bit correct, and a little incorrect.
It's correct when you look at it in regards to Uganda. They've always got this huge media attention, and huge political attention, and even at the World Bank, it's Uganda, Uganda, Uganda, Uganda, and I had to cut them short and be like, excuse me, why are we so obsessed with Uganda, and we're not talking about Nigeria? I don't know what the answer is.
Also, I'd say you are not correct because since 2006, Nigeria has kind of been in the news. We have to put it in perspective: It's the first African country to propose such a bill, and the first to sign it into law. So no other country had done it on the continent of Africa, and I do not think any other country has done it in the modern world. What we have, even in the case of Russia, is banning gay propaganda, not banning same-sex relationships. It's saying that you can be gay, but you can't do it in public. Nigeria is actually saying if you are gay, or if you are accused to be, you will be arrested.
I just think that the press and the politicians are being a little cautious about Nigeria. And I'm not really sure why.
Things have really not got better. I think since January they've gotten really bad. I'm sure you are aware of so many incidents, I'll give you three examples. First, after the law was passed, the case of 14 people in Abuja, where a local pastor charged the community to break into their homes. They're still homeless, they lost all their properties, they lost everything. And a few weeks after that, two gay guys were caught having sex in their own home. They were brought out, beaten, and forced to have sex and they were recorded. It went viral. And a few weeks ago, five guys were paraded naked, and made to walk around a region in south Nigeria. So things are getting really bad. Things that wouldn't happen before are happening now.
WV: There was one statistic I saw, around the time of the gay marriage ban, from Pew Global Research, that said that 98 percent of Nigerians polled felt society should not accept homosexuality. Does that figure make sense to you?
BA: You know, this is ridiculous. And this isn't just Pew, there's another research company in Nigeria that did the same thing, and came back with 98 percent. What kind of question do you ask to people? You have to start with that. I remember, when I was on a BBC program with a director of the polling company from Nigeria, and I remember saying, "You can't ask an average Nigerian if he is in favor of gay marriage. It doesn't make sense." Even myself, I would not support gay marriage in the context of Nigeria. We don't need gay marriage in Nigeria, what we need is a respect for the fundamental human rights of every Nigerian, irrespective of whether they are male or female, straight or gay, able or disabled, rich or poor. What I am saying is that everyone should be respected according to the 1999 constitution. I don't want to redefine marriage. This is not the time to redefine marriage in Nigeria. You'll get those kind of results in that context.
What education do they have when it comes to the issue of sexuality? Because the whole idea of same-sex relationships within Nigeria are still limited to sex. It is not about two people falling in love. It is not about two people in a mutual loving relationship. So when you hear the word "gay," the mental picture that comes to someones mind will be, y'know, someone shagging somebody. There's no respect, and I come from a culture where we don't talk about sex. We don't view sex as pleasurable, we view it as a means to an end. A man marries a woman, has sex with a woman, only to have children, because they want to have children, and that's where it stops. And you only do that again when you want to have children. You do not see it as something pleasurable. And so when you attribute that to people of the same sex, you don't get it. That's when the question comes, "So who is the man? Who is the woman? Who is the husband or the wife?"
People like me are not given the platform to say things differently. To give the alternative point of view. You know, if you feed people one sort of food, and then ask them, what is your favorite food, what will they tell you? The only food I know, that's what I am going to say. It's very difficult to know otherwise. The Pew Research is good, because then we know what people are thinking. But to so many Nigerians, including our straight allies who are putting their lives on the line, that research does not do them any good at all. It's not doing them justice. There are millions of Nigerians on the street who are in support of LGBT, and they are more than the 2 percent that others say.
WV: What do you think of the arguments for the West getting involved here, by pulling aid or the like? Is there not a danger that this could make things worse?
BA: Well, I'll put on record that I am seriously, seriously against aid-conditionality. I've been demonized for it, I don't care. I'm against the idea of giving money and putting a condition on it. It doesn't make sense to me at all. But I am in support of strategically repositioning aid and I will tell you why.
Countries like Uganda still get budget support, but the whole idea of budget support is to give money to the Ugandan government to pay the Ugandan civil service. That's why they will have more and more "ghost" workers. Money that will go into a direct development agenda is really not being funded. Someone like me, what I'd say is that we shouldn't put conditions on aid. Instead, we should put the money where it will affect the life of the woman in the rural area of Uganda or Nigeria or Sudan, where she will be able to empower her family and send her children to school. It can help the man resume his role as a breadwinner, and do so respectfully. Give people access to health care, good education, good water, good roads, that is what I call development. When you give money to your cronies, as we see in the case of Uganda and Nigeria, and you are telling me you are doing development work, I question you.
And that's why I find it hard to support aid-conditionality. Because when you do that you turn the tables against me. Then they can say, the reason why this project failed is because of these people: Are they better than us? And then we have to argue why we are not better than that woman in the rural area. So that compounds the already compounded problems I have. And how many battles can I fight? I need that woman in the rural area to stand up for me, as much as I want to stand up for her. The moment you use aid as a weapon, it divides us. We will never get to where we are going, and that's why I will never support it.
I'm happy, by the way, that the U.N. of the 21st century under Ban Ki Moon, is coming out and making very assertive comments about human rights and we're seeing Hillary Clinton do the same thing. Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank is now looking forward and saying, it doesn't have to be politics as usual, we have to change our direction. If we're talking about development money, it has to develop everybody. That's the kind of leadership I like to see, and not the leadership of bullying, I don't believe in bullying. Aid-conditionality is bullying.
WV: Do you think Nigeria is in a special position here? It's now said to be the largest economy in Africa ...
BA: [Laughs] Oh my God. I've heard this, and I'm not sure the South Africans are really happy about that. I just came back from Johannesburg, where I traveled a long way, over 45 minutes, on the road, and there were no pot holes. Try that in Nigeria. In under two minutes you will encounter more than 100 pot holes. It's like a fairy tale, a badly written Disney fairy tale, this Nigeria rising thing. It's not real. Because you have to look at how it affects the people on the street. The recent World Bank report on Nigeria said that more than 62 percent of the Nigerians are in poverty. Is that a rising economy? Nigerian GDP balance in 2013 was at minus 4.9 percent. What is rising in that kind of economy? Our health care is one of the worst in the world.
Maybe, as far as the oil is concerned. But we have to be very specific. This development, or economic growth, is oil, and its shared within the political class. It doesn't get to the people. Nigerian state cannot generate enough electricity for small businesses. The roads are really bad. A farmer cannot move his product to the table of the person in Lagos who is going to buy and eat it. There's so many issues that are going on. If you are born in Nigeria, your chance of reaching your 5th birthday is less than 30 percent. So there are so many things that are wrong within the framework. Does anyone really believe us that we're actually rising? Or is it that it's good for news, it's good for journalists, it's good for people to write something about.
WV: Back to something you said earlier: It sometimes seems like Nigeria is overshadowed by Russia and Uganda in the global debate over gay rights. Is this a bad thing? And is there a danger that in lumping all of these groups together, we are missing out on the key differences between the situations?
BA: The problem for me is that we think gay rights is a special right. Gay rights is not a special right. Gay rights is human rights. Hillary Clinton said that brilliantly. Until we put it within that framework, we're going to keep having problems. Also, apart from the issue of rights, there is the issue of the gay man in Lagos who has just been fired from his work, who really wanted to take care of himself and pay his bills, pay for his rent, and just get back. But he can't because of poverty and homophobia that comes with it. And this is common. You'll see the cases here in Nigeria and Uganda, there are common trends. With Uganda there's as much of a theme of gay rights as human rights as in Nigeria.
But there are also cases where there are individual issues. So for example, the cases we saw in Uganda, where the police were actually going underground to spy [on gay groups], maybe that wouldn't happen in the case of Nigeria, so we need to address that issue squarely. But then what we see that happens in Nigeria is the obsessions of Nigerians with, how shall I put this ... when you catch someone doing something, the next thing you want to do is strip them naked. Just take off their clothes and put them out there are take their pictures. This is becoming like an obsessions in Nigeria. And every time a gay person is arrested in Nigeria, the next thing people do is strip them naked and take their photo and pass it on. This is dehumanizing the person.
WV: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
BA: What I would like to say is ... my case is not an isolation. I have opportunities to talk about my case, and I just wish that people could see beyond me. I'm a case study of so many things that are bad in the world today. If you are touched by my story, there are millions of other stories that will touch you as well, and we can put a stop to it. And it won't be through aid conditionality or aggressive diplomacy, but our struggle for human rights will come from empowering economically.