At my 40th birthday party last month, my boyfriend and I shared a kiss. Like any couple would, we posted a photo of the moment on Instagram.
In hours, the image had gone viral in Nigeria. It was republished on scores of Web sites and blogs, with headlines like Nigerian Gay Activist Bisi Alimi French Kisses Boyfriend On His 40th Birthday and Gay Bisi Alimi Shares Photo Of Himself & Boyfriend Deeply Kissing.
By morning, I’d received more than 10 death threats on Facebook and dozens more hateful Tweets.
On Facebook, people posted messages like “D day u enter dis country, I’ll kill u myself … fool!!!” Someone else wrote that my “death warrant has been signed.”
I’m used to these threats. I’m a former actor, and I was the first Nigerian to come out publicly on national television in 2004. This admission hurt my show. And it made me the victim of three years of assault, arrest and joblessness.
The vitriol culminated in 2007, when an assailant broke into my house. He tied me up, beat me and tortured me for more than two hours. Two days later, I moved to London. Since then, I’ve never been home.
I know I’m lucky to be alive. And the climate in Nigeria has only worsened since I left. While gay sex has been illegal since British colonial rule, convictions were usually confined to the mostly Muslim north. But in January 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law that mandates up to 14 years in jail for same-sex marriages, showing same-sex affection in public, and being part of or supporting gay clubs and organizations.
There were dozens of arrests in early 2014. Immediately after the signing of the law, 14 gay men were attacked in Abuja by a pastor who wanted to cleanse his community of “the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah.” A few weeks later, three men suspected of being gay were paraded naked on the street of Owerri, Nigeria. Some Nigerian civilians have even turned to mob justice to arrest gay people. Last year, a video of two gay men being forced to have sex by people who broke into their house went viral.
Even as I was grappling with the new threats in my flat in London, news broke of Sharia police in Northern Nigeria arresting 12 men on suspicion of homosexuality. The men were accused of planning a gay wedding. The police commander said their sexuality was confirmed by “the way they act and talk.” The police officers, like many others, think they can deduce a person’s sexuality based on their mannerisms. On January 21st, a popular Nigerian gay blog (which is run anonymously) ran a story about Nigerian police trying to track, trap, and arrest and extort money from suspected homosexuals.
Of course, Nigeria is not the only country where it is dangerous to be gay. Homosexuality is currently illegal in 38 out of 54 countries in Africa. Too often, death is the fate of visible African LGBT champions like me. Gay rights activist David Kato from Uganda was killed in January 2011. In June 2012, Thapelo Makutle, a South African transgender, gay man was killed. Nineteen months ago, Eric Ohena Lembembe, the leading Cameroonian LGBT activist, was tortured and killed.
Today, Nigeria is largely in the international news because of Boko Haram. But the ongoing, state-approved violence against LGBT people speaks to deeper social problems, including human rights violations and a rise in HIV infections among a closeted and fearful LGBT population.
In the face of these everyday atrocities, there is silence from the international community. While a handful of countries have condemned the law, they have done little else. Unlike Uganda, which relies on foreign aid, Nigeria is self-sustaining. This makes Western influence on its increasing abuse of human rights tough. After the United States accused the Nigerian military of corruption and human rights abuses in its campaign against Boko Haram, for example, Nigeria began looking for military assistance elsewhere.
But these are not reasons enough for international inaction. The international community should be at the forefront of pressuring the government to respect the fundamental human rights of every Nigerian. Otherwise, thousands of innocent Nigerians will continue to face the fear of being accused of being homosexual and jailed … or being lynched.