On the 27th of July, poet and songwriter Logan February was on their way home in a Bolt taxi from a routine HIV test in Lagos. Logan was adhering to social distancing rules – wearing a face mask and sitting in the backseat of the taxi – when a police officer knocked on their window as the car waited in traffic.
After forcing Logan to let him into the car, the officer started questioning them relentlessly on who they were, where they had come from and where they were going. Logan answered everything, and even showed the officer their student ID card.
But that wasn’t enough. From there, the policeman started asking about why Logan had a tattoo, before seizing the sachets of lube they had been given during their HIV test, accusing the poet of carrying drugs.
Logan was eventually transferred to a nondescript yellow bus, where three plain-clothed officers were waiting.
‘‘I didn't say much at that point, because I was scared and didn't recognise my surroundings,” Logan told VICE News. “I was trying to manage my anxiety and remain as alert as I could. I was emotionally exhausted, my mask had been forced off my face, and I was disoriented, so I agreed to unlock my phone, on the condition that they stopped the vehicle while they looked through it. I was just worried, because I didn't know where we were anymore.”
Logan continued: “They stopped the bus, I unlocked my phone, and the first officer – the one who had knocked on the window of my Bolt ride – spent some minutes clicking and swiping through. I couldn't see exactly what he was doing, so I worried he might be planting some bogus ‘evidence’ on my phone.’’
While Logan was held against their will, the police stopped two more men for the same reasons, eventually letting them go. Logan too was released when, they believe, the police realised they didn’t have enough money to make extorting them worth their while.
A week before Logan was stopped, Damien*, a software designer, was also grabbed by the police as he drove home from a supermarket.
“I have been working from home since the pandemic started, and I try really hard to not leave my house, not just because corona is outside, but because staying home means staying away from the policemen on the road and I have been hearing stories,’’ Damien explained. ‘‘On this day, I was driving home at, like, 7PM, when the police stopped me. They asked why I looked like – and I quote – ‘a gay’.
Under Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), homophobia is very much enshrined in Nigerian institutions.
“They asked why I had piercings… and why my hair was in dreads,” Damien continued. “They started threatening me with 14 years [in prison]. At first, I was taking it lightly, then they forced me out of my car and tried to seize my phone, which I refused.”
Damien tried explaining that even under the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act – which police officers were citing to threaten him with prison time – merely being gay isn’t illegal. As long as he wasn’t caught having sex or committing any public displays of affection with a man, they didn’t have grounds to arrest or even question him. When the police laughed at him, Damien realised there was only one way out of his predicament. He transferred 100,000 naira (£200) into a bank account of the officer’s choosing. Two weeks since the incident, Damien hasn’t left his house.
More and more victims are now speaking publicly on how officers are abusing their newfound extended powers to bully, harass and extort innocent people – especially members of the LGBTQ community, who the police are trying to identify just off looks alone.
As it is obviously impossible to tell if someone is queer just by looking at them, straight-identifying Nigerians are also being stopped and questioned for looking like what officers assume a gay person looks like.
The police have decided on certain tells – such as men having long hair or women having short hair – as precursors to stop and question individuals, leaving many young people especially scared of moving around in major cities, even when they need to access essential services while following social distancing measures. This has made organisations like The Initiative of Equal Rights (TIERs), a non-governmental organisation fighting for the equal rights of marginalised Nigerians, all the more essential during this pandemic.
‘‘I receive reports from queer folks who have been abused and had their human rights violated on the basis of their perceived sexuality, and more often than not, the violators are state actors, like policemen,” explained Timinepre Cole, a paralegal for TIERS.
“There have been a lot of cases where young boys are picked up, manhandled and extorted by policemen because the policemen say the boys are dressed like homosexuals. They exploit the fears of queer folks, knowing that most queer folks would rather be extorted than face the possibility of a 14-year prison term. They also know that the Nigerian society is largely homophobic, and violence against a queer person wouldn’t cause as much public outcry.’’
Young Nigerians are known to be more progressive when it comes to their opinions on the LGBTQ community. A TIERs survey shows that support among Nigerians for the SSMPA has dropped from 75 percent in 2017 to 57 percent last year. Still, there is significant ground to cover before fear can no longer be weaponised against the LGBTQ community.
In December of 2019, the first group of men were tried for allegedly breaching the SSMPA. The men were arrested at a birthday party, which police claimed was a “gay initiation party”. By the time the trial had started after a year in custody, several of them claimed they had been excommunicated by their families and sacked from their jobs. The men were awarded bail at 500,000 naira (£1,000) - a huge sum in Nigeria. Since then, the case has been repeatedly postponed and adjourned, leaving their futures uncertain.
The fear of being placed in that situation, with your life and livelihood hanging on by a thread, queer Nigerians are dissuaded from seeking justice when extorted or bullied. One positive step in recent months has been the emergence of lawyers offering free services to queer people stopped by the police.
Dafe* is an Abuja-based lawyer, and a gay man. “There are some very hyper-visible people in the community who get stopped by the police often, and we can’t tell them to stop being visible, but we can offer our services to protect them,” he explained. “The best part is we don’t even have to do much. Sometimes, telling the police officers you have a lawyer is enough. There have been times when I’ve been called because someone queer was stopped by the police, and before I’m out of the house they’ve called back to say they’ve been let go. That just proves they know there isn’t a legal ground for the arrests.”
Dafe also thinks the arrests are reflective of the Nigerian political ecosystem: “The politicians oppress everyone, the police oppresses the rest. Nigerians are big on oppressing someone less than them, someone with less power. Who is more perfect to oppress than someone from the LGBTQ community?”