Of Africa's 54 countries, 34 maintain laws criminalising homosexuality. That number includes the continent's largest, Nigeria – where anti-gay laws justify violence and intimidation, and where people are quick to dismiss any support for LGBTQ rights.
"Na oyibo people's wahala" is the typical response you get if you try and bring up the issues affecting the LGBTQ community. The phrase roughly translates as, "That's a white person's problem" – implying that queerness shouldn't concern a Nigerian, because queerness is a construct of whiteness; a creation of the white man, a form of perversion that has come from first-world lust.
The phrase also finds root in the belief that Nigeria has too many problems of its own for its government or citizens to be dealing with LGBTQ rights. This is part of the thought process that went into Nigeria's Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) – an act that criminalised queer sex, marriage and civil unions between individuals of the same sex, the registration of pro-LGBTQ groups and clubs. Even showing public support for gay rights could land you in legal trouble.
Before the Act was signed in 2014, Nigeria's laws referring to homosexuality were ambiguous, though widely interpreted to outlaw same-sex relationships anyway. And while people did occasionally witness state-sanctioned police violence and homophobic mob attacks, the country did not have any laws specifically addressing homosexuality, and simply relied on remnants of widespread conservative values pushed by a predominantly Islamic North and largely Christian South.
Everything changed when the Act was signed, creating an atmosphere where discrimination and violence against queer people is not just accepted, but encouraged, regardless of whether due process is followed or not. On the 5th of February, 2014, just weeks following the passage of the SSMPA, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa noted an "increase in cases of physical violence, aggression, arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders working on sexual minority issues".
That harassment thrives in the murk of a grey area. "The laws in place create legitimacy for people to carry out vicious and violent acts on queer people, and say ignorantly: 'but being gay is not legal', when identifying [as queer] in itself isn't criminalised," says Phidelia Imiegha, the chief content and communications officer for the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), an organisation that advocates for LGBTQ people in Nigeria. "There's widespread ignorance in Nigeria, so of course people do not understand what the SSMPA criminalises or not, and frankly they don't care."
Even the police don't seem to realise that identifying as queer or presenting as queer isn't a legal violation of the SSMPA. "We still have numerous cases of wrongful arrests," Phidelia adds over the phone. "We have a case in court right now where 57 men were wrongfully arrested while they were at a party for alleged homosexuality. It's over a year and they are yet to be charged. The police have no evidence, but the court has refused to throw out the case."
Nigeria offers just one example of how anti-gays laws have been implemented on the continent. Recently in Kenya, the High Court reaffirmed the sections of law that criminalise homosexuality to be constitutional.
As bad as things are, we're seeing progress made in certain parts of Africa, offering a possible pathway for LGBTQ communities in countries like Nigeria and Kenya to follow. In January 2019, Angola finally removed its 'vices against nature' provision – a colonial-era penal code that despite not directly mentioning homosexuality, has been interpreted to at least imply same-sex relationships should be considered a 'vice against nature'. Angola went even further by not just decriminalising homosexuality, but also criminalising discrimination based on sexual orientation – making it illegal to refuse to employ or provide services based on a person's sexual orientation, a crime that is now punishable by up to two years in prison. Angola is not alone. Earlier this year, Botswana decriminalised homosexuality after a high court decision ruled that being gay wasn't "un-African".
What differentiates countries like Angola and Botswana from Nigeria or Kenya is not the strength of the opposition but how their anti-gay legislation was written. Angola, for example, transitioned from colonial-era laws that were dangerous enough to subject LGBTQ people to scrutiny and potential violence, but ambiguous enough not to clearly criminalise the creation of pro-LGBTQ associations that could champion the cause of gay rights. Nigeria, meanwhile, created homophobic laws that specifically criminalise the right to form advocacy groups with any semblance of an LGBTQ agenda. And that means that even being an ally to the LGBTQ community could hold a ten-year prison sentence.
A year before Angola shed the provisions outlawing homosexuality, the country gave legal status to Iris Angola, the country's only gay rights lobby group, allowing them to legally develop interventions to defend and promote the rights of Angola's LGBTQ community. The move foreshadowed the country's leap towards accepting equality, while also illustrating the importance of these sorts of groups.
Although not absolute, you can spot a noticeable difference between countries where queer people are legally permitted to create and form associations to champion their cause, and those where they're not. But, despite this legal gap, the queer community in Nigeria, for example, are finding other means to unify online. Through social media an the internet's pervasive presence, there might be a future for LGBTQ rights in these countries after all.
Just in the past year, young people in Nigeria have launched successful online campaigns against misogyny and rape culture, using iterations of the #MeToo hashtag, such as #ChurchMeToo – a movement against sexual harassment in Nigerian churches – and #ArewaMeToo – a push against sexual harassment in the Northern and typically muslim part of Nigeria. Social media campaigns have also been launched to fight against police brutality with the EndSARS campaign against 'SARS' – a subset of the Nigerian Police Force infamous for extorting and harassing young people. "Public opinion plays a large role in influencing laws and policies, so we are happy about the wins on the social end," Phidelia tells me.
This revolution is finding its way to the queer side of town. Queer people lean into being more visible on Twitter, where in the past year, a notable shift has emerged, from gay people keeping their profiles anonymous to using their real names and faces as a way to humanise queerness and prove that gay people exist in Nigeria. It helps that the government doesn't seem to monitor social media.
Queer publications like Rustin Times and organisations such as TIERs have seen a boost, too. "We need to change the law, but more importantly, we need to first change how people see the law," LBTQ activist Olumide Makanjuola said at a recent panel discussion organised by TIERs. "We need to address the misconceptions people have about LGBT people."
"The more content we can create about LGBTQ issues, the more awareness we can create, the more minds we can change," added award-winning producer Asurf Oluseyi on the same panel. And it seems to be working. TIERs' biennial survey reported a drop in the number of people who support Nigeria's anti-homosexuality law from 75 percent in 2017 to 57 percent in 2019.
Despite the promising numbers, and despite other countries tossing their homophobic laws, there is still a long way to go. Which is why when I ask Phidelia what she thinks the future looks like for LGBTQ rights for most of Africa, she pauses. It takes her a while before she admits that she can't answer the question. "I honestly don't know." Inconclusive as it is, her answer is a relatable truth for almost every queer person living in a country that outlaws their identity.