- Citizenship in the Shadows:Insights on Queer Advocacy in Nigeria
ESTABLISHING THE "LOCUS"
In 2012, when I first joined the LGBTI "movement" in Nigeria—a loose, if generous, description for the voluntary coalition of individuals and organizations protecting the rights of sexual minorities in Nigeria—I was fairly optimistic that the injustices inherent in the then proposed anti-gay law would, inevitably, stir up the indignation of Nigeria's civil society and result in overwhelming pressure against the government to abandon the law. But I was wrong. Instead, mainstream civil society in Nigeria did not and has not shown any discomfort with the reinforced criminalization of minority sexual orientation and gender identity under Nigeria's Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 (SSMPA). The SSMPA went beyond existing anti-sodomy laws—products of colonial legislation—that criminalized homosexual sex acts; it criminalized homosexual identities and expressions as well as support and advocacy for same-sex relationships. The new law sweeps wide. It prohibits "the registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations" as well as their "sustenance, processions and meetings."1 It imposes a sentence of ten years imprisonment on anyone who "registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations" and on anyone who "supports the [End Page 632] registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organisations, processions or meetings in Nigeria."2 The indifference to, and even support for, these provisions by human rights advocates in Nigeria can be contrasted to their outspoken approach to, for example, laws that had proposed a regulation of social media or the invasive control of non-governmental organizations. Yet, in the case of sexual minorities, civil society in Nigeria has taken the side of the politicians.
And so, some five years after the passing of the SSMPA and the normalization of its oppressive provisions, the protection of sexual minorities in Nigeria continues to be an uphill challenge for those who are concerned by this issue. In this time, I have been working with The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), a Lagos based sexual and reproductive rights charity through which I have also met and observed many other Nigerians, at home and abroad, who continue to dedicate their life and career to LGBTI causes. Yet, advocacy on this issue is largely unwelcome and sometimes actively resisted by the general Nigerian public and the civil society.
This devaluation of LGBTI advocacy work may explain why the Nigerian justice system is blind to, and consequently intensifies, the travails of sexual minorities in Nigeria. For example, in 2014, following the enactment of the SSMPA, the Lagos State High Court dismissed a case that had been initiated to challenge the anti-gay law. In justifying its decision, the court remarked:3
The applicant has no locus standi to bring this action on behalf of "Gay Community in Nigeria" in any case there is nobody or organisation in Nigerian called lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTI) community. Even the Applicant himself did not describe himself as a gay.(Teriah Joseph Ebah v Nigeria 2014)
There is some irony here between the existence of Nigerian law prohibiting and criminalizing homosexuals (and by extension the LGBTI community) in Nigeria and the typical official attempts to deny the existence of such a community. It is true that Nigerian courts often invoke the principle of locus standi, derived from received English law, to determine the capacity of a person to institute a case. Still, its invocation in this instance is tenuous considering that a long line of prior decisions by superior courts had established that, subject to a case-by-case examination, issues of constitutional interpretation were generally open to public interest litigation such as the one brought by the litigants in this instance.4 [End Page 633] It is not unreasonable to suppose that there is much more than just ordinary judicial principle at work in the court's dismissal of the challenge.
The important lesson in this legal history is the necessity for a more articulate and expressive LGBTI advocacy in Nigeria if policymakers and the justice system are to be compelled to repeal the SSMPA. This goal requires the emergence of queer advocacy within the public...