Law enforcement authorities in Nigeria are using the country’s same-sex prohibition law to target the LGBTQ community while ignoring abuses against them, rights groups and lawyers say, in the wake of fresh mass arrests of gay people.
Nigeria is one of more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries where homosexuality is criminalized in laws that are broadly supported by the public, even though the constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination, and the right to private and family life.
Mass arrests and detention of queer Nigerians that continued this week were done without proper investigations and could further expose them to danger amid the anti-LGBTQ sentiments in Africa’s most populous country, rights groups said.
The country’s paramilitary agency on Monday announced the arrest of more than 70 young people — 59 men and 17 women — in the northern Gombe state, accusing them of “holding homosexual birthdays” and having “the intention to hold a same-sex marriage.”
Following a similar detention of more than 60 people at what the police called a gay wedding in the southern Delta state in August, the arrests show “an uptick in this trend of witchhunt and gross violation of human rights” of the individuals, Isa Sanusi, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, told The Associated Press.
The arrests also suggest states are emulating one another “to get accolades” under the law, according to Anietie Ewang, Nigerian researcher with the Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. She said concerns highlighted by the organization in a 2016 report — about the abuse and stigma that gay people face in Nigeria — have remained.
Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2013, which has been condemned internationally but is supported by many in the country of more than 210 million people, punishes gay marriage with up to 14 years in prison and has forced many Nigerian gays to flee the country, according to human rights activists.
Arrests under the law have been common since it came into effect but the largest mass detentions yet have been in recent weeks in which some of the suspects were falsely accused and subjected to inhumane conditions, according to lawyers and rights groups.
After dozens were arrested at what the police called a gay wedding in a Delta state hotel, the suspects were paraded in front of cameras in a live social media broadcast despite a ruling by a Nigerian high court last year that pretrial media parades violate the nation’s constitution.
One of those paraded said he was at the hotel for another engagement. Another suspect said he does not identify as a gay individual and was arrested while on his way to a fashion show.
In Gombe, where the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) said its personnel arrested people who “intended” to organize a gay wedding, the prime suspect identified as Bashir Sani denied the allegation.
“There was no wedding, only birthday,” he said in a broadcast aired by local media.
Among those arrested were the photographer and the disc jockey at the event, Ochuko Ohimor, the suspects’ lawyer, told The Associated Press.
It is part of a trend that shows how the anti-gay law is being “exploited” without due process, said Okechukwu Nwanguma, who leads the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre, which advocates for police reforms in Nigeria.
One evidence of such a flawed process, lawyers said, is the failed trial of the 47 men arrested in 2018 and charged with public displays of affection for members of same sex at a hotel in Lagos. A local court dismissed the case in 2020 because of what it described as the “lack of diligent prosecution” after the police failed to present some witnesses.
“They (law enforcement authorities) are exploiting the law to target people whether or not they are queer … There is a tendency to target them based on assumptions or allegations, not based on any investigation,” said Nwanguma.
Such blanket arrests and media parade are not only discriminatory but also pose a high risk of further endangering people for their real or perceived sexual or gender orientation, said Amnesty International’s Sanusi.
“Since the signing of Same Sex Prohibition Act into law in 2014 attacks, harassment, blackmail and extortion of the LGBTQ+ community is rising, at disturbing speed. The Nigeria Police should be prioritizing keeping everyone safe, not stoking more discrimination,” he said.
Police spokespersons at the Nigeria Police Force headquarters and at the Delta state command did not respond to enquiries from the AP to speak on the arrests and on the allegations about the lack of due process in handling such cases.
Lawyers also spoke to the AP about instances where the police failed to act in handling cases of abuse against the LGBTQ community in Nigeria.
In 2020, David Bakare, a gay person, petitioned the police about a group of men who beat him up after he shared a video of himself dancing. The suspects were freed on bail after which they continued to threaten Bakare to withdraw the petition, a copy of which his lawyer shared with The AP.
Bakare then petitioned the police a second time to alert them that his life is in danger but no action was taken in response, he said. He had no choice but to flee to another part of Lagos.
“Since you can’t trust the police to do the necessary things, those guys will come again,” the 26-year-old said of his abusers.
The problem of delayed justice is not new in Nigeria where the criminal justice system has been criticized as corrupt. But it is far worse for groups such as the LGBTQ community seen to be vulnerable, said Chizelu Emejulu, an activist and lawyer who has handled many cases involving queer people.
“When we get the perpetrators arrested, the consistent thing we have noticed is that people always claim their victims are queer and once they say that, the police begin to withdraw from these cases,” said Emejulu.
“What the LGBTQ community in Nigeria is asking for is to be left alone to live their lives,” Emejulu added.