Nigeria: Dispatch from Bauchi, February 2008

Eighteen men arrested on charges related to sexual orientation in Bauchi state, Nigeria faced an adjournment today, as the government continued to stall given the weakness of their case and lack of evidence, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The next hearing will be held on March 24, 2007.

The men, all between the ages of 18 and 21, were arrested on August 5, 2007, at a party at Benco Hotel along Tafawa Balewa Road by the Hisbah, the Islamic anti-vice squad. According to the charge sheet, at the time of arrest “the suspects were all dressed in female attire organizing a gay wedding which contravenes section 372 subsection 2(e) of the Islamic Sharia penal code.” The men deny that they were dressed in female clothing or that they were organizing or attending a gay wedding. They argue that the event was a combination birthday/graduation party for a local man (who was not present at the time of the raid and has not been arrested) and the celebration of the marriage of his sister. Currently released on bail, the men have spent a total of 19 days in detention. The men were beaten, caned, and cursed by their jailors and court officers.

IGLHRC Senior Regional Specialist for Africa Cary Alan Johnson was in northern Nigeria last week to meet with the men and their defense attorneys prior to the hearing. According to Johnson, the arrest and prosecution of the Bauchi 18 shows just how much official discrimination LGBT people in Nigeria face and how the government targets sexual minorities.

“These men are being railroaded by the authorities,” said Johnson. “Contradicting their own statements, the police first said that the men were all dressed in women’s clothing, then that articles of female clothing and cosmetics were found in their belongings, which somehow proves that they were engaging in same sex marriage and homosexuality. The rhetoric of the police and court authorities are confusing, at best, and attempt to incite the public against the young men by conflating the concepts of ‘homosexuality,’ ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘gay marriage’.”

The arrest maybe part of the state government’s campaign to reintroduce a remarkably dangerous anti-homosexuality bill. Last year, the Nigerian National Assembly debated the “Bill for an Act to make provisions for the prohibition of sexual relationship between persons of the same-sex, celebration of marriage by them and for other matters connected herewith,” commonly referred to as the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2006. The bill criminalizes same-sex marriage as well as the “registration of Gay Clubs, Societies and organizations by whatever name they are called” and any “publicity, procession and public show of same-sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise.” Also, under Article 7 of the bill, “any person who is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same-sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a term of 5 years imprisonment.”

The bill had massive public support and quickly became a litmus test for the promotion of conservative religious values in Nigeria. Politicians clamored to support it. On the other side, a coalition of local organizations, including The Independent Project, the House of Rainbow (MCC-Nigeria), Global Rights Nigeria, and International Centre for Sexual Rights and Education (INCRESE), came together to organize local opposition to the bill. After effective advocacy by the consortium of local, national and international partners, the Assembly failed to bring the bill for a final vote and with the dissolution of the legislature it died, pending potential reintroduction.

Even though it did not pass, the bill has served as an incitement to violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals, and more generally, toward individuals whose behaviors do not fit within typical sexual or gender norms. The Sunday Sun weekly newspaper reported the expulsion of 15 “homosexual suspects” from the Nigerian Defense Academy in Kaduna, citing the anti-gay position of the government to justify its action.

TIP is providing support and advocacy strategy for the Bauchi 18, which includes material support , observation and advocacy at all public hearings and work with the media. The men are being defended by a legal team that is headed by Ralf Monye, an experienced human rights attorney and a member of the Legal Defense and Assistance Project (LEDAP), and Rommy Mom of Lawyers’ Alert. LEDAP and Lawyers’ Alert are two Nigerian legal support organizations.

There are five charges currently leveled against the men under articles 125, 127, 128, 368 and 372 of the Penal Code:

  • Membership in an Unlawful Society
  • Indecent Act
  • Idle Person
  • Criminal Conspiracy
  • Vagabondage, which includes a prohibition on cross-dressing

Penalties for these crimes could amount to up to ten years imprisonment and more than 100 lashes. The more serious charge of sodomy, which carries the death penalty, could be instituted at any time.

Parents and relatives of the young men have not been sympathetic to their plight, owing to the cultural and religious nature of the offences. The father of one of the young men stated, for instance, “I feel ashamed to have sired such a disgrace to my family. May Allah pass judgment on him in addition to the judgment of the Shari ‘a Court.” Asked whether he would appear in court he answered in the negative. His statements are typical of those of other relatives.

The extreme homophobia exhibited in this very conservative area of the country has put the men and their advocates at grave risk. Messages of hate and violent protest have been directed at the lawyers and the young men. At the first hearing, before Alkali (Judge) Malam Kanimi Aboubacar in the Tunda Al Khali Area court, tear gas and bullets shot into the air were used to disperse a crowd intent on meting out mob justice against the men and their lawyers. The Nigerian official news agency, NAN, reported that a prison official had been injured when a mob also tried to attack the men in Bauchi prison. Owing to this serious risk to life and bodily harm, the court now sits at 2 p.m., rather than the usual time of 9 a.m., to avoid protest. This strategy may not work for long, given the increasing hatred directed at the 18 men and their legal team. Even the judge and court officials appear convinced of the culpability of the accused, consistently referring to them as “Yan Daudu”—a Hausa term that is often derogatorily used to refer to any male who publicly exhibits gender non-conforming behavior. Under these circumstances, there is serious doubt as to whether the men can get a fair trial.