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NIGERIA: Persecuted gay community cautiously seeks voice

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


ABUJA, 7 May (PLUSNEWS) - Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Nigeria, but gay rights groups made their first ever appearance at the country's fourth national AIDS conference in the capital Abuja this week.

They called on their fellow countrymen to recognise and protect Nigeria's gay community, pointing out that it has been hit hard by the AIDS pandemic.

In Nigeria, homosexual practice can carry a 14-year jail sentence under federal law. In 12 northern states that have adopted Islamic Shari'ah law, adults who are found to have engaged in homosexual intercourse can be stoned to death.

However, most of the time, people deny the existence of "MSM’s" - men who have sex with men - as male homosexuals are generally known in Nigeria.

“It means that, for most of Nigerians, MSMs are not human beings - they simply don’t exist,” said Oludare Odumuye, president of Alliance Rights Nigeria, an organisation representing sexual minorities in the country.

“Recently, some of us have been arrested by the police, thrown into jail and raped in the cells,” Odumuye told a handful of journalists and conference delegates who turned up to hear his message at a fringe meeting.

“One out of 50 lawyers we have contacted has accepted to defend their interests. The others were too afraid to be associated with homosexuals, even if they were homosexuals themselves!” he continued.

Things are particularly bad in the Muslim north, according to Odumuye.

“Because of the application of the Shari'ah code, they kill men and even young secondary school boys in the north of the country,” he said. “We know that it’s still happening today. People are expelled, dismissed, arrested - they bug us!”

With his beaded bracelets, flashy snakeskin shoes and refined manners, Odumuye caught the attention of watching policemen - five of whom installed themselves on a nearby sofa to get a better view.

“You see, they didn’t intervene,” he said with a nod in the direction of the police officers. “Some progress has been made since the start of the struggle!” he added with a large smile.

Odumuye began battling to publicise the plight of the gay community in the early 1990s. In July 1999, with a group of friends, he founded the ARN for “Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transexuals and Queers” across the country.

From the eight founder members, the organisation has grown to a membership of 8,000 - most of whom are men forced to keep their true sexuality in the dark.

But the fact that homosexuality is widely ignored in Nigeria is having a negative impact on the spread of AIDS in the country.

The Nigerian gay community has been largely forgotten about when it comes to AIDS awareness campaigns. These have always focused on preventing the spread of the HIV virus through heterosexual relationships.

“It’s unfortunate but homosexuals, because no educational programme targeted them, have become one of the main high risk groups in Nigeria. This is causing a lot of damage among our [gay] community, but also to those around them,” Odumuye said.

Because of the stigmatisation of homosexuality, many gay men have girlfriends and even marry to be seen to conform to cultural and societal norms. It is not uncommon, said Odumuye, for men to insist on using a condom with a woman but not bother with a male lover since they do not always realise that AIDS can be caught from sex with another man.

According to Odumuye, around 40% of MSMs are married, but they continue to have sex with male partners covertly - putting their wives and families at risk of HIV infection.

Confined to the fringes of society, Nigeria's gay men also face huge problems in finding proper health care.

“For instance, if they announce to the doctor that they have anal wounds, you can be sure that they won’t get proper care,” Odumuye said. “However, health care should meet the needs of sexual minorities.”

Professor Femi Soyinka, a leading human rights activist in Nigeria, agreed that MSMs are pushed to the sidelines of society. But he told IRIN that until they feel comfortable enough to identify themselves publicly, it will be very difficult to help them.

“If somebody, who is an MSM, goes to the hospital, of course he will not want to be identified as being an MSM,” Soyinka said. “For this reason, it’s very difficult for us to know how they would be received as they’re not identifying themselves.”

However, Odumuye was positive that things were improving.

“Three or four years ago, it wouldn’t be possible to hold such a meeting, talking freely about our concerns.” he said. “The situation is gradually getting better.”


Recent NIGERIA Reports
Funding agencies demand greater accountability,  7/Dec/05
MSF research highlights treatment threat,  6/Dec/05
Global Fund grant threatened,  6/Dec/05
A lethal dose of shame,  18/Oct/05
HIV testing campaign draws poor response,  13/Oct/05
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
International HIV/AIDS Alliance
International Council of AIDS Services Organisations (ICASO)
Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS

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