REFLECTIONS | WINTER ’22
An African Digital Revolution
WORDS by TIMINEPRE COLE
IMAGES by RACHEL SEIDU
LGBTQ+ Discrimination in Nigeria and Ghana
“I remember being in the car with my mother a few days after the SSMPA was passed. There was a conversation on the radio about the fairness of the law. My mother said gay people were agents of Satan who deserved to go to hell. I was dumbfounded. At that moment, I knew I could never speak freely about my sexual orientation or gender identity” recounts Alexandra Maduagwu, a 25-year-old community organizer living in Nigeria.
The violation of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria peaked in January 2014 when former president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (“SSMPA”). With provisions that prohibit same-sex couples from entering a marriage or civil union, and the registration and meetings of gay clubs, societies, and organizations, as well as the direct or indirect public show of same-sex amorous relationship, the SSMPA criminalized the existence of LGBTQ+ Nigerians by denying them simple pleasures like stable family life, community, and freedom to assemble.
In Nigeria, sex between people of the same gender is an offence punishable with fourteen years in prison or death by stoning in northern states where sharia law applies. Gender expression and presentation are also heavily policed, and it is a crime for a person to dress unlike their assumed and assigned gender in a public place. As a masc-presenting person living in Nigeria, most of the harassment I encountered on the streets of Lagos came from state actors. My daily routine included policemen holding me hostage at the roadside whilst interrogating my gender identity and my choice of clothing.
Sadly, this is the status quo in many African countries that operate legal systems built on Christian traditions and doctrines that were imported and enforced by European colonial administrators. These countries also have several legislations modeled after old European laws which criminalize significant parts of queer existence. The Ghanaian Criminal Code declares unnatural carnal knowledge illegal which has been interpreted to mean penile penetration of anything other than a vagina. On the 2nd of October 2021, members of Ghanaian parliament began deliberating a bill called The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values which seeks to prohibit the “promotion, advocacy, funding and act of homosexuality” in all its forms. If passed into law, campaigning for equality of sexual and gender minorities, or for an anti-discrimination bill, would be illegal.
Discrimination faced by queer Ghanaians is sanctioned by the government then promoted by the media and religious institutions who deliberately misinform the public on what it means to be queer. Since news about the proposed bill broke, the Ghanaian population has become more resistant to the queer community’s demand for social protection and has resorted to outing people they suspect to be queer to their employers, institutions, and even landlords. In a press release following the homophobic and transphobic attacks on Ghanaian citizens in the past months, The Christian Council of Ghana went as far as describing queer sexuality as “an affront to human dignity and not a human right.” Though there have been protests in cities like London, Toronto, and Oakland by queer diasporic Ghanaians and others showing solidarity, the queer community in Ghana is unable to physically protest the gross human rights violations they face.
It has become impossible for many queer folks to identify as such in these countries, and some have resorted to lying about their identities to access employment opportunities, housing, and healthcare. It has also become dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community to organize in defence of their human rights, and even more difficult for human rights organizations to work with and protect the rights of LGBTQ+ community members. For example in Nigeria, organizations like the International Centre for Advocacy on Rights to Health and The Initiative for Equal Rights that cater to the needs of queer folks cannot be registered as queer organizations. Instead, they have to operate under the umbrella of human rights advocacy as organizations contributing to policy issues affecting sexual minorities or promoting human rights regardless of identity and orientation.
Social Media: An Alternative Tool for Queer Activism?
With all the legal restrictions in place in these countries, queer existence often involves a lot of secrecy and it is difficult to find people who identify as queer in the real world. It is therefore not surprising that social media became a place for queer folks to build community and exist freely and loudly without reprisal. There are valid concerns about the dangers of social media, but for queer Africans like me, social media can be a haven and a place to feel less alone. The first time I started to question my sexual orientation, I needed to read and hear the thoughts of people who look like me and share a similar identity. Twitter gave me that community. Interacting with other queer folks online made me realize that social media is a place of solace for LGBTQ+ folks who have no acceptance or support from their parents or direct community.
“Social media was the first place I was able to accept my queer identity and live as a man without fear of violence. It was easier to find people with similar identities and have conversations that helped me build the confidence I needed to exist as myself in the real world,” says Tom Kola, a 25-year-old trans man from Nigeria who uses his Instagram account to post educational resources for trans-Nigerians.
“When I started to come to terms with my sexuality, I did not know a lot of queer people besides my partner at the time. I longed for a space where I could talk about being queer freely without it having to be a secret. So I started a podcast called The Pride Diaries. Initially, it was just me putting out my personal experiences but I also wanted to hear from my listeners, so I started an online group called Haven. I had a lot of queer people from Nigeria join the group, and seeing us exist in such a large number made me feel alive” says Mariam Sule, a writer and podcast host from Nigeria.
Finding representation online made a difference for me and other queer folks in both nuanced and life-altering ways. Online groups made it easier for queer folks from all over the continent to connect and affirm their identities in ways that were not possible physically. In June 2020, Maduagwu started an online group called Boi. Boi is for masculine presenting women and people assumed to be women who either identify partially with womanhood, are non-binary, or gender non-conforming. It is a space to share resources and discuss issues that affirm their identities. The call for folks who were interested in being a part of this online community was made on Twitter and reached queer folks in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and Haiti. Since it was formed, members of the group have been able to offer emotional and financial support to each other when needed as well as unlearn toxic ideas they previously held due to norms prevalent in their homophobic and transphobic societies.
Dean, a queer Ghanaian who is a member of Boi, says being part of an online group has been helpful since physical gathering is heavily policed in Ghana right now. “Being able to stay in touch with other queer folks and get information about what is going on in the queer community does a lot of good for me at the moment. On Boi, I am able to get book and film recommendations that help my political education. I am able to share my struggles as a masc person and have so many people who look like me tell me about their similar struggles and how best to navigate them. I love hearing them talk about whatever badass stuff they have gotten up to. It is really good to see queer folks all grown up and intentional about forming genuine connections with each other.”
Ed, another member of the group from Haiti says, “I love being in a group with queer folks from African countries. Our issues and cultures are so similar and I relate to most of the things we talk about. I just hope one day I have enough money and it is safe enough to go have fun with them in real life.”
In countries where LGBTQ+ hate is encouraged and upheld by legislation, these laws contribute to the audacity with which homophobes commit crimes against queer folks. Various reports show that since the passing of the SSMPA, there have been high levels of violence, including mob attacks, against LGBTQ+ people in Nigeria. For example, in the highly publicized case of the Egbeda 57, officers of the Nigerian Police Force raided a private birthday celebration, arrested 57 men, and prosecuted them on bogus charges of cultism and homosexuality. The court case carried on for two years and the 57 men were discharged in October 2020, but not acquitted of the accusations levelled against them. In 2019, a video surfaced on the internet that immediately went viral. In the video, two men in Imo—a state in southeast Nigeria, pretended to be gay, lured a gay man to meet with them, extorted him, and then murdered him. It was quite shocking to watch traditional media and homophobic Nigerians re-write the story and paint the victim as the depraved aggressor and the murderers as victims who had acted in self defence—even in the face of video evidence. The question on the minds of every queer Nigerian was ‘who’s next?’
The current laws prevent queer folks who are victims of hate crimes from reporting these crimes to appropriate authorities because there is fear of exposure, arbitrary arrest, extortion and even being murdered by the state’s security force. Consequently, social media has also become a place for queer folks to document their oppression. Queer activists have taken to using social media to show resistance and advocate for their rights and freedom with many online campaigns like #AcquitThe57, #EndHomophobiainNigeria, and #Killthebill.
In October 2020, thousands of Nigerians took to the streets for a nationwide protest tagged #Endsars against police violence. Social media, particularly Twitter, became a place to organize and disseminate information about the protests. Queer Nigerians who constantly face aggression from the police joined in, and unsurprisingly, they encountered violent homophobia from fellow protesters as well. It was during the heat of these protests that 22-year-old writer and queer liberation activist Ani Kayode Somtochukwu created The Queer Union for Economic and Social Transformation (“QUEST9ja”), a socialist, abolitionist queer collective fighting towards queer liberation in Nigeria. Somtochukwu who already had experience in digital organizing and advocacy saw the possibility of using social media to organize in defence of queer Nigerians and to provide mutual aid to poor queer folks who were in need.
“The #EndSARS protests showed more than anything that we needed to expand models of safety adapted to the liberation of queer people on the African continent, and in Nigeria in particular. Because whether the issue is police violence, incarceration, housing, or healthcare; what we need is a system where resources are provided to everyone to meet their needs and not distributed or hoarded for the purpose of maximizing capitalist profits.”
During the protests, Quest9ja helped provide food for safe houses in Lagos, Abuja, and Enugu state. Since its inception, they have secured housing for homeless queer Nigerians in these cities and organized a fundraiser to support HIV/AIDS health outreach in Kwara State. Currently, they are running a flagship trans healthcare initiative using crowdfunded resources to help trans Nigerians in five states access gender-affirming healthcare. Somtochukwu says the organization has been able to achieve most of this because of social media. “Social media has been a very important tool for organizing and distributing mutual aid. It has improved accessibility to each other as we are able to get feedback from the community and advance conversations online. As an activist and the leader of a queer organization, it is hard to coordinate physical meetings in a country that criminalizes queer organizations and the work we do. Social media is an alternative path to circumvent these legal restrictions.”
In Ghana, where politicians and religious leaders are championing human rights violations against queer folks, queer folks are taking their freedom into their hands. In response to the abuse, violation, and marginalization queer folks are subjected to from the government, health institutions, and even the country’s security forces; a group of young queer activists created LGBT+ Rights Ghana, a movement focused on community organizing as well as creating safe and inclusive spaces for the Ghanaian queer community home and abroad. In January 2021, the group’s headquarters was attacked shortly after they celebrated the opening of their new community centre. This led to the closure of the centre in a bid to ensure the safety of the queer community. Shortly after, twenty-one queer rights activists were arrested for attending a human rights training. Now, physical organizing has become impossible.
“The movement initially started as a cyberactivism group to avoid geographical restrictions and bring visibility to the issues affecting queer folks in Ghana without jeopardising the physical safety of the activists involved. Right now, the queer community is in disarray, and it has become unsafe for us to gather physically but our online groups and social media pages help us stay in constant communication with our community” says Abdul-Wadud Mohammed, the communications director for LGBT+ Rights Ghana.
“Social media helps us reach a wider audience so the people who care about the human rights violations going on in Ghana can help. We have been able to raise funds on social media to provide mutual aid in the form of temporary housing to displaced community members, and we would continue to use social media to meet the varying needs of community members who need us,” he adds.
Advocating, organizing, and supporting political movements online also comes with its own security risks, especially in countries where such organizing is illegal. “Once you visibly associate with a political movement, surveillance from the government becomes something to worry about. There is also a high risk of doxing and hijacking online movements, and the risk of misinformation as false news that can be rolled out to discredit online movements,” says Aumarh Ikwueme, a cyber security expert who provides holistic security training that promotes secure online activities to minority groups in Nigeria and other regions. “In most cases, activists who visibly support a cause online receive death and rape threats,” she adds.
Queer activists who use social media are aware of their vulnerability online. Mohammed says, “Online security is a major challenge for people like me who advocate online. We constantly deal with trolls and bigots who send us vile messages. When our community centre was shut down earlier in the year, traditional media were able to get information about us from our social media pages. This led to the identities of some activists and queer people who engage with us online being compromised.” For Somtochukwu online activism comes with personal risks; “being a visible queer activist means I have to constantly worry about my safety. I receive endless threats online and as much as I wish it didn’t, this negativity weighs heavily on my mental health.”
According to Ikwueme, it is important for activists to take time off social media to destress, “Having a community outside of fellow activists helps provide one with a balanced view of social activities outside activism and this has a tremendous effect on their mental health.”
How Can You Help?
There are still barriers for queer groups and activists organizing online. Material support is important, and since it is illegal for these organizations to be registered it is difficult to apply for grants that might help implement programs. A large part of the work queer activists do online involves providing mutual aid for queer people suffering the economic violence of capitalism. Consequently, small revolutionary organizations depend entirely on crowdfunding and volunteers.
Somtochukwu says “Trans Nigerians do not have access to gender-affirming healthcare, and through our Trans Health Care Initiative, we are doing our best to help meet their healthcare needs. Just tweeting our GoFundMe link or donating a small amount of money could make all the difference in the life of someone.”
It is going to take a revolution to achieve a future where the existence of queer folks is completely decriminalized. Queer activists like Somtochukwu and Mohammed do the work to create safe spaces and build political consciousness in the queer community through seemingly impossible ways. “The work that we do is causing change. It may take some time, but change will come” says Mohammed, and I believe him.
TIMINEPRE COLE is a lawyer and writer from Nigeria now based in London. Their work focuses on the under-explored angles of the complex lives of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and how public policies affect people at the intersection of misogynoir and queerphobia. Their work has been published in The Rustin Times, The Republic Journal, LivingFree UK, and elsewhere.
Images by RACHEL SEIDU.