By NORIMITSU ONISHI DEC. 20, 2015, New York Times
Image from article: A gay man in Bariga, Lagos, Nigeria, where he hides his identity
LAGOS, Nigeria — Suspicious neighbors and landlords pry into their private
lives. Blackmailers hunt for victims on the social media sites they use to meet
others of the same sex. Police officers routinely stop them to search for
incriminating images and chats on their cellphones.
Since an anti-gay law went into effect last year, many gay Nigerians say
they have been subjected to new levels of harassment, even violence.
They blame the law, the authorities and broad social intolerance for their
troubles. But they also blame an unwavering supporter whose commitment to
their cause has been unquestioned and conspicuous across Africa: the United
“The U.S. support is making matters worse,” said Mike, 24, a university
student studying biology in Minna, a town in central Nigeria who asked that
his full name not be used for his safety. “There’s more resistance now. It’s
triggered people’s defense mechanism.”
Four years ago, the American government embarked on an ambitious
campaign to expand civil rights for gay people overseas by marshaling its
diplomats, directing its foreign aid and deploying President Obama to speak
before hostile audiences.
Since 2012, the American government has put more than $700 million
into supporting gay rights groups and causes globally. More than half of that
money has focused on sub-Saharan Africa — just one indication of this
continent’s importance to the new policy.
America’s money and public diplomacy have opened conversations and
opportunities in societies where the subject was taboo just a few years ago. But
they have also made gay men and lesbians more visible — and more vulnerable
to harassment and violence, people on both sides of the gay rights issue
contend. The American campaign has stirred misgivings among many African
activists, who say they must rely on the West’s support despite often
disagreeing with its strategies.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, the final passage of the 2014
law against homosexuality — which makes same-sex relationships punishable
by 14 years in prison and makes it a crime to organize or participate in any
type of gay meeting — is widely regarded by both supporters and opponents of
gay rights as a reaction to American pressure on Nigeria and other African
nations to embrace gay rights.
“The Nigerian law was blowback,” said Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of
Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and the senior legal officer for
the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which supports gay
rights on the continent. “You now have situations of gay men being molested
on the streets or taunted. That was all avoidable.”
“I’ve said to U.S. diplomats privately as well — the risk is causing more
harm than good,” Mr. Odinkalu added. “You don’t want an infusion of good
will to actually do harm to the community that you think you’re protecting.”
Anti-gay sentiments are widespread across Africa. Same-sex relations
remain illegal in most nations, the legacy of colonial laws that had been largely
forgotten until the West’s push to repeal them in recent years.
Fierce opposition has come from African governments and private
organizations, which accuse the United States of cultural imperialism.
Pressing gay rights on an unwilling continent, they say, is the
latest attempt by Western nations to impose their values on Africa.
“In the same way that we don’t try to impose our culture on anyone, we
also expect that people should respect our culture in return,” said Theresa
Okafor, a Nigerian active in lobbying against gay rights.
American officials defend their efforts, saying they are mindful of the
many risks gay Africans face.
“If it’s important to advance the human rights and development of these
folks by being discreet, that’s a position we’re perfectly comfortable taking,”
said Todd Larson, the senior lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
coordinator for the United States Agency for International Development. “Our
goal is to support them in their efforts and not necessarily take front and
center, particularly when highlighting U.S. support might endanger our
Shortly after Nigeria’s law went into effect, Animashaun Azeez, 24, a
university student here, arranged to meet somebody he had chatted with on
Manjam, a social network for gay people. The person showed up, along with
three plainclothes officers. Mr. Azeez said he spent three days in jail and was
released only after his father, fearing publicity, paid off the police with about
“Many L.G.B.T. people are getting into trouble day by day,” said Mr.
Azeez, who after the episode became a volunteer for the Initiative for Equal
Rights, a gay rights group in Lagos.
Violence against gay Nigerians has increased significantly, according to
the country’s National Human Rights Commission. Most are attacked in the
open by groups of men, some of whom call themselves “cleansers,” rights
But victims often do not report attacks for fear of being outed. Even men
infected with H.I.V. are often reluctant to seek treatment at hospitals, fearing
that the authorities will be called, said Stella Iwuagwu, executive director of
the Center for the Right to Health, an H.I.V. patient and rights group based in
“Before, these people were leading their lives quietly, and nobody was
paying any attention to them,” Ms. Iwuagwu said. “Before, a lot of people
didn’t even have a clue there were something called gay people. But now they
know and now they are outraged. Now they hear that America is bringing all
these foreign lifestyles. They are emboldened by the law. The genie has already
left the bottle.”
The United States’ role comes as longstanding foes in its culture wars
continue to move their fight to Africa. Many private supporters of equal rights
for gay people in the United States, after landmark successes at home, are
increasing their funding of gay causes abroad, especially in Africa.
American conservative and Christian groups have also turned to Africa,
where the vast majority of people still share their opposition to same-sex
relations and marriage.
“There is an intentional effort to coordinate with Africa specifically
because we don’t want them to make the mistakes we’ve made here in
America,” said Larry Jacobs, managing director of the World Congress of
Families, an umbrella organization of social conservative and religious groups.
It is based in Rockford, Ill., and is active with Ms. Okafor in Nigeria.
Gay Africans are becoming increasingly caught in the American culture
battles being waged in Africa, said the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest
from Zambia who is a researcher at the Massachusetts-based Political
“When two elephants fight, the grass will suffer,” said Mr. Kaoma, who
has documented the ties between American evangelicals and the antigay
movement in Africa. “This is what’s happening in Africa. African L.G.B.T.
persons are just collateral damage to U.S. politics on both ends.”
In late 2011, the Obama administration made the promotion of gay rights
an integral part of American foreign policy. Since then, it has pushed for the
decriminalization of homosexuality overseas, working with the United Nations
and private groups.
Since 2012, U.S.A.I.D. has spent more than $700 million on the effort
globally, starting new programs related to gay rights and incorporating the
promotion of such rights into existing ones, according to American officials.
Agency officials declined to release details of the programs in Africa, citing
But tying developmental assistance to gay rights has fueled anger across
the continent. After Uganda’s president signed a tough antigay law last year,
for example, the Obama administration announced that some aid money for
the Ugandan police and health agencies would be cut off or redirected.
“This is an abuse of power, and that’s why many are turning around and
saying, ‘Keep your money,’ ” said the Rev. George Ehusani, former secretary
general of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, adding that Nigerian Catholic
charities had stopped applying for American government grants that promote
For many African activists, American backing is a double-edged sword.
At the office of the Initiative for Equal Rights here, a small community
center has served as an oasis for gay Nigerians in this megalopolis. But they
were unsettled by the red, white and blue stickers once posted throughout the
The stickers — with the message, “U.S.A.I.D. From the American people”
— underscored the Nigerian gay rights movement’s financial dependence on
the West. For some, they also inadvertently gave credence to the widely held
belief in Africa that homosexuality is a foreign lifestyle foisted on the
“It really affected our advocacy efforts,” said Michael Akanji, director of
programming for the group. The group was granted a waiver by the aid agency
to remove the stickers late last year.
One of the founders of Nigeria’s gay rights movement, Dorothy Aken’Ova,
began organizing in the mid-1990s after living in France, where she saw broad
acceptance of gay people. In 2000, she opened the International Center for
Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, which provides services for gay men
and lesbians in Minna.
“There was a veil of silence in the country over L.G.B.T. issues,” Ms.
Aken’Ova said, “and people could even boldly hit their chest and say there are
no gays in Nigeria and no lesbians in Nigeria. I knew that was wrong.”
In the early 2000s, an American foundation gave a handful of Nigerian
activists support, she said, “so that we can make the movement political.”
But over time, the growing recognition of and pressure for gay rights in
the West led to a reaction in Nigeria. Calling homosexuality “unnatural” and
“un-African,” Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, backed an
anti-gay bill in 2005 that seemed to be going nowhere.
But as the United States and other Western governments fiercely
condemned the bill — and a similar one in Uganda — Father Ehusani, Ms.
Okafor and others lobbied aggressively in support of it. Lawmakers, reacting to
what they felt was egregious interference by the West, rallied behind it. The
legislation passed unanimously in 2013, the first bill to do so since the end of
military rule in 1999.
In what was considered a major setback to gay rights in Africa, Nigeria’s
former president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed the Same Sex Marriage
Prohibition Act into law in January 2014.
In retrospect, Father Ehusani said that Nigeria’s law was too punitive and
an “overkill.” Without the American pressure, he said, “the law would not have
come in the form in which it did.”
Many African activists say that efforts should be focused on quietly
educating the public about homosexuality and changing social attitudes.
The Initiative for Equal Rights, the group Mr. Azeez volunteers for, is
planning to raise private funds inside Nigeria for the first time to reduce its
“Then it actually feels like we’re owning the process,” said Pamela Adie,
who sits on its fund-raising board.
Ms. Adie, 31, lived in the United States for several years and returned to
Nigeria last year to work in ExxonMobil’s communications department. She
said that despite the 2014 law, the early signs of a gay culture were emerging,
at least in parts of Lagos.
Now, she said, “masculine-identifying” women like herself were freer in
the way they dress. “That never happened 10 years ago,” she said. “Now people
are more open. They might not come out and say they are L.G.B.T., but you
Ms. Adie and a couple of hundred others recently attended the 10th
anniversary party of the Initiative for Equal Rights, an event that would have
been inconceivable just a few years ago.
Abayomi Shoyinka, 27, a fashion blogger who went to the party, said later
that pushing “too fast” and “too hard” for gay rights could only make things
“bad or worse.”
“As time goes on, we will get there,” Mr. Shoyinka said. “The patient dog
eats the fattest bone.”
Correction: December 21, 2015: An earlier version of
this article misspelled the first name of a fashion blogger.
He is Abayomi Shoyinka, not Aboyan