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conceptual mapping >  cultures and identities  > Crises across Africa: gays under government attack in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda


Crises across Africa: gays under government attack in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda

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An anti-gay riot occurred this August 21, after 18 young men appeared in an Islamic court in the sharia state of Bauchi to face charges of cross-dressing in women’s clothes.

"Any male person who dresses in the fashion of a woman in a public place will be liable to a prison term of one year or 30 lashes," Muhamad Muhamad Bununu, head of the Hisbah - an Islamic vice squad that works with the police and patrols neighborhoods to enforce the strict observance of conservative Islamic morals and dress codes - told Agence France-Presse.

Bauchi is one of a dozen Muslim-dominated states in northern Nigeria that has adopted Islamic sharia law, including criminal law, since 2000, following the end of the military dictatorship in the country of 140 million people. The decision by these states to adopt sharia law "alienated sizable Christian minorities and sparked bouts of sectarian violence that killed thousands," AFP noted in its Tuesday dispatch.

The accused youths, 18 to 22, had originally been arrested on August 4 in a police raid on a wedding party at the Benko Hotel in the Yelwa area of Bauchi, at which the police scooped up 45 people, including women and children - but many of them escaped.

The official Nigerian News Agency initially reported that "the police First Information Report (FIR) described the 18 youths as ‘dressed in women’s fashion practicing sodomy as their profession,’" as the Nigerian daily This Day reported, claiming the accused had gathered at the hotel to celebrate a "gay marriage." The accused "were addressing each other as women and dressing as women," Bununu told Reuters.

Most Nigerian media, which are overwhelmingly homophobic, followed the government news agency’s line, and said the young men had been arrested at a "gay wedding" for "sodomy," a crime punishable by stoning to death under the sharia law in force in the dozen Nigerian states which have adopted it. Some Western news agencies, like the Associated Press, also initially said that the 18 had been arrested for "sodomy."

But by the time the case got to court this Tuesday, the charges had been reduced, and the 18 were formally indicted "under the idle persons and vagabonds section of sharia law," which also forbids cross-dressing, the Hisbah’s Bununu told Agence France-Presse.

Sharia law requires four witnesses to an act of anal penetration for conviction, so Bununu explained to the French news agency, "For now we can’t charge the men with sodomy because we have to have witnesses to testify."

The police brought handbags and suitcases containing women’s high-heel shoes and clothing to this Tuesday’s court hearing as evidence.

But Joseph Akoro, director of The Independent Project (TIP), a Nigerian LGBT group, told a representative of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) who was on the scene in Bauchi for the court hearing that the young men were not wearing women’s clothing at the time of their arrest. Moreover, Akoro said, the marriage being celebrated at the hotel was a heterosexual one.

"This leads us to believe that the charges have been drummed up to incite hatred against gay people in the highly charged environment of our country," Akoro added, referring to Nigeria’s extraordinarily conservative culture in which both Christians and Muslims revile homosexuality as a taboo, and in which draconian anti-gay legislation had been considered earlier this year by the parliament.

That broad-reaching legislation, which was promoted by its supporters as a ban on gay marriage, was denounced in a May 8 New York Times editorial as "in fact an assault on basic rights of association, assembly, and expression" which would have criminalized and provided stiff prison terms for any association or socializing by gays, any speech or writing about homosexuality that did not condemn it, and any advocacy of human rights for LGBT people. The Times editorial called the bill "poisonous."

But Nigerian media hysteria around the Bauchi 18, whose trial, the BBC’s correspondent in that state this week said, has become "a celebrity case," may be the signal that the new government of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was elected the country’s head of state in April, intends to revive the anti-gay bill and its omnibus repressions. Lire

date of on-line publication : 26 September 2007

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