Let me get this out of the way from the onset so we are clear. I don’t like Mr. Reuben Abati. Over the past five years, I have come to view him as a rather unpleasant human being. A man who proselytized and moralized about government but came into office and disavowed everything he was known for. He became hugely divisive, contemptuous and propagated hate at unbelievable level. I would go so far and call him a failed media aide to former President Goodluck Jonathan and a political charlatan who eschewed his values for open and inclusive government and turned coat in his quest for political power. We watched him brand LGBT citizens as pedophiles on both local and international news media on the basis of their sexual orientation and called them abomination as he defended their imprisonment for 14 years when the former president signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law. The SSMPA made participation in gay marriages in Nigeria punishable with up to 14 years in prison and prescribed up to 10 years imprisonment for belonging or involving in a gay association. For a man who for decades called for the separation of state and religion, it was discomforting seeing him unravel by welcoming the most atrocious and discriminatory law in recent human memory as “in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination”.
Now, barely two years after he left office, he is scheduled to return as the keynote speaker at The Initiative for Equal Rights’ Human Rights discussion conference themed Human Rights, Sexuality and the Law. Ever since the announcement, a great deal of angst has been directed at the organizers for selecting a notable homophobe as keynote speaker in its premier event.
I am of a different opinion and I believe this is a welcome development.
Too many times, minorities have operated on the basis of safety in numbers. They hem themselves in with their fellows and refuse to embrace opinions outside of theirs. But it is opinions that shape dialogue and no lasting peace is ever achieved without understanding and addressing the fears of the opposition. Someone said, you do not invite the KKK to an NAACP event. Well, sometimes, you do if you want lasting peace; and it happened as recently as 3 years ago in Wyoming between the KKK group, United Klans of America and the Casper, Wyoming NAACP chapter. John Abarr of the former came out of that meeting paying $30 of his own money as membership fee to join the NAACP.
There are many examples in history where visionary men rose above parochial interests to seek solace in dialogue and usher long lasting peaceful coexistence. In 1994, the ANC opted to share power with its oppressors despite the rising wave of black-on-black violence in opposition against the power sharing agreement. In the United States, it was slave owners who saw to the birth of a multicultural and multiracial nation by enshrining in its constitution these very words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
In all of these instances, the greatest driver of opposition is a combination of fear of the unknown and a gross lack of understanding. If you wish to foster integration and acceptance among diverse groups, you have to be able to open yourselves up and dispel the fears of your enemies. You have to be able to listen, find and address the place where the hate resides. Mr. Abati acknowledges that there are “too many marginalized and oppressed groups” in Nigeria and accepts that “equality speaks to issues of justice & other rights”. He also now proclaims that the LGBT community is “an endangered minority in the country” and that “states have a responsibility to facilitate citizen’s human rights, and respect international protocols and covenants”. It will be interesting to know when and how he evolved to this conclusion, given his role in the enactment of the “quite intolerant…extant laws”
Frankly, I think TIERS did a fantastic job in securing the attendance of Mr. Reuben Abati. At the conference, he will have the opportunity to explain to his audience the mindset behind the passage of one of the most draconian laws against personal freedoms in Nigeria by the Goodluck Jonathan administration. Laws which he and his principal now seem to agree may need to be revisited. In-between perhaps, he will learn about the consequences of their politically motivated persecution: the toll in human lives, costs in brain drain and properties destroyed and impact on broken families. He may even cheekily explain to them why his participation at the conference does not flout the extant law. After all, it is a gender and sexuality event.
More importantly though, is what he will take away from the conference. If Mr. Abati even remotely walks away from this event with a different or changed perspective about LGBT people and their circumstances, that in itself is a massive victory. It is a victory because no matter what anyone says, Mr. Abati is an opinion leader in the country. His views online and newspaper columns are shared by millions of people across the country. If his attendance will get him to reshape his views and even those of his ardent followers, then it is not a wasted venture.
So much has been said about TIERS history and deviation from core values. Let me say that organizations evolve to embrace the dynamism of its environment and rise to its challenges. The men and women within its structure today are some of the best young minds you can engage. They have been beating the path for an all-inclusive society. You may question their views on issues but do not do so on a wimp. That would be disingenuous and disrespectful to the labours they’ve put in to bring their cause to the center.
Finally, there are also those who say that Mr. Abati is the least preferred choice because he spewed hateful tirades in government and represents the face of the oppressor. This is possibly true. But dialogue does not have to exist among agreeable parties only. Dialogue does not have to be with friends alone and it does not have to be nice.
Written by Kritzmoritz