REUBEN ABATI’S OUTING
Like all events Nigerian, the TIERs symposium on “Human Rights, Sexuality and the Law” kicked off an hour late. I arrived early with my friend, Emmanuel, and we sat in the back, waiting and gossiping about nothing really. At about a few minutes past 11 a.m., the controversial headliner of the event, Reuben Abati, walked in and sat beside Emmanuel and me, across the aisle. I pointedly avoided his eyes because I did not want to be drawn into awarding him even a polite nod of acknowledgment. On the one hand, I was sour about the choice of Abati as keynote speaker for the symposium for the simple reason that, after his defence of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), he is unqualified to headline a conversation on the rights of LGBT persons. But on the other hand, I was curious and hungry for some drama: I wanted to hear what he had to say. While I maintain that “including The Other Side” in the conversation about our rights does not mean placing them at the head of the campaign table, I could see the logic behind putting this Other Side in an uncomfortable position of explaining to us, face-to-face, why they do not like us. I hoped this was the logic behind the decision TIERs made.
I noted, from the side of my eye, that Abati seemed a little fidgety in his seat—he kept tugging at and fiddling with his coat—and I thought: Good, I hope he is nervous.
Interestingly, Abati began his address by stating that, following the controversy that had trailed his selection as keynote speaker, he had had second thoughts about accepting the invitation to come speak. But TIERs insisted he come.
I don’t know if this fear Abati spoke of was real, or simply an attempt at patronising us, but I am glad that walking into that conference room at the Four Points Hotel, he knew he was walking into an emotionally charged space; we might be invisible, but we are not numb to pain, nor are we completely silent.
From Abati’s speech, I was relieved about the following:
- The speech was not prepared. There was a good chance of him speaking honestly and, hence, gaffing.
- He agreed that the foundations on which the law was backed—culture and law—were weak.
- He agreed that while the constitution guarantees protection of all Nigerians regardless of several differences—including the difference of sex—it does not guarantee protection on the basis of sexual orientation. I had been worried he would try to pass off “sex” as used in our constitution to mean gender as sexual Essentially, we need an amendment here.
- He admitted that countries around the world, including Nigeria, commonly flout the terms of international treaties and conventions on human rights.
- He admitted that that the SSMPA, since it was signed, had empowered hate and bigotry. I was so worried that he would turn a blind eye on this one, especially as his former boss, Goodluck Jonathan, is yet to accept this fact.
[At this point, I took a listening break to scribble to my seatmates, Emmanuel, Pink Panther and JBoy: Abati is not doing too badly so far. They scribbled back. They were not impressed. We continued listening, scrutinizing, taking notes. None of us had come there to play.]
- Abati admitted that culture can be backwards, and cited the events that transpired around the rejected Gender Parity Bill.
- He admitted that he KNOWS, for certain, that the only parts of the SSMPA that address marriage are just the first three sections; the rest of the Act criminalises the expression of same-sex affection as whole. [Good thing TIERs was recording all this on camera!]
- He admitted that “the law has contradictions” and would, likely, be “subject to changes in the future” or repealed. Whatever these changes will entail, we can only watch and hope.
Still, just because Mr Abati admitted all the above doesn’t score him 100 percent yet. The role he played in endorsing the SSMPA cannot be forgotten. These are where he failed at the symposium:
- He did not answer Olumide Makanjuola’s question concerning WHY, of all the administrations that had “dodged” signing that antigay law (then a bill) since it was introduced in 2007 — WHY it was Goodluck Jonathan’s government that finally assented to the bill. Abati’s defence was: If the President hadn’t signed it, the legislature might have vetoed him.
- When Abati was told by a member of the audience and the Amazonic Iheoma Obibi—who describes herself as a “rabid feminist”—that he OWED our community an apology, he did not apologise. His answer: He was only acting as spokesperson for government policy at the time. His defence of the law was his job, he said; it did not reflect his personal views on homosexuality at all. Iheoma Obibi was not satisfied with his answer: “You are dancing round the issue,” she said. “But we will talk later.”
- Reuben Abati’s performance at the symposium was decent enough—although I would have expected him to make that apology first and offer his excuses later.
Meanwhile, I think that the best person to address Olumide Makanjuola’s question about the rationale behind the signing of the SSMPA is probably not Reuben Abati, but the former president, Goodluck Jonathan, himself. I don’t, of course, expect Jonathan to admit that the timing of his assent on the SSMPA was, likely, connected to his desperation for cheap goodwill and cheap votes in the then-upcoming 2015 elections. Still, it would be instructive to ask – bearing in mind that this was the same Jonathan who said his ambition for a second term was not worth any Nigerian’s life. Maybe LGBT lives were not part of that promise.
“A SENSITIVE COMMUNITY”
The hall where we held the symposium might have been air-conditioned, but there was some tension in the room. I particularly loved what Iheoma Obibi said to Mr Abati about the space we were occupying being very “sensitive”. And she was right.
- When Joy Isi Bewaji bluntly spoke about how people go into government and never fix the problems they meet there, only to come out of government and complain about the same problems they never bothered to fix, I glanced at Abati, wondering if he had shat his pants yet.
- When Olumide Makanjuola asked his question about the rationale behind the SSMPA, the pitch of his voice kept rising and rising and rising, and I, in my little corner, kept thinking, Hmmmmmm.
- When one of the panellists – and founder of About That Curvy Life – Latasha Ngwube, went on a shocking speech about the importance of the LGBT community presenting a good image if we want people to buy into our activism, a wave of WTF! murmurs rippled through the audience. I mean, she basically said we couldn’t present a gay person who is “promiscuous” as our voice. We knew where she was coming from—don’t we always?—but we weren’t having none of that, nope, not in our space! And Iheoma Obibi told her as much.
- When Joy Isi Bewaji advised that it was wrong for one of the panellists, Ayokunle Odekunle, to call the people we were trying to educate “stupid”, Odekunle disagreed with her in a tone that made me wonder if he had lost his temper but was only suppressing it.
- When a member of the audience stood up to demand that people stop chanting “I’m liberal, I’m liberal” as if they were doing us a favour by recognising that LGBT people have rights, there was a tide of approving murmurs from the audience while I said under my breath, “Thank you!”
OVERALL. . .
. . . the symposium was insightful. Although the panel discussions felt rushed and some of the questions and answers did not dig as deep as I would have loved, I like that TIERs aimed at some kind of intersectionality by bringing on discussants whose work run through related activist fields—Joy Isi Bewaji (feminism); Latasha Ngwube (the interrogation of beauty standards which disfavour plus-sized women); and Jaja (who had experience working in black students’ activism in the UK).
Our agitation should not end with Reuben Abati’s apology, however. Restitution must follow. How can he help? How can we recruit his voice into this conversation? Thankfully, he has the reports on human rights violations of LGBT individuals—from both TIERs and Human Rights Watch. It would go a long way if TIERs follows up to make sure Mr Abati pens something meaningful about the conversation he has just had with us. He may no longer be in government, but a lot of Nigerians still read and respect Abati. Since he says he, personally, has no issue with LGBT persons, he should walk that talk now and put his pen where his mouth is.
Although the absence of the Chief Superintendent of Police, Abayomi Shogunle, was a BIG let-down—given persistent cases of police harassment and all—it is heart-warming, meanwhile, to note that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in a letter to TIERs—dated May 3, 2016—stated that it “would not hesitate to take up any complaints of violation brought before it on account of sexual orientation”. This can only mean hope. ■
Written by Absalom