As you all know, the Bisi Alimi Foundation was in Lagos in February to launch “Not Dancing to Their Music”, a report on the impact of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the LGBT community in Nigeria. Following the eye-opening panel at the event, Absalom and Pink Panther caught up with the Executive Director of the Abuja-based International Centre for Advocacy on the Rights to Health (ICARH), Ifeanyi Orazulike, who was also on that panel, and there ensued an insightful chat on the security of LGBTQ persons in Nigeria, our standing in the justice system, and the newly launched mental health intervention of ICARH.
ABSALOM: Two years ago, you took the Nigerian police and the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) to court over an incident of harassment on your person. The case has now been decided and you were awarded 1 million naira by the court. What did you learn in the two years it took to win this case?
IFEANYI ORAZULIKE: What I took out of the case is: our justice system actually works, although it may be delayed. You can sue for human rights violation in Nigeria and the court will attend to you. Often, we don’t believe the courts will attend to us because we are LGBTQ people, but that’s not true. We haven’t tested the waters, we haven’t tried, we just conclude. Since my case happened, we have encouraged members of the community who have had their rights violated to go to court and they will be represented. You don’t have to pay a dime— we just need to get justice for you.
Funnily enough, I appeared in court just twice. My lawyer dealt with the case in my absence. I’m a very busy person, always travelling. When judgment was given, I wasn’t even in the country. My lawyer just called me, and when I didn’t pick, sent me a message: “We won the case.” Even though we didn’t get the 100 million naira we were suing for, the court awarded us 1 percent of that. The court asked the Nigerian police to pay me 1 million naira for the assault. Even though the case dragged for two years, it showed me that our struggles are not in vain.
The 1 million naira compensation is still pending. That money has not been paid. My lawyer says we must follow this matter to the end, not because I need the money, but so it will be documented as a reference, a judicial precedent.
ABSALOM: Are you saying the moral disposition of the judge—say, he is homophobic—did not affect your case?
IFEANYI: Since I won my case, I have been invited to two judges’ forums, in South Africa and Angola, to talk about LGBTQ issues and how the justice system can serve us better. These were forums with high court judges from over 20 African countries. What I kept hearing from these judges was: “Oh look, we don’t have issues with who you are. Our job is to make sure that justice is done when people are aggrieved.” Their excuse is, nobody has ever brought any case before them. The judge who handled my matter was invited to the forums but he didn’t come. Had he come, I’d want to hear from him directly what prompted the verdict he gave in my case: Didn’t he see the particulars of the plaintiff?
ABSALOM: We have heard stories of how LGBTQ persons go to regular mainstream hospitals to access treatment for STIs, and the medical personnel’s handling of the health issues of gay women and men is judgmental, sensationalized, and anything but professional. Has no one been sued for these attitudes?
IFEANYI: When we started our clinic at ICARH over four years ago, we were new, trying to get a lot of things right. We didn’t sue anybody—we just took in complaints. We were trying to critically look at what the issues are and how we could respond to the needs of the community. After the clinic and our human rights departments were fully up and running, we found that—particularly in Abuja—a lot of community members don’t go to other hospitals; they come to our clinic. We test-ran the clinic for about a year to find out where community members would be more comfortable. We had a tertiary hub at Garki Hospital and we had our clinic at ICARH office. We had our own ICARH nursing staff stationed at Garki Hospital to attend to community members. Over time, I’m not sure the staff at Garki Hospital saw up to 20 clients, in less than a year. So we had to close that hub down and move everyone down to the clinic, because we now found that people were more comfortable coming to a community clinic than a tertiary hub.
We have been looking out for cases involving violation of rights in the hospital and we keep telling people: If you encounter issues like this, we would like to take up your case, so we can use this to set precedents and say, “This is not acceptable”. No matter your sexual orientation and gender identity, your right to privacy and doctor-patient confidentiality must be respected.
ABSALOM: Back to police harassment, you said on the panel yesterday that, if the police asks us to come with them to the station, we should go. And even if they don’t ask, we should insist that they take us there.
IFEANYI: That’s the only way out. And, believe me, a lot of times, they won’t agree to take you to the station.
ABSALOM: Really? Why?
IFEANYI: Because they know it is wrong to go through someone’s phone without a search warrant. And a search warrant has to be signed by a judge and the Commissioner of Police.
There was a case I handled, where the police wanted to search a man’s house. Our in-house lawyer at ICARH went with us and the police to the man’s house. The man had opened the door, I was already inside the house, and the policemen were at the door when our lawyer said, “First things first. Before we go in, can I see your search warrant?” I didn’t interfere—the lawyer was only doing his job. The policemen started arguing with him, and refused to show him a warrant. Our lawyer then informed them that only two people, a judge and the Commissioner of Police, could sign a search warrant: How come they could obtain that signature in less than 48 hours? When the police saw the lawyer was serious about what he was saying, they became scared to search the house, even when the door was open! They ordered us back to the station. The lawyer said, “No problem.”—he would see their DPO when we got there. Before we even got to the station, the DCO had been informed about the case. We went to see the DCO and DPO, and they closed the case, because they had encountered people who understood the law.
If they ask to search your phone, tell them to take you to the station first. It is safer. In a lot of cases, they will let you go.
ABSALOM: So, after going with the police to the station, what next?
IFEANYI: Demand for a lawyer. Don’t write any statement. Don’t allow them to bully you into writing anything. The police do not have the right to do that. Anything you say or do or write without a lawyer present can be used against you in court.
ABSALOM: Great! So, what’s up with the mental health clinic ICARH is setting up? You spoke a bit about that at the panel.
IFEANYI: Our mental health clinic is still new. We just began a couple of weeks ago. We are in partnership with two Canadian institutions who are coming sometime next month [last month, March] to do proper training for the nurses and doctors and other staff who will be working with a doctor. We have plans to look at depression and other psychosocial issues—peer pressure, family pressure, and so on. Before the end of March, our mental health clinic should run full-scale.
ABSALOM: Any other plans you’d like to share with us?
IFEANYI: Yes. Like I said at the panel to the lady from an advertising agency, we are also exploring huge collaborations with the private sector. In the US, and other developed countries, we have private-sector involvement in LGBTQ work, but that really doesn’t happen in Nigeria. Part of the reason we came to Lagos, beyond speaking on the panel, is to reach out to corporations and big businesses to begin to have this conversation with. It has been a tough space to engage, but then, when we started work on HIV treatment and prevention, it was just as tough, so we can deal with this as well.
ABSALOM: Isn’t it the case that, oftentimes, the private sector wants to be involved in LGBTQ work but is afraid of government sanctions on its businesses? Even the multinational corporations tend to be silent on LGBTQ support.
IFEANYI: One of the reasons why we were at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, was to talk about this. It is not true what big businesses say that they are afraid of government sanctions if they support LGBT rights. It is not true! If Exxon Mobil decides to do programmes that focus on LGBTQ inclusion in Nigeria, the Nigerian government cannot tell them to leave. There are benefits we stand to lose if Exxon Mobil packs up and leaves. You can’t tell Coca-Cola to go, nor can you tell Dangote’s companies to close shop because they support LGBTQ rights. These are best practices and stories we have gathered from other developing countries that have had this same experience. The activists who came to Davos from Singapore gave instances where big corporations supported LGBTQ work and the government asked the companies to stop funding LGBTQ projects, but the companies changed strategies, without stopping the funding.
PINK PANTHER: We often hear news from other African countries about how they are shocking their countries out of hate. I remember the last time it happened, there was news of the police raiding the pride celebrations in Uganda, and some friends and I were talking and they said, “Look at Uganda, they organise pride!” How come we don’t have that kind of progress here in Nigeria?
IFEANYI: I was discussing with Bisi Alimi [Executive Director, Bisi Alimi Foundation] and Pamela Adie [Senior Campaigns Manager, All Out]. Our problem here is a lack of unity within the movement. A lot of LGBTQ organisations are not working together. There is name-calling and backbiting, which are not healthy for our work. Do we know the kind of power we have when we come together? We are human beings, we must have differences. In Uganda, and East Africa as a whole, when the activists fight, it is very messy, but one thing they never do is fight in public. East Africa is a region I visit regularly.
So because I don’t like that you run Kito Diaries, I say to a donor, “Don’t give your money to Kito Diaries, they will eat it”—without evidence! We are all working towards the same goal of social inclusion – why, then, can we not work together? This is why you are not seeing a lot of progress made in shaking up our government and holding it accountable. This is why we have a lot of mob attacks and so on —because people are not speaking up. I have been at serious high-level meetings where Presidents of the world are seated and the question, even from the Nigerian government is, “So where are the people they say are gay—where are they?” I’ve been with senators and they tell me, “Ifeanyi, we agree with you, but how can I go out and speak for people who don’t have a face?” They want to see the people — and the “people” they want to see is the uniformity within the movement. They know that within the community, people are not standing together. Some of these senators are gay and they hear gossip as well. It is a conversation Bisi and me are having already: We need a summit to address some of these issues.
As far as I’m concerned, we are stagnant. We are not moving forward. We have been trying to challenge the SSMPA since 2014 when it was passed, but everybody wants to take the shine—“Why must it be TIERS leading this?” “Why ICARH?” What does it matter? The victory will be for everyone at the end of the day. Lots of donors come and go back with their money because they can’t deal with the drama. When everybody is fighting everybody, they don’t know who to trust with their money. They end up giving out funds piecemeal, with a lot of restrictions, and when the money isn’t fully used for what it was intended, the rest has to be returned to the donors. ▪