Conflict & Justice

Local authorities use a whisper campaign to round up gay men in northern Nigeria

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Credit: BBC

In the northern Nigerian state of Bauchi, the State Sharia Commission is using the Hisbah, or Islamic police, to find and arrest men they suspect of being gay. The hunt began when a local newspaper reported that homosexuals in Bauchi had formed an association. The article included a list of names.

Only a month ago, a new anti-gay law went into effect in Nigeria.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

It effectively added specifics to a law that's banned homosexuality since colonial times. The new law outlaws public displays of affection between people of the same sex, gay marriage, and those who perform gay weddings. It also outlaws any group involved in what officials deem to be "gay issues," including HIV and AIDS prevention.

It's that last detail that seems to have helped fuel an anti-gay campaign in the Nigerian stae of Bauchi, a conservative Muslim and Christian state governed by Sharia law.

The BBC's Will Ross said it all started with a newspaper article published last year.

"The article said that gay people in Bauchi had formed an association. There was a list of names of association members and the Sharia commission in Bauchi thought it right to go after these people," he said.

But they didn't get any of them, so they turned to local imams and preachers with the message to go out in their communities and look for the named people. "What's been happening over the last few weeks is that the authorities at the Sharia Commission in Bauchi State have been working together with the local communities, literally, to round up people who they believe are homosexual," said Ross.

The journalist recently visited Bauchi state. "They've literally been going house to house, picking up men suspected of being gay, in some cases tricking them into believing they're going out for some other reason and then taking them to the Sharia Commission."

Currently, there are nine people in prison in Bauchi on homosexuality charges. Ross said the accused will be tried under Sharia law, which could mean the death penalty.

While death sentences have been issued, none have been carried out yet in northern Nigeria. And these death penalties are gruesome. "The Sharia Commission officials told me that if a death sentence is meted out, it will be either by stoning, pushing off a tall building or hanging," Ross said.

Ross spoke to many people in Bauchi State to gauge public opinion on homosexuality. What he found was surprising. "Everybody quoted the Bible or quoted the Koran. They said they're totally against homosexuality, that they want all the homosexuals to be arrested. I didn't hear anybody who had a sympathetic word to say or anybody who was willing to defend them, that it's their right," he said.

Just last month there was a bail hearing in Bauchi state for seven of the accused. Ross says a large mob assembled outside the Sharia court in the center of the city. "They started shouting and protesting, calling for swift justice, some even calling for the death sentence," said Ross. "Rocks were thrown at the court. One even went through the window and hit somebody, drawing blood. In the end, the whole case had to be halted."

Ross said the police had to fire bullets into the air to disperse the crowd and then moved the nine accused men safely back to the prison. "But they are not, it seems, safe in the prison," said Ross. "The people trying to get them out on bail say if they do get them out, they'll probably be forced to go into hiding or flee the country because of this sort of feverish anti-homosexual drive that's going on in Bauchi at the moment."

Ross interviewed one gay man in Bauchi who is now in hiding. "He says he's far too scared to sleep in the city because he's afraid of that knock on the door from neighbors who may turn him in." 

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