This week General Muhammadu Buhari will be inaugurated as Nigerian’s president, a position he won by campaigning on a platform of change. But will that change include the people on the fringe of society, like lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals? Will he eliminate the current repressive policies that his predecessor President Ebele Goodluck Jonathan approved? Can the U.S. and other governments pressure him to do so?
So far, Buhari has offered no public opinion on the matter. This includes when he was a military general and in 1983, toppled a democratically elected civilian government and ruled for 18 months until he himself was overthrown in another coup. At that time, LGBT issues were not part of the public discourse.
It was only in 2004 that the issue came to the forefront during a famous TV interviewbetween Funmi Iyanda and myself, an openly gay Nigerian actor. Attention to the issue grew two years later with the introduction of the Same Sex (Prohibition) Act. Then in 2014, President Jonathan passed a harsher law that mandated a 14-year prison sentence for anyone in a same-sex relationship and a 10-year term for anyone who supports gay clubs, meetings or societies. Anti-gay violence has increased in the year since it passed.
In a recent report released by the LGBT Coalition in Nigeria, more than 100 cases of abuse against the LGBT community was recorded in 2014 alone. Thirty-nine instances of this abuse were carried out by state actors, including the police and it includes; arbitrary arrest, extortion, unlawful detention and “consensual” outing to family members.
As a presidential candidate, Buhari made no public pronouncement about this controversial law or the abuse of LGBT people. Nor did he comment when the opposition accused him of planning a deal with the countries in the West to repeal the law. So what will he do now?
Of course, at this point, there are really only two options: continue to support the repressive law or repeal it.
Supporting it would be the easier and more popular route. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes and Trends report, 98 percent of Nigerians said they believed homosexuality was not a way of life that society should support. In 2013, NOI, a Nigeria based opinion polling agency, showed 92 percent of Nigerians supported the anti-gay bill, largely because of their religious beliefs. But as more countries approve LGBT rights – with Ireland being the most recent example – and as entities like the World Bank refuse to loan money to countries that have anti-LGBT laws, he risks losing international support.
If Buhari decides to repeal the law, he will have more international support, but he will be swimming against the tide and the wishes of most Nigerian people. On the other hand, a Buhari government that supports and upholds the law will be committing a grave mistake by denying many Nigerians the right to live a safe and full existence. Further, because it’s unsafe for them in Nigeria, LGBT individuals account for one of the highest number of migrants from Nigeria to Europe and America, taking with them years of investment in term of education and expertise. Isn’t it in Nigeria’s best interest for them to be able to stay at home and contribute to the development of the country?
While at least for now, Buhari might be silent on this issue, the global community should not be. His inauguration gives them an open window for new engagement and re-negotiation with Nigeria on the issue of social liberty, justice and LGBT rights. The U.S., UK, Germany and the Nordic countries should see this as a chance to support, mentor and encourage Buhari to take the lead in championing true democracy, not just in Nigeria but across Africa. If he is given the right international support through soft power negotiation and not bullying, through encouragement and not probing, through mentoring and not dictating I hope it can happen.
Fortunately, President Barack Obama is sending a powerful delegation led by Secretary of State John Kerry to Buhari’s inauguration, signaling the important role Nigeria is playing in trade and security in West Africa and Africa as a whole. While I have openly criticized the U.S. LGBT Special Envoy Randy Berry, I acknowledge this is a golden opportunity for the U.S. to make good use of his office and support him in working with Nigerian LGBT and civil society.
Clearly Buhari has a lot of competing interests on his time, like fighting Boko Haram, creating jobs and crushing corruption. And his human rights record has not always been good. Like when he curtailed the freedom of the press and endorsed the flogging of civilians for simple infractions like crossing the road instead using footbridge. However, many of his other actions show him to often be a leader who has at the core of his politics humanity and human rights.
While I will not hold my breath that it will happen immediately, I do have hope that one day he will extend those human rights to all Nigerian citizens, especially if there is pressure from the international community like the U.S., from LGBT Nigerians who live abroad, and from activists within the country.
Alimi is a lecturer in pre- and post-colonial sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa at Berlin’s Freie Universtat and an alumni of the Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellowship.