The gay taboo in Nigeria: "I don't lose sight of the struggle"

It’s now nearly nine years since Bisi Alimi made the decision to come out as gay on national Nigerian television. He hasn't stopped fighting since.

Bisi Alimi had trouble getting people to come and talk to me: “When I sent a text about this interview people asked if you’d have a camera or would take their names. Still people wouldn’t turn up. Most of these people are miles from home but you can feel the impact on their lives, even in a liberal country like the UK.”

In the end, only one has shown up: a young man called John* (name changed). He came to England from Nigeria as a student in business management: “I started to think I might be gay when I was 11, in Nigeria. I never discussed it with my family. I discussed it with them when I was in London. They just don’t think that’s what I am. They think I have to be normal, get a girlfriend. It’s a disgrace to them. It’s difficult to change - I enjoyed being gay in England. I’m proud of myself. If I want to go back I have to pretend to be straight. That’s the difficulty with my life.”

It was a meeting with Alimi that helped him: “Bisi welcomed me any time I needed him - always advised me to call him. He’s just always been there for me. He’s also pushed me to speak up: I can be who I want to be.”

It’s now nearly nine years since Alimi made the decision to come out as gay on national Nigerian television: “I’ve talked about it over and over again - it was about wanting to save myself the pain of being outed by an organisation bent on writing falsehood about me - I could either take the power from them or let them write about me in destructive language. It was also about me wanting to break the silence on sexuality. The time was right to stop pretending this doesn’t exist. The backlash was horrendous. It almost cost me my life. I was lucky enough to escape in 2007 and I ran to the UK. I got asylum in 2008 and have been living here since then.”

The guilt of his flight, he says, never leaves him: “My friend David Kato was killed in Uganda, and another friend was killed in Cameroon. They were brave men who could have run. I look back and I say maybe I should have stayed. But he who fights and runs, lives to fight another day. I’m still fighting. I didn’t lose sight of the battle. I’m still involved in the struggle. The Nigerian media won’t talk about this issue without reaching out to me, so I must be doing something worthwhile.”.

Alimi senses a change is coming: “Ten years ago Nigeria didn’t understand sexual orientation and gender identity. Now people are challenging the language and challenging their pastors. There’ll be a time - like in the UK - where gay rights could be a winning ticket for a politician. You forget it was only 40 years ago homosexual acts were decriminalised in the UK - most African countries are only 50 years old. We’re expecting so much from them, despite the fact they’re beclouded by the struggle of colonialisation. Our identity was eroded by years of colonial manipulation - we expect countries to change because there’s social media, American sit coms and British dramas, but it won’t happen overnight.”

From England, Alimi is doing what he can to help recent immigrants: “With time we started to get people who were black British who didn’t recognise themselves as Africans so we changed our name to Black Gay Men’s Initiative. The whole idea was that this was something we wanted for ourselves - not some organised NGO attempting to rescue people. It’s run by everyone who attends the meeting. Even the refreshments involve contributions from members and that’s what matters to me.”

The main aim, he says, is to improve people’s confidence: “I remembered when we started in 2012: there were eight of us: and I remember we were going to take pictures. Half the men didn’t want that. The core of conversation that day was the struggles they were going through with sexuality and identity. The group has grown and the conversation is moving on. I feel like I can share what I feel and get more support from them. It comes back to the issue of confidence because there’s so many intersections. Now you have to keep them quiet.”

In the future, Alimi wants to move beyond the sole issue of homosexuality: “I look forward to a day where there’s a conversation of sexuality and race which takes on this gay group and also lesbian and trans people. I want politicians and policymakers to start developing an interest in issues that affect this population. Our challenge is to talk about sexuality from the black perspective. The question of why you’d want to become a woman or a man - these conversations are hugely influenced by religion. In that context it’s hard to have a rational conversation.”

And Alimi tells me that this influence can make the kind of charitable work he does more difficult: “Most organisations that provide social services for Africans in the UK are religious. A lot of them don’t want to get involved because of religious doctrine - groups are afraid of being involved with the larger picture because of the fear of stigma. We need to engage with people more.”

John seems much less shy when Bisi’s with us: “We’ve gained the confidence to speak - we feel like this is our family,” he says.

To learn more about Bisi Alimi’s initiative, visit http://www.bisialimi.com/

Gay pride activism in London, where Bisi Alimi is now resident. Image: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.