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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.