After he came out live on Nigerian TV, Bisi Alimi was disowned by his family and arrested. He is now a British citizen, campaigning for change in his homeland
Being gay in London, says Bisi Alimi, is boring. “You get in the queue in front of G-A-Y or Heaven. You go in, party, and leave. Where’s the excitement?”
Being out in Lagos and going to underground parties, he says, is far more thrilling. It’s how Alimi, a LGBT rights and HIV activist, imagines the scene would have been in the UK in the 1960s and 70s. “We had this party that got broken into and many people got beaten up and soaked in blood. But the next week we were all back for the party, because life has got to go on.”
Given the potential dangers of being openly gay in Nigeria, is there a neighbourhood similar to London’s Soho – well-known for its LGBT nightlife – in his former home of Lagos? “I wish,” he laughs. “You would meet people through friends or at parties. When I left Nigeria, [the website] Gaydar was quite popular but it was very underground – people would go to an internet cafe and minimise the window if someone walked past.”
Alimi came out on a live TV show in 2004 in response to rumours about his sexuality. Following the broadcast, he was disowned by his family and some of his friends and arrested on unexplained charges. Alimi says that being shut out by those closest to him left him “overwhelmed” and “in shock”.
Alimi fled Nigeria in 2007, was given refugee status in the UK in 2008 and became a British citizen in 2014. He thinks the Home Office’s attitude towards LGBT asylum seekers is appalling. “If someone is seeking asylum or is a refugee, they are genuinely running away from something, they’re traumatised, and then you expect them to sit around a table and tell you the details of something that is so shocking for them? The government needs to be more humane and open about the asylum process.”
While some developing countries – such as Mozambique, Nepal and Nicaragua – have made progress and decriminalised same-sex sexual activities in the last decade, Nigeria seems to be going backwards. Sexual acts between people of the same sex are still illegal under federal law and in 2014 then president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law, criminalising all forms of same-sex unions and marriage.
Despite the frequent threats of violence faced by LGBT people in Nigeria, Alimi says the most painful thing is knowing that any relationship will have to end: “My longest relationship was for four years but we knew that it would only last until one of us found a woman to marry.” Pressured by society and families, many gay men and lesbian women marry someone of the opposite sex. “The expectation is to conform, not to live happily with who you are,” he says.
Some gay men and lesbian women in Nigeria marry each other – “everybody’s happy, everybody lives their separate lives” – or they continue their relationships after they’ve married someone of the opposite sex, “but there’s nothing meaningful about it,” says Alimi. “That’s why in many places in Africa, sexual relationships between same-sex people are considered a game. You either lose or you win, and that is really very painful.”
Alimi is not confident that Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, nor the recently adopted sustainable development goals will do much to further LGBT rights in Nigeria. He is adamant, though, that his country could tip the balance when it comes to recognising LGBT rights in Africa.
“There is enough evidence to show that if what happened in Uganda [the overturning of an anti-homosexuality law] had happened in Nigeria, many things would have changed on the continent,” he says. “Nigeria plays a huge role in terms of population, economy and politics. That’s why I still encourage the global community to look at the vital role Nigeria has to play in decriminalising sexual orientation and gender identity.”
This will not happen overnight. Last year, Alimi launched his “legacy project”, the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which conducts research to try and influence policy change for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Nigeria. (“We don’t include trans because Nigerians have not yet come to the full understanding of the trans identity,” explains Alimi.)
The foundation predicts that it will take 20 years for Nigerians to demand a non-discriminatory law to protect LGBT people. “I’m not saying that we will have the law by then, but we will be demanding for it,” says Alimi. “It’s going to take another five years to actually have that law, possibly another 10 or 15 years to have a law that would recognise lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, and then maybe another 20 years after that to have a same-sex marriage law. It’s not going to happen in the next 50 or 60 years, but we have to start now.”
Alimi and his foundation are not alone at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights in Africa. There are around 10 LGBT organisations in Nigeria (compared with one in 2002), and there has been a wave of social consciousness across the continent that started in Uganda with the death of activist David Kato, says Alimi, and continues to change the narrative thanks to “fearless and powerful” people like Frank Mugisha, Pepe Onziema and Kasha Nabagesera. What is lacking, though, is a cohesive agenda: “If we come together and take a leadership role, things will move faster,” says Alimi.
Last year Alimi wrote that homosexuality is not external to African culture. “The first law to criminalise same-sex relationships in English-speaking African countries were the British buggery laws, brought onto the continent during colonisation,” he says. “They have stayed in Nigeria until it signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014, which was justified by the Bible – a western text.”
Many have called for the British government to apologise for introducing the laws into its colonies. While Alimi says that an apology will not take away the pain he experienced, he believes it would show people who support anti-homosexuality laws that they have no roots in African culture. This could then allow activists to engage in open and honest conversations about the realities of being LGBT.
“I think we need to ask: how do we make religion more loving, more accepting and more accommodating?,” says Alimi. “I hope we can get to a position where religion is not the decider of the political agenda on the continent of Africa.”
Alimi has returned to Nigeria only once since he left in 2007 – in November 2015 for the Ake Arts and Books Festival. “I had so much fun at the festival, but I didn’t enjoy Nigeria and the situation I found myself in,” says Alimi. “I had people around me telling me where I can and can’t go … I wanted to know what it’s like to be Nigerian again, but I didn’t have that.”
So would Alimi ever move back to Nigeria for good? No, he says, never. “I feel very much at home in London and the UK. Nigeria will continue to be my place of birth, but I think we both had a very nasty break-up and I don’t think we’re going to remarry.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 9 February 2016.