He locked us in a room and begged us to not scream while he explained to us, his three children, what had happened. When Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari was named as the military ruler of the country, it meant little to me. It was just another day in a chaotic Nigeria. Within a few months, however, his influence reached even me.
One way we made a living in my family was by hawking “pure water” along the busy main road just around the corner from our house. This supplemented my mother’s salary as a cleaner in a university and my father’s salary as a security guard at the National Stadium. After school and before doing my homework, I would hawk. The poverty we experienced was not uncommon and there were many other boys and girls like me who were working really hard to put food on the tables of their families.
A few months after Buhari came into power, he introduced a program called the “War Against Indiscipline” (WAI) meant to instill and promote discipline in Nigerians. The project prohibited many things the government considered to be “anti-social behavior,” including street hawking, jumping ahead in queue, bribery and homosexuality. At the surface, the project seemed harmless, apart from the fact that it prohibited homosexuality. It was well received by many Nigerians who saw massive corruption and a lack of governance in the country.
When I was 9-years-old, the WAI brigade arrested me for street hawking. Luckily, I was not flogged, but my parents had to pay a fine for my release. I also witnessed men being flogged on the street for driving carelessly, women harassed for “indecent” outfits and traders’ wares taken away from them, only to be shared among the WAI brigade. The Buhari anti-corruption brigade suddenly became a champion of corruption. The WAI period was one of the most dehumanizing and degrading periods Nigerians endured.
Now Buhari is back in office, albeit as a civilian government official, and with his reemergence is the re-introduction of WAI. When I was a young person, Buhari, made it hard for my family to put food on the table. As an openly gay man, the reintroduction of WAI has come to hunt me in a new way.
The reintroduction establishes seven key punishable offenses and homosexuality is at its core. In 35 years, many things have changed. Since the last time Buhari was in power, Nigeria has tried passing the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act more than five times in 12 years, but in 2014, under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria achieved that feast. Thus they became the first country in the modern world to constitutionally criminalize same-sex relationships with 14-years imprisonment.
However, while Jonathan is known for his docile, ineffective and dull sense of active governance, the power and danger of Buhari lies in his desperation to prove to everyone, but most importantly to himself, that he is not a weak leader.
In the last 35 years, the landscape of LGBT activism in Nigeria has changed. While I never met anyone who exhibited homosexual tendencies until I was 15-years-old, the visibility of LGBT people in Nigeria today has skyrocketed. In part this is thanks to efforts to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS and to globalization.
While it was hard under the first WAI to actually arrest anyone for the crime of homosexuality, today, it will be as easier since more people are out and vocal, either through their activism or by the way they present themselves.
The other component of the law that criminalizes indecent dressing will also affect mostly queer people, gender non-confirming people and trans people.
This is why Buhari’s re-launch of WAI should be costing us all our sleep.
It means that the law put in place by Jonathan will be effective, and access to HIV and the sexual health needs of LGBT people will come under siege. With over 24 percent incidents of HIV among gay men and men who have sex with men in Nigeria, and the rape and violence lesbians face, the law will be very dangerous for these vulnerable and harmless populations.
There is also the question around the abuse of fundamental human rights of Nigerians under this program.
In 2015, Buhari came to power on the pretense of being a reformer, however, re-introducing an ideology that is 32 years old and totalitarian, is nothing but backward and archaic. It is even more dangerous to introduce a law that criminalizes a population for their sexual orientation or gender expression when that is something people have no control over.
As the abuse of LGBT people on a massive scale is about to explode in Nigeria, we need the international community, including the United States, to stop their passive approach and act now to prevent it!