April 22, 2018 at 6:00 am EDT | by Peter Okeugo
Part one: Living in the lion’s den

Gay and bisexual men in Nigeria have been targeted for kidnapping and extortion through online hookup apps. (Photo courtesy of Peter Okeugo)

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series about gay men in Nigeria who are held hostage, blackmailed and extorted after using hookup apps. The series will also explore their psychological struggles with trauma.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerian born, U.K.-based LGBT activist Bisi Alimi, on March 22 sent out an alert on Twitter about men who posed as members of the LGBT community to lure victims to unknown locations where they were held against their will, extorted and blackmailed. He wrote he had responded to six cases the previous day and the victims were lured through Grindr, a mobile dating application for gay men. The tweet read:

“Let’s get this right. In the last 24hrs, I have had to deal with six cases of gay men being set up on @Grindr in #Nigeria. The operation is the same. The men are tricked by men who pretend to be gay, lured them (sic) to a secluded area, beat (sic), rape (sic) and collect their money (sic).”

“These men threatened their victims not to tell the police or anyone about what has happened…”

The genesis

March 21 is a day that Kelvin (not real name) may not soon forget, or perhaps, in his entire life. The day started unusually boring for him, but he hoped to make it eventful. Ironically, it turned out to be a sad event.

“I was bored that morning,” Kelvin said. “I called one of my friends and told him that I was tired of staying at home. He encouraged me to sign up on Grindr, and possibly find someone I could talk with to get over the boredom.”

Kelvin heeded his friend’s advice and after about an hour and 30 minutes of being on the app, he was “lucky” to find someone (Charles) with whom he could talk. It was no such luck. They settled into the conversation; and when they got a bit comfortable with each other, they exchanged pictures and Instagram profile details. Because the pictures Charles had on Instagram were the same as the ones on Grindr, Kelvin felt at ease.

They set up a date and agreed to meet that morning.

“He invited me over to his house because he was bored as well,” said Kelvin. “But I declined the invitation with the excuse that I was preparing for my examinations and needed to read.”

However, he convinced Kelvin, who felt a change of environment was the motivation he needed to study and agreed to visit him.

Plot twist, different strategy

Apart from using Grindr, it seems blackmailers have devised a new method of luring their victims. For Tunde (not real name), an accountant, it was emotional blackmail. March 4 was his doomsday. After he returned from church, he received a call from an unknown number, requesting him to visit a friend who was “seriously ill.” Sympathetic and disturbed, he did not know that he was about to fall into trap.

“I did not know the identity of the caller, but because he mentioned Obinna, my friend’s name, I did not suspect any foul play,” he said with tears in his eyes. “My wife was present when I received the call.”

Tunde got up from the sofa, informed his wife of the courtesy visit and set out to see Obinna.

The set-up

Kelvin had never met anyone on the first day of communicating with them. But he waived all suspicions of being entrapped because Charles had erased all doubts. According to him, Charles lived at Ijegun area of Lagos State and they agreed that Kelvin would call him when he got to the bus stop.

The story changed when Kelvin arrived.

“I got to Ijegun at about 11:05 a.m.,” he said. “I called to notify him but he said he was busy at the shop and would send one of his assistants at the shop to come pick me up. He sent me his assistant’s number so I could communicate with him.”

An unsuspecting Kelvin waited for about 25 minutes while still communicating with Charles. He became impatient and decided to go home, but Charles pleaded with him. Just as he made up his mind to leave, the assistant arrived. They spoke on the phone and when he identified Kelvin by the color of his gray shirt, Kelvin hopped on the motorcycle and they drove off. The journey to Charles’ house was not as short as Kelvin had thought. After several diversions, the motorcycle eventually made one last turn onto a pathway that led to the last house on Aboke Street. He had arrived at his destination — a small gateless compound that could be accessed through an entrance between a block of whitewashed bachelor’s quarters and makeshift iron kiosks. Then, the assistant broke the news to him: “You have been set up,” he stated.

Tunde’s set-up was somewhat similar.

Agbara, the bus stop to which he was directed, was not far from his house. According to him, that was another reason he agreed to visit Obinna. When he got to the bus stop, he called the number to inform the person who answered that he had arrived. The caller arrived a few minutes later, informed him that Obinna was recuperating in his house and offered to lead him there. The house was a one bedroom apartment. He was shocked by his discovery.

“We got to the house, but I could not find Obinna,” said Tunde. “I inquired, but I was asked to relax. Almost immediately, four other men came into the room. At that moment, I felt a cold chill run down my spine. I was afraid and did not want to believe what I thought the situation had turned into. But my suspicion was confirmed. One of them accused me of coming to have sex with their brother. I did not even know who the brother they referred to was. I was shocked and instantly knew Obinna was not there. I had been tricked.”

The hell they faced

Charles’ assistant warned Kelvin not to make a sound and to cooperate with them if he wanted to go home alive. They were joined by four other men and to his surprise, Charles was not present. He was made to sit on the floor; when they saw he had his textbook with him, they seized his bank debit card and the smaller phone he had with him. Then they requested that he call someone at home to bring the tablet which he had used to sign up on Grindr.

“I told them I left the tab at home because the battery had died,” said Kelvin. “I suggested I could go home to get it but they refused and insisted that I called someone to bring it for me.”

When they sensed Kelvin was being uncooperative, one of the men shouted at him, then hit him twice as hard on the head. At that moment, his prescription glasses fell to the ground and the lenses were broken. He developed an instant headache. While he was there, another victim (a student) was brought in and was surprised to learn he had been set up. According to Kelvin, the new boy peed in his pants. They threatened to expose him to his family and kill him if he was unable to give them some money. When their efforts became unsuccessful, they beat him up, seized his phone and sent him home with only 500 naira. ($1.39).

The situation was even more extreme for Tunde.

Without any warning, the men began to beat him simultaneously. They stripped him totally naked and mocked him.

“They took nude pictures and videos of me, and threatened to post them on Facebook and YouTube, if I did not comply with their demands,” he said. “I wished the ground would open up and swallow me but that did not happen. I cried like baby.”

When they had beaten him to their satisfaction, they asked him how much he had in his bank account and requested his debit cards. Tunde, who had just started a new job in January, told them he had no money and that his debit cards were at home. When they failed to gain access to his account through his phone, they asked him to dress up and take them to his house. He obliged, but instead of taking them to his house, he took them to Obinna’s house.

Unfortunately, Obinna was not at home. Obinna’s landlord, who saw them arrive, became suspicious. At that moment, they figured that was not his house and they left, promising to carry out their threats.

Tunde hurried home.

Kelvin, who was a victim of extortion, lives in Lagos State. (Photo courtesy of Peter Okeugo)

The blackmail and extortion

The men instructed Kelvin to call someone who could send them 10,000 naira ($27.74). He called a friend who could not understand why he was stranded and needed such amount of money. Upon sensing Kelvin may have been set up, he began to argue with the blackmailers.

“The calls were placed on speaker mode, so they could hear my conversations,” said Kelvin. “They snatched the phone from me and told him I had been set up. They argued with him and eventually dropped the conversation. I was asked to call another friend (Paul) and request for the money. I complied and the money was sent into my account.”

Greedy and sensing they had hit a goldmine, the blackmailers called Kelvin’s mother to request the money. They told her Kelvin had boarded a “one chance” bus (the Lagos parlance for kidnappers who pretend to pick up other passengers with the intent of extortion or rituals) and threatened to kill him. Kelvin could barely hear his worried mother when he was put on the phone to speak with her. The negotiation was fruitless. Still pushing their luck, they sent another text message to Paul without Kelvin’s knowledge, requesting for extra money.

“Paul got the message and sent 5,000 naira ($13.87) into my account. They requested again and he sent an extra 10,000 naira, making a total of 30,000 naira ($83.22).”

The whole ordeal lasted nearly two hours and two of the men left to make withdrawals from the account. They released Kelvin and gave him 500 naira for his fare back home.

For Tunde, who hurried home in fear, his nightmare had just begun.

His captors called his wife and requested her to meet them at a certain location where she could pick the phone that Tunde “forgot.” But she was confused about the directions and did not go. When Tunde got home, he explained to her was that he was abducted and they had requested for cash.

The phone calls continued till the next day, and he left the office to go to an Internet café before close of work in order to change his Facebook password. Unknowingly, hell had already been let loose because they still had his phone, Tunde said his nude pictures were leaked on Facebook and WhatsApp.

According to him, his family, friends and colleagues at work and church members saw them. Tunde also said they sent videos in which he was naked to his brother-in-law who lives abroad.

“I do not want to escalate the case because they have screenshots of my conversations with my friends,” he said. “I have spoken with Obinna and he said he does not know them. I still do not know how they got my contact; at this point, I do not know who to believe or trust anymore.”

Luckily for him, his cousin in Abuja helped him gain access to his account on Facebook and deleted the pictures. But the damage had already been done.

No longer at ease

Leaking Tunde’s nude pictures was unsettling for him.

“A lot of things have been going on in my head,” he said. “I unconsciously introduced errors while reconciling accounts at work. That was when I knew I had lost concentration and decided to take the time off.”

Tunde took three weeks off from work but it did nothing for him. He has yet to get over the shock.

For Kelvin, who is currently writing his professional exams, the story is not any different. Apart from losing concentration on his studies, he seems to be having challenges with his health as well.

“I am still trying to get over the trauma,” said Kelvin. “I was devastated for about two weeks. In fact, I have absolutely forgotten everything I have read before the incident. When I’m reading, I have flashback because I had my textbook with me that day. My heart beats faster whenever I remember my ordeal. I barely eat.”

He said little situations trigger his fear and he keeps having constant headache. He also finds it difficult to talk about his ordeal but is considering confiding in a therapist who will help him forget about the ordeal.

The impact of kidnap on victim’s mental health

Stella Iwuagwu, executive director of the Center for the Right to Health in Nigeria, who has responded to numerous cases of LGBT kidnapping victims, said blackmail and the extortion of community members causes severe stress that can negatively impact their health and well-being. She added it can also affect those who are around them.

“Under such pressure their ability to concentrate and make wise decisions is compromised,” said Iwuagwu. “In some cases, the victims may become suicidal.”

Stella Iwuagwu, executive director of the Center for the Right to Health in Nigeria. (Photo courtesy of Peter Okeugo)

Peter Okeugo is a Nigerian journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is a 2018 Media Justice Fellow of the Bisi Alimi Foundation.

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