April 27, 2018 at 6:00 am EDT | by Peter Okeugo
Part two: Living in the lion’s den
Gay News, Washington Blade, Nigeria

Gay and bisexual men in Nigeria have been targeted for kidnapping and extortion through online hookup apps. (Photo by Darwinek via Wikimedia)

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two part series about gay men in Nigeria who are held hostage, blackmailed and extorted after using hookup apps. The first part of the series was published on the Washington Blade’s website on April 21.

LAGOS, Nigeria — After spending hours in the belly of the beast, Kelvin and Tunde were released and able to go back to their families. What happens to the next set of innocent people who could fall victim today? Tomorrow? What happens if they never make it out of the lion’s den alive? Sadly, the authorities in Nigeria are not doing much, if anything, about this. The criminals are still at large in different parts of Nigeria.

Marked territories

It appears Lagos State is not the only state plagued by the menace of kidnap, blackmail and extortion of LGBT people in Nigeria. According to Levites Initiative for Freedom and Enlightenment Programs Director Uchenna Samuel, these crimes have been ongoing and worsened since the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014.

He said the gangs target both single and married members of the LGBT community. Samuel added they “operate independently” within Delta, Edo, Abia and Lagos States and noted the most notorious of them reside in the remote town of Ibusa in the Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State.

“Through fake social media accounts, they lure their unsuspecting victims with promises of discreet relationships, assumed love attractions, good sexual encounters, job opportunities and benevolent gifts, amongst others,” he said.

Samuel said these gangs use gang rape, physical assault and armed robbery as part of their menace.

“Their victims are threatened at gun point, beaten with wooden clubs, gang raped and robbed of all their material and financial possession,” he said. “These actions have caused an untold mental, psychological, emotional and physical harm to their victims.”

Samuel added the assumed reason behind these acts is based on the knowledge that same-sex relationships are criminalized in Nigeria and victims are cajoled not to speak about their ordeal with the threat their sexual orientation would be made known to both their families and the public.

He emphasized the need for security and safety for the LGBT community.

“The LGBT community in Nigeria needs to ensure adequate movement building and honest solidarity if these atrocities are to be curbed,” said Samuel. “The safety and security of the life and property of any gay person living in Nigeria is entirely an individual responsibility. There is a need to maintain discreet and productive relationships.”

Grindr won’t shut down its app in Nigeria

Bisi Alimi in his March 22 tweets requested the management of Grindr shut down its app in Nigeria. When Grindr replied to his tweets, noting the organization constantly sends alerts and in-app messages in multiple local languages to Nigerian users to ensure their safety, Alimi tweeted those efforts were not enough to ensure the safety of the community. He also added it was not the first time he had asked Grindr to suspend the app in Nigeria or make it safer.

The tweets read in part: “…@Grindr has not (sic) become the tool of aggressive #homophobia in Nigeria. I have raised this issue with them and they have failed to do anything about it… Also, @Grindr don’t you think it is your responsibility to switch your app off in Lagos today? At least that is the best you can do if the lives of people you are helping are in danger. Stop acting irresponsibly #LGBT”

“Across #Africa is it time to start a campaign to #deletegrindr?,” asked Alimi in another tweet. “@Grindr has failed to take into consideration the uniqueness of the danger #gay men face across Africa because of their apps, and we all should come together and act. Unless we do, #Grindr will put profit over safety.”

Grindr for Equality Executive Director Jack Harrison-Quintana told the Washington Blade that Grindr will not shut down its app in Nigeria.

“Grindr is aware of the situation in Nigeria and has been in touch with five Nigerian LGBTQ organizations to find ways of using its app to help stop homophobic violence,” he said, noting one group in particular has sought to build a more formal collaboration with Grindr for Equality.

“While we are constantly improving upon this process, it is important to remember that Grindr is an open platform. I can confidently say that shutting down Grindr in Nigeria is not the consensus opinion,” added Harrison-Quintana. “For now, Grindr for Equality will not recommend that the app’s services be suspended in the country. What we have always said about shutting down the app in any location where things are getting bad is that we believe it can do more harm than good. We didn’t shut things down in Egypt or Chechnya, so we don’t anticipate doing so in Nigeria.”

Harrison-Quintana said if the majority of LGBT organizations in a given country come together in consensus that the app’s services should be suspended for a time in their context, then Grindr would definitely consider it. He also encouraged users to report suspicious and threatening activities, but refused to disclose further information about the particular organizations with which it had established communication in Nigeria.

Grindr for Equality Director Jack Harrison-Quintana. (Photo courtesy of Grindr)

The need for action

Alimi’s tweets were also an admonition on the Nigerian LGBT community to delete the app to ensure their safety. The tweets read in part: “Please if you are a #gay guy in #Nigeria using @Grindr around Ijegun area, please can you switch off or delete the apps. Also, don’t go on a date with anyone in that area if you don’t know them before now. #LGBT.”

Samuel also emphasized the need to take action in order to reduce the kidnap of LGBT people. According to him, the prevalence of these crimes towards gay persons living in Nigeria — especially in Delta State where his organization is located — required strategic action to bring these crimes to the notice of the state government and the traditional leaders.

He said his organization in March “engaged in a strategic advocacy campaign” with the police in Delta State and Obi Sen. Nosike Ikpo of the village of Umuodafe in Ibusa.

“Umuodafe Village is the main hideout of the gang in Delta State,” noted Samuel. “Following this development, we equally reported another recent case of extortion to the Ibusa Police Division. Consequently, the police investigated the case.”

Samuel said the victim provided prosecutors with the phone numbers of those who contacted them and they were able to arrest and prosecute one of the gang members. He added efforts are being made to ensure other gang members are arrested.

The case is still ongoing at the Chief Magistrate Court in Ibusa.

“It is equally important at this point that all organizations working on LGBT issues in the country come together to condemn such crimes and hold the government accountable for failing in their duty to protect the lives and properties of its citizens,” said Samuel. “There should be an outcry to the international community concerning the dangers and violence LGBTI persons face in Nigeria.”

Does the law overlook these crimes?

Kidnapping, blackmail, extortion, vigilante justice and other forms of homophobic attacks on the LGBT community worsened after the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act passed in 2014.

The Criminal Code Act, Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 2004, Part 5, Chapters 29, 30 and 31; Part 6, Chapter 36 lists assault, abduction, kidnapping, extortion by threats as punishable crimes.

Although these crimes are outlawed, it seems the law has a preference in enforcing justice or punishment for crimes stipulated in the code when they are committed against LGBT people.

Debunking this assumption, Mike Enahoro Ebah, a lawyer and human rights defender, said the law is fair but members of the LGBT fail to report their cases as a result of the peculiarity of their circumstances.

“The law has no preference for any set of individuals in its applicability, but the problem is in who is invoking the law,” he said.

“For LGBT members who are extorted or blackmailed, the unfriendly nature of the society and the way the police are excited to punish them forces most of them to be quiet and succumb to blackmail and extortion,” added Ebah. “The law is fair but they do not complain so people extort, blackmail them and go free. The victims are usually quiet especially when what is being held against them is incriminating and sufficient to discredit their innocence.

Ebah said in “trying to solve the crime, the victims may get themselves into more trouble.”

“Because a previous supposed crime has come to the knowledge of the authority, they will not close their eyes to it, even if the victim has made a complaint,” he said.

According to him, it does not matter who the victim is in a society where rights are equal. If one makes a complaint, it should be investigated; the suspect should be apprehended prosecuted.

It is not a crime to be gay in Nigeria

The enactment of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014 led to arguments from both the proponents and opponents on whether one has committed a crime by virtue of their sexual orientation. As a result, the LGBT community and activists have constantly called for the law to be repealed. Ebah pointed out, however, the anti-gay law was unconstitutional and contravenes the provisions of the Nigerian constitution.

“Their (LGBT) sexual orientation is not a crime if they were not caught in any act as stipulated in the SSMPA, but the disadvantage of the SSMPA is that it does not just criminalize same-sex marriage, but puts other people who are not LGBT in danger too,” said Ebah.

“Aside the SSMPA, there were the pre-colonial Penal Code and Criminal Code applicable in some northern and southern states,” he added. “If the authorities do not find your alleged crime to be suitable for prosecution within the anti-gay law, they may find them in the Penal and Criminal Code where the allegations are written, to qualify why your conduct amounts to crime.”

But the constitution explains its to other laws in the country.

Chapter IV, Sections 33-45 makes provisions for the fundamental human rights of the citizens of Nigeria. According to Ebah, there are basic standards of human rights contained in local, regional and international laws to which Nigeria is a signatory. They prescribe equality and do not give any basis for discrimination.

“The SSMPA does not override the provision of the constitution; it contravenes the provision of the constitution and is unconstitutional,” he said. “But until the court makes that pronouncement, the law remains and the Police will continue to enforce it.”

Is the police the friend of the LGBT community?

“The police is your friend” is a popular phrase used by the Nigeria Police Force.

Alimi in a tweet urged the Nigeria Police Force to take necessary action to protect gay and bisexual men who have been targeted. The tweets read: “Hello @PoliceNG, I want to bring to your attention a group of men in Aboke Street in Ijegun who are running an operation of kidnapping and extortion on vulnerable citizens in #Lagos. Please, can you do something? They are using @Grindr. @Gidi_Traffic #LGBT”

“The victims can’t report to police because they are part of the system of oppression. They can’t talk to their families. These men carry this guilt and shame, adding to their fear and destroying their mental health. This bullshit has to stop. Someone needs to do something, FAST!”

Alimi’s tweets to the Nigeria Police Force have not been answered. Samuel hinted authorities were aware of these incidents.

The Blade contacted the Assistant Commissioner of Police and Head of the Police Public Complaint Rapid Response Unit (PPCRRU) Abayomi Shogunle, to find out what actions had been taken regarding the complaints. He said during a phone interview that he was not aware of any complaint on the official Twitter account of the unit which he heads.

“I am in charge of complaints and can only respond to complaints made to my unit. As we speak, no such complaint was made to @PPCRRU on Twitter,” said Shogunle. “I can only comment on a case that was reported. We cannot procrastinate or imagine an unreported case. We are bound to carry out investigations on any cases reported to us. For the means of making such reports, they can report to that particular handle on Twitter.”

He nevertheless said it was the duty of the police to investigate such cases, regardless of the situation or circumstances.

“The law comes first no matter who the complainant is,” said Shogunle. “The law also states that if your rights have been infringed upon, you have the right to make a complaint. No matter your status, beliefs or circumstances, your rights are guaranteed and the Police must not infringe on your rights. For example, if someone was caught stealing, and the law states that stealing is an offence, the person is still entitled to his rights under the law. If in the police of arrest, the police infringes on the person’s rights, the person still has the right under the law to make a complaint.”

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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