When the law is an ass: challenging the state apparatus in Nigeria

The word 'discrimination' written on the palm of someone's hand © Frontline AIDS/Gemma Taylor 2017
Discrimination and punitive laws only make it harder for men who have sex with men to access HIV services

When Victor* was convicted for the “crime” of consensual sex with another man, after being unlawfully advised by a police officer to plead guilty, his human rights were abused on many levels.

In Nigeria, where Victor lives, the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act introduced in 2014 saw the prison sentence for same-sex sexual relations rise to fourteen years. Such punitive laws only make it harder for men who have sex with men to access HIV services. As a result nearly a quarter of men who have sex with men are living with HIV, and the country has the second largest HIV epidemic in the world,

Bamidele Jacobs, a legal director at Lawyers Alert, says: “That Act not only prohibits same-sex sex, it goes all the way to prohibit any attempt to intervene or render assistance to members of this community. I single out that law because it has had so many serious negative effects. Victor pleaded out of ignorance,” says Bamidele, thumping the table in anger. “He never knew what he was pleading to, he never understood the legal implications.”

The same officer who told Victor to plead guilty had also tried to elicit a bribe when he was first brought to the police station. Victor, 39 and an electrical appliance repair man from Abuja, says: “I feel that I was treated badly. The police officer was not fair to me.”

Rescued from prison

The behaviour of the law enforcement officer was, however, only the half of it. Prior to this, Victor and his friend had been badly beaten by neighbours who suspected that they were gay. They were then hauled in front of the local paramount ruler (community leader), interrogated, both given 20 lashes of the cane and told to confess to their “crime”.

Lowering his head, Victor says: “I felt so bad about it, I felt humiliated. I felt so disgraced, so embarrassed. At the end of the day I was thinking that the police here in Nigeria would help me out when they heard my story but they never did. They also joined in and beat me up, they even took me to court.”

Unable to pay the bail money, Victor was remanded in custody and taken to prison. “They don’t give us food, they don’t give medication, they don’t treat you like human beings, they treat you like animals,” he says. “There was nobody even to come and bring me a sachet of pure water.”

Rapid Response Fund emergency grant

With the help of a Rapid Response Fund emergency grant from Frontline AIDS, Lawyers Alert were able to step in before sentencing, meaning Victor received a one-year prison term instead of fourteen.

The grant also enabled Victor to rent a new place and furnish it simply, as well as receive medical attention and have counselling which proved to be a real turning point. “When I came out of prison, I thought maybe I should just go and kill myself, maybe it’s not worth living life again,” he says. “The meeting with the counsellor helped me a lot because afterwards I discovered that I’m supposed to live again. I discovered that I’m not supposed to kill myself.”

Roseline Oghenebrume, director of programmes at Lawyers Alert, says: “We can remember when Victor came out of prison, he was actually traumatised, you could see he was dazed and didn’t know what to do. Thanks to the Fund, we were able to get him the support of a psychosocial consultant. Within a few weeks, the Victor that walked into our office the day after he was brought out of prison and the Victor that we met a month after, there was a change because you could see that he had reintegrated back into society.”

A dangerous precedent

Lawyers Alert are currently in the process of appealing against Victor’s conviction as it sets a dangerous precedent for other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community to be mistreated in the same way. “We want to establish some authority that it’s wrong for the state apparatus to do this,” says Bamidele.

“It was wrong of the court to proceed knowing that these men hadn’t understood the legal process properly. So we are challenging because we know it’s going to have far-reaching implications for other cases that come up in the future.”

As a convicted criminal, life for Victor still isn’t easy. “I’m just managing to live because in Nigeria it’s very difficult to survive,” he says. “Especially for someone like me that came out of prison. I would have been a dead man by now. They helped to bring me out of prison, and have given me a reason to live. I am so glad about that because if they did not come at that particular time, maybe I might not be speaking with you now.”

*name changed

About our fund

Lawyers Alert received a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by Frontline AIDS and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so that they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for LGBT people and MSM.

Further Reading


Human rightsLGBTNigeriaRapid Response FundStigma and discrimination