For Yusuf Abbasi, being deprived of food was not the worst part of being locked up for almost three days. “They wouldn’t allow us to do our five daily prayers; our prayers,” he says incredulously.
The 25-year-old is one of 52 men arrested in July on suspicion of being gay in the northern Nigerian state of Kano.
“It was a birthday party and there were about 100 of us there. They came in and started attacking us, saying we were attending a gay party, but we were trying to tell them that it was just a birthday party,” says Abbasi, who chose not to use his real name.
The men were arrested by the Hisbah Corps, an Islamic security force established by the Kano state government in 2003 to enforce Sharia, Islamic religious law. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, one of the Corps’ commanders denied having any knowledge of the arrests.
Ali Bangura is a friend of one of the men who were arrested.
“I’m very concerned about him. He is not the same person. Back in his community, he is being treated really badly because of this; because people now believe he is gay.”
Abbasi adds: “When I didn’t come home for those three days, my friends and family knew I was one of those people who had been arrested. I’m facing a lot of stigma now. My parents don’t want to know about this thing. They are saying, ‘you have tarnished our name; our image’.”
Juliet Bar, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says the security agents are taking advantage of the discriminatory laws and environment and “now use every opportunity they get to arrest people perceived to be LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex]”.
“It is a terrible situation. People will continue to get arrested until something is done about the unfriendly legal environment,” says Bar.
Also in July, 40 men were arrested in Lagos “for performing homosexual acts” at an event.
Speaking to the BBC, Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian-born, United Kingdom-based queer rights activist, said the event was held “to raise awareness about HIV testing in the gay community in Lagos”.
A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch found that the country’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014 “in many ways, officially authorises abuses against LGBT people, effectively making a bad situation worse”.
“The passage of the Act was immediately followed by extensive media reports of high levels of violence, including mob attacks and extortion against LGBT people. Arbitrary arrests and extortion by police were also commonplace, said the report.
“Individuals who have been arrested and detained are released on ‘bail’, usually after offering bribes to the police. Faced with 14 years’ imprisonment, several interviewees said they had little choice but to pay”.
“It is concerning to me that people are being arrested even though they have not committed any criminal act. People are being arrested for what they have not done — but rather on the basis of perceived sexual orientation. It is indeed a sorry state,” says Bar.
She believes that security agencies need to be sensitised on human rights “and how to treat people”.
Tony Okjukwu, director of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission says that although the commission has been working with vigilante groups and community-based security groups, particularly in the northern parts of Nigeria, it has not worked with the Hisbah Corps.
“But we would be amenable to doing such work,” Okjukwu says.
The men were due to appear before the court on August 29, but the hearing was postponed.
“I’m terrified of going to that court,” Abbasi says. “We are all scared. The way they are treating us there in that court is terrible. They embarrass us; call us names. If we could just be comfortable going to court …” he says, trailing off.
Pausing slightly, he adds: “I just want to run away. I want to run away from Nassarawa. This is very, very painful.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian