Udoka Okafor's Exclusive Interview With Adebisi Alimi, Gay Rights Activist in Nigeria
Udoka Okafor, McMaster University
Udoka Okafor: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your likes, and your dislikes?
Adebisi Alimi: My name is Adebisi Alimi. I am ubiquitously known as Bisi Alimi. I am a 38-year-old Nigerian living in England. I think that I am simple enough: I dislike people that are not true to themselves, and I like people that are bold enough to be real.
Okafor: How difficult, rewarding, and uplifting is it being a civil rights activist for gay rights in Nigeria?
Alimi: Being a gay rights advocate is not really an easy job. Your life is torn between the tensions that arise from the battle against bigots and sometimes an acceptance from your community. My coming out taught me a great lesson about life, and that is you do not always garner the support of people who are affected by an issue you are heavily involved in. I have lost many friends in the process, but that has only made me stronger.
The reward of what I do is to see issues we are afraid of talking about being mainstreamed. I can boldly say that today in Nigeria we talk about homosexuality so openly because Funmi [Iyanda] and I decided to pay the price and break the ice. It was a very dangerous thing to do, but 10 years later, that discussion I had on a Nigerian national television network has gotten generations across Nigeria talking about the issue. For me, it does not matter how the issue is being addressed; the important thing is that we broke that wall of silence and pushed the issue to the mainstream.
Okafor: You were expelled from university in 2004 due to your sexual orientation. Such stifling rejection can make a person feel belittled. How did that unbefitting expulsion make you feel?
Alimi: I think I need to set the record straight. I was not expelled from university; I really do not know where the press got that information. What I have always said was that I was almost denied my graduating certificate because it was argued that though I have good grades, I do not have good morals. My morality was questioned on the basis of my sexuality and not the content of my person.
Okafor: You are the first Nigerian to come out of the closet on television, and that act shows a lot of bravery, given the discriminatory ideologies that Nigerians have about homosexuality. What influenced that decision, and how did you feel in the moments leading up to and after that decision?
Alimi: I get asked this question a lot, and to be honest with you, I have been asking myself the same question for 10 years, and I still do not have an answer for it. It's just like asking Mandela why he fought against apartheid in South Africa, or Rosa Park why she did not give up her seat on the bus. I think there is more to these acts of bravery than someone wanting to be a hero. I sometimes just explain it away that there must be some kind of internal battle within people that pushes them to fight for progress and change the course of a generation.
Many people have accused me of wanting to acquire fame through my actions, but in a celebrity-crazed culture like ours, fame can be acquired simply by starring in a crappy reality show, and I would not have had to go to the lengths of coming out as gay. Keep in mind that Nigeria is deeply conservative, and a smooth course for my life was dependent on keeping up with the fakery that was my life before I came out of the closet.
Okafor: In 2007 an attempt was made on your life, and that prompted your decision to leave Nigeria and seek asylum in the United Kingdom. Do you think that the reason that the gay rights movement is slow in its progression in Nigeria is that there is no safe and positive space for discussion?
Alimi: Yes, indeed, the environment is not safe, not just in Nigeria but all over Africa. Killing LGBT people in Africa is becoming very widespread. I am not sure how many of us remember the killing of Sierra Leone's FannyAnn Eddy. Eddy was killed Sept. 19, 2004, and a few weeks later, I came out on national television in Nigeria. It truly is a crazy world out there.
Today we have lost count of how many LGBT people have been killed on the continent of Africa alone, and believe me: Nowhere is safe, not even South Africa, a country who explicitly guarantees the rights of homosexuals in their constitution.
I always think back to that night, and it makes me realize how lucky I was. Many of my friends and colleagues were not as lucky; look at David Kato from Uganda and, just recently, Eric Lembembe from Cameroon, the increasing number of lesbians and gays being killed, and the people going through endless trials in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Okafor: You know about the anti-gay bill passed by Nigerian lawmakers and awaiting presidential assent. What are your thoughts on the bill, and how, in your opinion, can this bill be reversed?
Alimi: I have been very open about this barbaric act of cowardice by the Nigerian lawmakers. Honestly, there are more important bills that ought to be considered and passed by the lawmakers, but they have decided to devote their time to creating a bill that need never see the light of day. The fact is "buggery" is already a crime in Nigeria, and there have been very few times in the history of the LGBT rights movement in Nigeria that people have demanded marriage, because that is not the priority at this point; their priority is their safety.
Honestly, I personally don't care about marriage at this point. I care about seeing a law that would allow for a proactive protection of all Nigerians, irrespective of their gender, tribe, religion, or sexual orientation.
It is sickening that this group of corrupt politicians can claim the right to legislate morality on grounds of demagoguery. I always say that Nigerian politicians are a reflection of a majority of Nigerians. OK, look at this: Oil money in Nigeria evaporates like oil, social and structural infrastructures are lacking, no good roads, no good hospitals, no good schools, and to an average Nigerian, the most important thing is not good governance and democratic accountability but the controlling of what two consenting adults are doing behind closed doors. I weep for that country and her people.
Okafor: How do you think that gay rights activists can propel the discussion of gay issues in Nigeria, and what, in your opinion, is the best way to get Nigerians to accept the gay community?
Alimi: The first step, I think, is for the activists to see the process as means to an end, and to be sincere to themselves about what that end ought to be. Many activists see the struggle as a process of self-enrichment and lasciviousness, and that truly makes me wonder.
Secondly, there is a need for partnership and collaboration, because the struggle is seriously divided in Nigeria, thanks to the so-called "global north do-gooder" funders who use their money to stir up divisions. I look forward to more funding tailored around partnership rather than bickering.
Thirdly, there is a need for leadership; the funding problem has created many voices, and that has created many ill-structured action plans. The Nigerian LGBT struggle needs a sense of leadership. I am not calling for someone to be at the head but for individual talents to be tapped into for the good of all.
Unless these key issues are addressed, I fear that the struggle in Nigeria would remain that: a struggle.
Okafor: What advice do you have for young and budding gay rights activists in Nigeria who, just like you, want to change the climate of hostility against homosexuals in Nigeria?
Alimi: My simple advice is this: Let us come together as a community and fight the battles that need to be fought today, so that the people coming after us will have a benchmark of their bravery, one that they ought to live and grow by.
Udoka Okafor is an aspiring writer and poet. She is currently a sophomore at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She is interested in politics, social issues, law, current affairs, literature, and poetry. She is just a teenager trying to find her voice and navigate the world.