Thought Leadership


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Those that follow Nigerian politics may be astounded at the speed with which the SAME SEX MARRIAGE PROHIBITION BILL is passing through our houses of parliament (especially considering that the National Health Bill is still in the making after 8 years). This is one bill that appears to have united Muslim and Christian leaders, with the Senate President recently quoted as saying “Ban on same-sex marriage irrevocable“. Can it really be that there is universal agreement on this in Nigeria and the lawmakers are protecting the interests of their constituents, weak and strong, as they were elected to do. To offer a perspective  we invited Dr Cheikh Eteka Traore, an international consultant on HIV and sexual diversity to provide some insights. 

by Dr Cheikh Eteka TRAORE

As 2012 was ending, many of us, working for most-at-risk communities in the AIDS community were reflecting on the year, and whether the last AIDS conference in Washington, DC had any impact. It was a very eventful year in so many respects. From human rights controversies to new breakthroughs in prevention science, and off course all the talk about “Turning the tide” and the “AIDS Free generation”. We witnessed last year many policy and political ‘wins’ for the groups we work for. Groups who despite their higher vulnerability to HIV, suffer neglect in country AIDS responses. Namely, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers. Leaders and advocates representing these groups were very visible and were the subject of policy debates during the Washington conference.

Among the many ‘wins’ at the global level, the 2012 annual UNAIDS report showed encouraging signs of decreasing new infections in all regions. We saw the first report by the World Bank on HIV epidemics among sex workers and the launch of the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. In Africa, we even saw the governments of Kenya, Ghana and South Africa publishing national strategies to accelerate the fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections among the three most-at-risk groups.

Off course, there were also major set backs and backlash– not least for the drug users and the sex workers – who faced tremendous barriers and blanket bans from US authorities to attend the AIDS conference. This happened despite the official removal of the US entry ban for people living with the virus in 2010. In fact many colleagues, especially those working on AIDS with sex workers chose to go to the parallel Kolkata Freedom festival in India.

A Ukrainian woman living with HIV who was refused entry addressed the conference through a video. Her words were very symbolic and a good reflection on the difficulty that the US and many countries have with certain realties. She said “if most affected and at-risk communities cannot attend the Washington conference, so who is the conference for?…”

Nigeria, the country with the third largest number of people living with HIV in the World also made headlines at the conference; both positive and negative. At the opening of the conference, Florence, a Nigerian mother talked about her life with HIV, with her pretty thirteen year old HIV-free daughter standing beside her. With the standing ovation they received, most agreed that it takes courage to speak openly to the World about living with the virus. Prior to this event, Florence has been in and out of Nigeria and spoke at several events about rising above stigma and the medical revolution that anti-retroviral therapy has created for African women.

The fascinating feature with the story of AIDS, is that is has always been one of dramatic evolutions often led by people with tremendous courage. The story of Florence, received a positive response and inspired many. However, the story of another courageous Nigerian – Mike – gave chilling predictions about things to come in 2013 for some Nigerians. During a number of panels, Mike spoke as an openly gay and HIV positive man. He is one of few young Nigerians working in providing HIV prevention, treatment and care services with MSM in Abuja. Despite its limited scope, and painful beginnings, his NGO is now threatened by a new bill in preparation: The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill.

Mike called this bill a “death sentence”.

Picture courtesy of the BBC

The proposed bill is draconian, and goes beyond the banning of gay marriages (which are already illegal), it defines new crimes of homosexuality, and proposes to criminalize services to lesbian and gay people, and their right to association. It seriously threatens fragile health and community based HIV initiatives for men who have sex with men, which have emerged in cities such as Lagos, Calabar, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kaduna. As fear grows among Nigeria’s already largely underground lesbian and gay communities, the future of these projects is in jeopardy, and plans for new services in other cities are now in question.

One of Mike’s interviews appeared in the Washington Post, and together with fellow activists from Uganda and Liberia they spoke about the widespread homophobic attitudes in their countries, and the lip service to their needs displayed by AIDS authorities in their countries. Their testimonies were in sharp contrast to the numerous gay activists and leaders who were visible at the conference. African-American leaders like Phil Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute spoke passionately in plenary about black gay men living with HIV re-claiming the leadership of the fight against AIDS in the US. Mike and the African activists – in sharp contrast – talked about the struggle for lesbian and gay people to be recognized as normal citizens of their countries.

Nigeria is obviously not alone in this endeavor. Last year, the Liberian government passed a law to further criminalize lesbian and gay people. And so did several jurisdictions in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. As 2012 was coming to an end, the Uganda Parliament announced that it was going to pass the infamous Bahati Bill, which includes the death penalty and life imprisonment in certain cases. The House Speaker had even promised to pass the Bill by December, as a “Christmas gift” to Ugandans (sic).

There is widespread support among politicians and the Nigerian media for the bill. Very few Nigerian opinion leaders speak against it, except
for Wole Soyinka (in an powerful article titled “The sexual minority and legislative zealotry”  published in December 2012).

In the face of such a draconian legislative move, one would expect a position from NACA, the National AIDS Control Agency. But since the first attempts to pass this Bill five years ago, those seeking guidance from NACA are still waiting. NACA is the overarching body responsible for delivering Nigeria’s policy commitments and facilitating the response to AIDS. Ironically, the NACA stand was placed right next to the stand of AMSHeR – a pan African coalition of community based NGOs led by African gay and bisexual men. It was clear that staff from both organizations had friendly chat on a daily basis.

NACA officials know the data about the vulnerability of most-at-risk populations. In 2012, they found that over a third of new HIV infections in Nigeria occurred among MSM, sex workers and their clients. And Nigerian MSM are more than fifteen times more likely to acquire HIV, compared to other men in the general population. NACA officials know the negative impact that criminalization and prejudice poses for individuals who face all forms of blackmail, family rejection and police brutality. NACA also knows how difficult it is to establish HIV initiatives for most-at-risk groups in the face public hostility. All the talk of “Zero discrimination” or an “AIDS free generation” will be meaningless if efforts are not made to stop the zeal of legislators wishing to criminalize types sexual behaviors between consenting adult men or women.

Having worked for nearly ten years in this area, I know how difficult it is to convince government officials to pay attention to health needs of most-at-risk groups. However, everyone who works in this field also knows that enforcing harsh punitive laws and policies only serves to keep people away from prevention and vital services.

The evidence about the harm to public health caused by criminal laws, which attempt to punish consensual sex between adults is now available. The report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law demonstrates that the epidemic of punitive laws against sex workers and homosexuals, contributes to waste the investments made in the fight against AIDS.

What NACA could do at this crucial time is publish the evidence, both from inside Nigeria and from abroad that HIV thrives when human rights of the vulnerable are eroded. They can enlighten health professionals, the media and legislators about human sexual behavior, and the importance of favorable enabling environments and basic human right protection, without which HIV the country cannot make a dent in this epidemic.

NACA’s vision and mission statement are clear, it is the sole agency authorized by law to foster an enabling environment for the effective implementation of HIV/AIDS programmes in Nigeria. If NACA is not able to inform debates about the impact of punitive legislation regarding sex and sexuality on Nigeria’s AIDS response. Who will?

As we start the new year, we hear that NACA has decided to push for the adoption of an anti-HIV discrimination bill, focusing on workplaces. This is a start that I am sure Florence and thousands of Nigerians living with HIV will welcome. As for Mike, things are not going well. Soon after the publication of his pictures in the Washington Post, his apartment in Abuja was vandalized and set ablaze. He had to go into hiding to protect his life. 

If you are neutral in situations of injustice. you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has a foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.  
Desmond Tutu.

Dr Cheikh Eteka TRAORE is an international consultant on HIV and sexual diversity.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

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