Growing up in Lagos, I don’t remember our contemporary leaders ever conceding that perhaps they just might have got something wrong. Often our leaders prefer to focus on what they feel are their positive contributions to Africa’s largest economy.
So when Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s most recent ex-president showed up in London in June 2016 to defend his governance record to the international community, I only expected a spirited defense of his stewardship of the country.
And of course more bluster from his surrogates. After all, his successor, Muhammadu Buhari accused Jonathan and his team of leaving behind an empty treasury.
As I watched Jonathan go on about how that was not possible at a roundtable organized by Bloomberg News, I started to reminisce about how I found my métier. Story telling.
It seemed like just yesterday I was crouched on floor of the old English colonial in Ikoyi, reading a stack of newspapers. I devoured them every time Dad returned from work carrying the bunch. The newsprint had a stale smell that I couldn’t get enough of.
In truth it was four decades ago that I was asking mum what those words in the Daily Times meant. I knew big words before my classmates knew the complete alphabet. So naturally I wanted to write stories. I wanted to be a journalist.
Like many Nigerians I abruptly found out telling stories could be fatal when I was sixteen. Dele Giwa, a writer for Newswatch, had a letter bomb sent to him at home. My folks talked about it for days and fear gripped the city. It was 1986.
Few years later, I left that increasingly politically charged climate and gallivanted abroad, holding on to my love of storytelling, particularly the African ones. As the years passed my frequent visits to Lagos provided occasions for me to write about us. But, as I was no longer a young man I would steel myself for the inevitable question.
“When are you getting married?”
I didn’t always know how to answer truthfully. Do I open up a can of worms with strangers and say ‘I’ll get married when marriage equality is the law of the federation?’ Or do I continue with my boilerplate response; ‘when I find the right one I’ll let you know.’
One of my Nigerian pals, Dike, is over 40 and gay. He now lives in London and it’s unlikely he will ever move home for good. But on his last visit to his hometown, Owerri, he told me how an aunt worried so much that he hasn’t brought home a bride. He thought he’d escaped the dreaded question until he went over to give her money before departing and she fell on her knees wailing.
“Please, please find a wife. Please I am begging you in the name of God, please.”
Dike replied: “Please Aunty, get up. I have heard you. I will see what I can do.”
Suddenly hopeful she says: “Oh, are you looking for one over there in England?
“Ah, ah Aunty, does it matter where she comes from?” Dike said.
“That’s true but it is better if she hails from these parts,” she replied.
“But aunty at my age, I don’t think I want to get married any more.”
“Eh?!” she screamed;
“Don’t say that oh. There is a 70-year-old man in the next kindred, who is looking for a young wife. You are a man. You can even marry at 70. I have been praying for you. I prayed for you this morning that a good woman will come your way, In Jesus Name.”
I feel Dike’s pain.
Recently a friend from secondary school called me up to ask I that donate to a fund to refurbish the school’s kitchen. He expected a substantial donation and said: ‘you are not married and you have no kids.”
His reasoning was I ought to have more to give since I’m only responsible for myself. I was flabbergasted since my friend knew of my long-term relationship and I had to gently remind him that my male partner of close to a decade is my family. And no, I may not be conventionally married, but I’m not single.
Sometime ago I decided to try and tell the story of folks who are either burdened by the weight of the dreaded question or work around it by jumping into unhappy matrimony. I began researching in Accra, Ghana. I found, men who were so in love with each other but then married women because it was what was expected. I found women who were routinely dating other women who were married to men.
Was this clandestine living the best they could hope for?
“This is Africa. Why are you asking questions you know the answers to,” one told me. I moved on to Lagos, where I wanted to get answers to the same questions.
But earlier that year, January 2014 to be precise, the president, (Goodluck Jonathan) had signed into law a bill criminalizing gays, adding even public displays of affection.
Clearly it was an Election Year gambit that while popular, yielded few votes for him. He lost by a landslide. But his actions opened the floodgate to beatings and harassment by police and unscrupulous citizens. Just the suspicion alone could land one in trouble. And who wants to risk a 14-year-jail term?
So even though I’d had high hopes for good reporting, my writing was stalled by the paranoia in Lagos and the sheer refusal of folks to speak on the record, or even off sometimes. Those who did were so afraid, it seemed that shadows freaked them. I could barely hear their whispers.
Still I found men and women in love or looking for love despite the cultural anchor on their necks. Jonathan’s action spurred open homophobia and shaming in spaces that ought to have been safe. Violence spiked and it was easier to be scornful and derisive of sexual minorities in polite company. All of this in a country that often condones pre-pubescent brides marrying elderly men.
No Nigerian space was truly safe.
In 2015 my sister had a milestone birthday party and all my brothers and a trove of cousins gathered to celebrate. My cousin Henry was there with his wife. I’d never met her but knew of her. I eagerly asked him introduce me.
“I’ve heard about you, she said. I smiled big and said ‘Good things I hope.’
But all that came my way was a small, tight, cold, smile that ended at her lips: ‘Not really.’
Then she laid into me.
“Where is your family?”
“Where is your wife?!”
“Where are your children?!”
It was aggressive. Menacing even.
In full view of my siblings and even my mother, she tried to shame me. I was dealing with an angry emboldened homophobe. (Thanks to Goodluck Jonathan, women of her ilk feel no compunction to go on the attack in public and I wish I could say it was an isolated incident but others have told me similar tales) So I smiled and said my partner was at home. ‘He couldn’t make it.’ And I left her company.
So I was truly caught off-guard when Jonathan, in the middle of his defending his government from corruption allegations and bilking the Nigerian treasury he told Bloomberg that the anti-gay bill he signed into law may have to be revisited.
“When it comes to equality, we must all have the same rights as Nigerian citizens,” Jonathan said at a forum at Bloomberg’s European headquarters. “In the light of deepening debates for all Nigerians and other citizens of the world to be treated equally and without discrimination, and with the clear knowledge that the issue of sexual orientation is still evolving, the nation may at the appropriate time revisit the law,” Jonathan said.
That only took thirty months. But from 2015 to 2016 he may have evolved but being out of office he’s not in a position to stop carnage.
Days after his pronouncement there was a grisly massacre of 49 gay people by a deranged gunman in Orlando Florida. Jonathan, who as president ignored his gay constituents, sent out a condolence message to the grieving families via twitter.
But even that message also prompted controversy from the Nigerian ‘twitteratti.’
Jonathan cannot undo the damage caused by that law, but stories from those affected matter, and could change the reflexively antagonistic environment in Nigeria. Every Nigerian story will be told. And I have to do my part to tell our collective story. And that includes those who some want to shame and shunt aside.
I can start by answering the marriage question honestly. When will I get married? Maybe when we have marriage equality in our federation. Or maybe just when Scott, my partner wants to.
Chike Frankie Edozien was raised in Lagos, Nigeria. An award winning reporter, his work has appeared in the New York Times, The Times (UK), Quartz, Vibe magazine, Time Magazine, Out Traveler, the Advocate, and on various broadcast news outlets. He co-founded the AFRican magazine in 2001 to tell African stories overlooked by international media. When he is not teaching journalism at New York University, he’s travelling across Africa.