In Nigeria, activists make headway
in wake of militarization and instability

By John Kabia

John Kabia is the Fund’s Program Officer for West Africa, overseeing the Fund’s grantmaking in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

Since this article was written, the Nigerian government has scaled up its attacks on the LGBTI community. Police recently raided a HIV testing and awareness event – arresting 42 individuals for “performing homosexual acts” who now face up to 14 years in jail. These horrific attacks demonstrate both the courage of our grantees working on LGBTI rights in the region as well as their dire need for support.

August 9, 2017

From the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast to the Niger Delta Avengers in the South, life in Nigeria can be insecure and politically unstable. I witnessed this firsthand in February 2017, when I visited our grantees and advisors in the field.

On the trip I was able to see the diverse faces of Nigeria: from the controlled chaos of Lagos (locals say you must be mad to live in Lagos, but cannot imagine living anywhere else), and the tranquil streets of Abuja, to the militarized roads of the Niger Delta. While at times dangerous, I gained some valuable insight into the current political and socio-economic challenges plaguing Nigeria.

Mounting Conflict in Nigeria

The high hopes that greeted the election of President Buhari in 2015 have given way to disillusionment and widespread fear for the stability of the country. And in addition to concerns about the president’s ill-health and leadership, our grantees and advisors agree that Nigeria faces its biggest challenge since the end of the civil war in 1970: the ongoing violence in the northeast, southeast, and the Niger Delta.

As if this wasn’t enough, a deepening economic crisis has undermined the government’s ability to provide for the socio-economic rights of its citizens, giving rise to widespread kidnappings and extortion. However, it’s not all bad news. The government is making modest gains in its efforts to combat widespread corruption—although some activists accuse it of engaging in a political witch-hunt. And recent efforts to push back Boko Haram militants from their strongholds in the north have also had success.

During my visit to communities outside of Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, I witnessed firsthand the highly volatile and militarized environment in which our grantees work. While traveling with grantees, a local militant stopped our vehicle to demand money, equipped with an automatic firearm. This was by far the scariest moment of the trip—but the encounter put into perspective the courage of local activists who stand up to and challenge repressive state and non-state actors in this region.

The Progress We’re Making

Despite modest investment in Nigeria, grantees are using Fund support to tackle some of the country’s current critical challenges, as well as taking advantage of emerging opportunities.

Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre

Ogoniland, located in the south of Nigeria, is one of the most oil-polluted regions in the world. To provide relief to the people living there, the government announced a massive clean-up plan of Ogoniland last year. Grantee Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre saw the project as a huge opportunity for women in the region. Shortly after the announcement of the plan, Kebetkache began mobilizing women to participate in the clean-up process, ensuring that their voices and needs are respected in the nearly $1 billion project.

In December, Kebetkache organized a strategy meeting to discuss the cleanup and came up with a declaration to demand greater involvement of women in the clean-up process. To maintain the pressure, on December 17, 2016, Kebetkache organized the first ever Niger Delta Women’s Day of Action for Environmental Justice. These actions have forced local authorities to commit to involving women in the implementation and oversight of the clean-up process including training of over 1,000 women to monitor the clean-up.

Kebetkache is also supporting women in developing and articulating clear positions on climate change and human rights. Spending a day with the women of Erema community in Rivers State and hearing about the negative impact of climate change and oil extraction on their livelihoods was a sobering experience, but was also the highlight of the trip as it demonstrates the power of a well-organized women’s movement in demanding change.

Spaces for Change

S4C’s director Victoria Ohaheri said “With ‎FGHR’s broader funding support, Spaces for Change has witnessed dramatic leaps in its advocacy reach, while strengthening its presence in policy circles at the state and federal levels. Thank you so much for making this possible.”

Queer Alliance Nigeria

In the Niger Delta, Fund support has allowed grantee Queer Alliance Nigeria (QAN) to acquire a more secure office space which is now exclusively used by the organization. The previous space was in the city center and less secure. Queer Alliance says the new space has resulted in an increase in the number of LGBTI persons accessing the center for sexual health and human rights support and advise, as it makes them feel safer and more comfortable. Since the passage of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA), LGBTI groups have documented a rise in violence, discrimination, and extortion against LGBTI persons especially in the Niger Delta, where a mixture of militancy and widespread homophobia combine to create a highly toxic environment for LGBTI persons. It was no coincidence therefore that on the day of my visit, QAN was organizing a safety and security forum. Meeting with and hearing the experiences of LGBTI persons in the Niger Delta was eye opening as well as affirming the critical need for Fund support to groups working in remote and volatile regions.

TIERs

In Lagos, grantee TIERs is working closely with LGBTI and other civil society groups to mount a legal challenge against the anti-gay law in courts on the grounds that it violates freedom of association and assembly guaranteed under Nigeria’s 1999 constitution. TIERs has undertaken a broad consultation, analyzed the implications and possible backlash of a legal challenge, and put in place measures to support members of the community who may come under increasing threat as a result.  In addition, TIERs is promoting community involvement in the litigation process through dialogue events, regular feedback, and inviting members to be plaintiffs. If successful, it would help to shape LGBTI rights in Nigeria and across West Africa.