21 August 2007

Nigeria: Same-Sex Wedding or Birthday Party?

Lagos — Just fresh from prison custody, Sadiq, 21 years old, sat forlornly on a bench that Thursday afternoon at the Tudun Alkali Area Court in Bauchi, while his co-accused Musa, 22 years old, lay on another bench shivering from what appeared to be fever.

The Alkali (Judge) Alhaji Tanimu Abubakar was through with the business of the day, which included granting them bail, and had closed, leaving the Registrar to finalise the procedures.

Both Sadiq and Musa were among the 18 suspected homosexuals arraigned penultimate week before the court and charged with what the Police First Information Report (FIR) titled "Idle Persons and Vagabonds," described as "dressed in women's fashion practising sodomy as their profession thereby committing an offence contrary to section 372, subsection 2(E) of Bauchi State Shari'ah Penal Code Law, suggested 2001."

The arrests, as claimed by the Bauchi Shari'ah Commission, were facilitated by the Hisbah (the Vanguard for Shari'ah implementation), and made by the Police. According to Mallam Bala Ahmad, the commission's Information Officer, its agents tipped off the commission. The commission, he said, works with different people, including the state security services, undercover agents, youths, students, teachers and any other persons or body that can supply it with useful information to facilitate its work.

The tip-off came August 1st, three days before the suspected "wedding" ceremony was to take place. "Intelligence reports reaching us then, indicated that some male youths were converging on Bauchi Metropolis to contract same-sex marriages amongst themselves at Benco Hotel in the Rafin Zurfi area" said Ahmad. Since then, he said, 24-hour surveillance was put on the hotel, and plain clothes Hisbah operatives were planted as moles among the arriving "dignitaries".

"Reports reaching us from our undercover agents indicated that large number of youths arrived from different parts of the country, giving the impression they might belong to a big and strong national body", he said. The undercover agents had, according to him, also reported "intimate" discussions and activities amongst the youths, which were purportedly held behind closed doors, and these confirmed the commission's "worst fears" that the youths were there to contract marriages, a situation they initially hoped would prove the first intelligence reports wrong.

"We thought if we allowed the wedding take place, there would be sodomy, and since we were aware of this, we wanted to prevent it happening at all cost. This informed our decision to raid the place the night we did", Ahmad said.

On August 4, a joint team of uniformed Hisbah and the police raided the hotel at night just as weekend beer drinkers and commercial sex hawkers were settling down for the day's "job". According to Ahmad, on sighting the team, the hotel manager panicked, thinking the raid had to do with alcohol, until he was convinced otherwise. He then led the team to the rooms occupied by the youths who on knocking, refused to unlock the doors.

"We had to break down the doors," said Ahmad, "after breaking them down, we discovered some of them had already torn the ceiling in a bid to escape, while some hid under mattresses. The bed sheets and the toilets were soiled with blood and the whole scene looked so unwholesome. They were more that 40 in numbers, and it were after very hot scuffles that the 18 were finally apprehended. Some had brassieres; some had waist beads (Jigida), while some had female attires, bangles, earrings and cosmetics like lipsticks and face powder".

The following morning, the suspects were detained at the Bauchi township police station until they were arraigned before the Area Court. They pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the Alkali ordered they be kept in prison custody in the absence of anybody to bail them until August 21 when he would try the case.

Speaking exclusively to Thisday however, both Sadiq and Musa who were among those arrested vehemently denied being party to any gathering with intent to contract same-sex marriage. They claimed the gathering was that of friends to celebrate the birthday of a friend known as Al-Amin, the son of a secondary school principal in Darazo town of Bauchi state. He was not apprehended during the raid, as he was not at the venue when the arrests were made.

Sadiq who claims to be a trader at the Muda Lawal Market in Bauchi said "I sell Irish potatoes at the Muda Lawal Market and Al-Amin usually come to buy from me. One day, few days before the alleged 'wedding' ceremony, he came and bought N300 potatoes. As he was about leaving, he told me that he was having a birthday party at Benco Hotel this Saturday and invited me.

"On that day, I arrived the Hotel just before 4pm and decided to first say the Asr (4pm) prayer in a congregation. After the prayer, I joined other invited guests in a room where we sat chatting and laughing, awaiting the commencement of the party. No sooner had I settled, than we heard loud bangs on the door, which turned out to be from the Hisbah.

" We opened the door and they descended on us beating us. After arresting us, they took us to a police station, but later proceeded to the Shari'ah Commission's office where we spent the night and were taken to the township police station and detained in the morning," he narrated.

Sadiq denied claims by the Hisbah that there were some of them dressed in women attire and some practicing same-sex sexual intercourse. He said the only female attires he saw, which were discovered by the Hisbah, were said to belong to a lady named Hadiza, who kept them with some of the suspects because they were her friends. "How could I as a Muslim even contemplate marrying a fellow man?" he queried.

Musa, who hails from Gamawa, but resident in Darazo, said he knew Al-Amin for a very long time. So he did not see anything wrong to join him in celebrating "his birthday, graduation from secondary school and his younger sister's wedding". He vehemently denied knowledge of any ulterior motive for the celebration apart from its said intended purpose. He could not fathom why a birthday party by youths of his age bracket had no female invitees.

"Only Al-Amin can explain why he did not invite any girl. I have never been to a birthday party before, so I don't know how it is planned", he said. He could also not give a reason to his claim that those attending the party did not know each other prior to the gathering. Both Sadiq and Musa said they are willing to swear by the Holy Qur'an at the court when the case resumes August 21, to prove their innocence, whether or not the police are able to establish a case against them.

This case has already generated intense interest among some human rights organisations in the country. me are apprehensive that the suspects, if convicted would be stoned to death. Mr. Yakubu Haruna, a Bauchi based legal practitioner, however, told THISDAY that the charges brought against the suspects are clear, and if a case is made against them, the penalty is also clear.

Quoting from the Bauchi State Shari'ah Penal Code 2001, Haruna said "section 372 (2E) on which the charges were based, defines a 'vagabond', in relation with this case, as any male person who dresses or is attired in the fashion of a woman in a public place or who practices sodomy as a means of livelihood or as a profession.

"The penalty on conviction as vagabond", Haruna, who would not give an opinion on the matter, quotes further from the Shari'ah Penal Code, is: "whoever is convicted as being a vagabond shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to one year and shall also be liable to caning which may extend to thirty lashes".

Haruna went further to quote Section 377 of the code dealing with evidence of intent to commit an offence: "For the purposes of this chapter in proving the intent to commit an offence, it shall not be necessary to show that the person suspected was guilty of any particular act tending to show this purpose or intent or he may be convicted if from the circumstances of the case and from his known character as proved to the court before which he is brought to the court".

The issue of homosexuality in Nigeria, which had for long been a hidden topic, surfaced in the public domain in 2006 when a gay rights organisation planned a public protest. Before then, it was associated with the occult means of wealth acquisition, and homosexuals never dared come out in the open.

Reverend Father David Koboyamba, Administrator of the Cathedral of the Bauchi Catholic Diocese, however sees the "unfortunate" growth in homosexual tendencies in Nigeria, in the context of globalisation and freedom. He contends that freedom should not be synonymous with living in abject sin. On same sex marriages, Father David said the position of the Christians, particularly the Catholic Church is very clear. "When you look at Genesis chapter one verse 27, that God created (us) male and female, any breach of that original law and order for every Christian is a sin. The order of creating man and woman is for procreation", he said.

The issue of banning homosexuality and same-sex marriages is non-negotiable as far as the church is concerned, he said with finality. He urged parents to be constant in the moral upbringing of their children, and to be wary of some of the programmes they allow them watch on the TV, particularly those coming from the western world.

Ustaz Idris Abdulaziz, the Chief Imam of Dutsin Tanshi Friday Mosque in Bauchi, speaking to THISDAY on the Islamic perspective, said homosexuality and same-sex marriages in any form are Haram (an act strongly forbidden by God that will attract severe punishment) in Islam. The earthly punishment recommended by Islam to be given to anybody engaged in same-sex marriage is the same as that of having sexual intercourse with the same sex, though there is no consensus on the exact punishment, he said.

For Sadiq, Musa and 16 other suspects however, whatever happens in the court, the issue of homosexuality would continue to be a topic that evokes much passion particularly in a society like Nigeria.

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