The public reaction to the enactment of the Same Sex (Marriage) Prohibition Act in January this year and the ongoing campaign to liberate a group of abducted girls from the clutches of the Boko Haram insurgents are a study in contrasts, and fruitful for a tentative exploration of the contradictions of popular mobilization in contemporary Nigeria.
While the passing of the Same Sex Prohibition Act was greeted with almost universal approbation across the country, and while for the most part major civil society activists and public figures steered clear of the issue, the campaign to free the abducted Chibok girls has been widely embraced. In what can be best described as a sudden golden era for slacktivism, Hashtag 'Bring Back our Girls' has set Twitter on fire, major rallies have become a daily occurrence, and every notable public figure (minus the reactionary core of the Pentecostal elite) is desperate to be seen as an ally of the poor abductees.
Why have the same Nigerians who could not lift a finger in defense of homosexuals and lesbians suddenly found their collective voice in protest against the Boko Haram outrage? And while we are it, why have the same people who railed against western intervention in Nigerian/African affairs and pointedly asked 'those Americans' to mind their own business become desperate to have American military intelligence support, gay officers and all? Answers to these questions, I want to suggest, are useful in illuminating the crisis of understanding in our country, and contradictions within that category broadly identified as civil society.
On the face of it, the anti-gay legislation and the violent abduction of the Chibok girls are apples and oranges, bearing no comparison whatsoever. Part of my aim here is to show that they are actually fundamentally linked, and to argue that our contrasting responses to them speak volumes about the character of the Nigerian public, and the narrow (and often narrow-minded) elite that we have allowed to hijack the mantle of civil society.
Let's take the public reaction to the Same Sex Prohibition legislation first. For all that majority of Nigerians supported the legislation because they deem homosexuality morally abhorrent; three distinct attitudes were actually discernible. Although a clear majority was in support of the legislation, there was a small minority of Nigerian academics and journalists both, within and outside the country, who condemned it as discriminatory and urged a legal challenge to secure its annulment. I proudly identify with this minority.
But there was a third strand of reaction- the thumping silence of major civil society activists, academics, writers and lawyers. The Quiet Brigade is a broad church, so a catalogue of names would be futile. Even so, we cannot afford to forget that, confronted with arguably the most important civil rights crisis in the history of our country, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), to name a few, elected to keep their counsel. Their shameful silence has continued even as ordinary Nigerians continue to be molested for something as natural and inalienable as their sexuality.
Yet, this same group has now suddenly discovered its vocal cord, brandishing fanciful placards and intermittently puncturing the air with threats of naked marches.
Make no mistake: the abduction of the Chibok girls is an enormous tragedy, one that bears the sordid imprint of our collective failure as a nation. Mobilization to wrest the girls from their abductors is a good thing, and pressure should continue to be piled on the uniquely maladroit current occupant of Aso Rock until the girls are found. Unlike 20 billion dollars, this is one problem that cannot be made to disappear into thin air, and the President and his cabinet should not be allowed any rest until the girls are reunited with their families.
Yet, all told, this is too easy a fight. It is easy because it is predictable, and it is predictable because the moral lines are sharply drawn, too sharply drawn in fact. Pray, how can anyone in their right mind be opposed to a campaign to rescue innocent girls from their abductors?
That said, a society's moral struggles are not always so easily articulated, let alone resolved, and often times true courage is to be found in taking a stance against the prevailing current. The real tragedy of our nation is that the dominant instinct of our so-called civil society activists (as for religious leaders and politicians, the less said, the better) is to fight the popular cause, and even then, only in the abstract. It is good to demand that the government guarantee the social rights of its citizens, to insist on a right to housing, and to demand free and fair elections. Those things are important and, if I may add, clear cut.
The Same Sex (Marriage) Prohibition Act was not. It was (and remains) a divisive issue, one in which an initial feeling of disgust is regularly allowed to impede critical debate. But that is precisely what should have recommended it to civil society; a matter in which the public has leaned in one direction, but where public enlightenment would have advanced the debate. It is morally ambiguous. And that is the point.
When you are the father of two boys, happily married and secure in your heterosexual skin, you are constantly asked why you speak up for those 'those people' and why you couldn't just stay out of it since 'it's none of your problem.'
Here is my answer, in brief: If the study of society teaches us anything at all, it is that, in this life, everything is connected. Men who identify as feminists do so because they know that what touches one, touches all. This is something most Nigerians are yet to internalize. We want security, but balk at any serious discussion of justice. We want to free the Chibok girls, while keeping our gay compatriots firmly locked in their closets. You don't have to be a theorist of democracy to know that both issues are connected, and that any society that purports to sacrifice one for the other will ultimately have neither.
As we march for the girls, let us not forget the gays.
Professor Obadare, a sociologist, teaches at the University of Kansas in the United States.