Another Long Walk Begins, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan
Akin Adesokan

With the promulgation of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition law this past January, the Nigerian government may have initiated a process that, so far as one can see, will take a long time to unfold. Hopefully not. From the point of view of the potential victims of this law, the more quickly it is consigned to the dustbin, the better for their sanity. It is a matter of life and death.

When I think about the law and the bizarre responses it has generated, I remember the early years of the establishment, by law, of the apartheid state in South Africa. An historic moment of that era passed last December with the death of sainted Nelson Mandela, icon of anti-apartheid struggle and first president of democratic South Africa.

Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is the story of a global community told through the self-conscious life of one person. In the nearly two months since the anti-gay law went into operation in Nigeria, I’ve also thought about the dynamics between the individual and the collective in the efforts to muster a strong opposition to the government’s victimization of citizens with a different sexual preference and/or orientation.

Mandela was close to a saint. Even people on the other side, especially members of the political establishments in Western Europe and North America who made their names from supporting the apartheid system, stood to be counted on the side of this saint.

Would the phase of the anti-apartheid struggle culminating in the 1994 elections have ended much more quickly or slowly if it hadn’t the kind of personality-driven character the imprisonment of Mandela and his comrades in 1963 imposed upon it? Mandela did not walk alone. The African National Congress, ANC, the main political instrument through which his comrades and he carried out the struggle was founded six clear years before he was born. It had other histories and personalities before the coalescence of the treason trial and global politics gave it a different identity.

There is a context for the comparison that I am making here. As soon as President Goodluck Jonathan signed the act into law, a group of Nigerians and citizens of other countries came together to issue a statement condemning the law, and strongly calling for an opposition to it. The statement was widely circulated, and it definitely touched a raw nerve among Nigerians, informed and ignorant, who wrote all sorts of things mainly to attack it. Fine.

This is a new day, a new issue in a sense, and I think it is the first time in the country’s history that people are having a free discussion on a matter not directly connected to party politics. Let there be supporters as well as opponents, and let us have an opportunity to thrash out this issue which is going to impact on everyone.

However, a different trend has just as quickly made itself felt. Since most of the opinions around the anti-gay law are expressed through online portals, it is as if opposition to the law is carried out by isolated individuals. Report after report claims that the law has been popular in Nigeria, and in the same breath declares that opposition to it has come from outside and been championed by individuals. These are partial truths, of course. The popular support for the law in Nigeria is based on ignorance, superstition and obscurantism, and a lot of educational work needs to be done to destroy these ingrained habits.

The opposition to the law is not coming solely or even largely from outside. Where values are concerned, a division between “inside” and “outside” is absurd. All the signatories to statement I referred to earlier acted on the simple notion that principle is indivisible. Most of them are not even gay as far as I can tell, although the importance of that fact lies elsewhere. Support for or opposition to the law is not a matter of individuals or inside-versus-outside. Nigeria happens to be the current focus for this issue convulsing the entire continent and the world. There is no definitive agreement about it in the country, and all Nigerians do not live in one place.

I am suggesting to the scattered communities gathering on the side of the potential victims of the anti-gay law in Nigeria to think and act strategically as they take decisions that, one hopes, will lead to the defeat of the law. It is a great act of courage for the Kenya writer Binyavanga Wainana and the Nigerian-born activists Bisi Alimi and Adejoke Tugbiyele to take individual positions. They know, or should know, that they belong to communities for which their sexual orientations have made them spokespersons. World-historical movements may need iconic figures like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Stanton and Mandela. They also need collectives.

  • Professor Adesokan of the English department of the University of Indiana in the United States, offers this as first of a series on the anti-gay law. 

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