Lagos — Bisi Alimi has been assaulted and persecuted and fled into exile, all because he is gay. Now, he's speaking out about his travails to persuade British legislators to engage Nigerian policy makers about a law that makes even befriending a homosexual a crime punishable by 10 years in jail.
Just discussing Nigeria's Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, passed in January 2014, could potentially land you in jail if it's seen as promoting homosexuality.
"There is no law in the modern world like this law, not even in the Arab world," the 40-year-old actor and university lecturer told The Associated Press, pointing to a clause making it a crime not to report a "perceived" homosexual. "How do we find out whether this perceived homosexual is indeed homosexual or just a victim of hatred?" he asked.
The good news, he said, is that a growing minority of young Nigerians — 23 percent — are willing to accept homosexuality in a family member, according to a survey commissioned by his new Bisi Alimi Foundation. It also shows declining support for the law, from 96 percent in 2010 to 87 percent today. The telephone survey of 1,000 adults in all parts of the country carried out in April and May has a 3 percent margin of error.
That still leaves a vast and hostile majority among Nigeria's 170 million deeply religious people.
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Alimi's foundation aims to stir up debate about the law's impact — on neighborliness, the economy and a brain drain that has scores of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Nigerians following his footsteps into exile.
On Thursday, Alimi addressed a panel at the British Parliament in London, which includes at least five legislators born in Nigeria or of Nigerian parentage, appealing for Nigeria's former colonizer to use its influence.
"It's not about them dictating to Nigeria but letting them (Nigerian policy makers) understand why it's important economically, politically and socially to not have such laws," he said.
He noted a successful campaign in Uganda, where a court this year threw out an anti-gay law as unconstitutional.
Nigeria has yet to prosecute anyone under its law, which has penalties of up to 14 years' imprisonment, but its passage has further endangered gays already subjected to violent public attacks that go unpunished, vandalization of property and arbitrary arrest and blackmail by corrupt police. There have been several prosecutions under a separate sodomy law, with an ongoing case involving a group of young men arrested for holding an all-male party where there were condoms in Lagos, the commercial hub.
Alimi was the first Nigerian to come out on national TV 11 years ago, amid rumors about his sexuality and a national newspaper's attempt to blackmail him. He was attacked, verbally and physically, his landlord threw him out of his home, his character in a TV soap was killed, he lost his job, and the TV presenter who interviewed him lost hers.
"It was the beginning of the end for me," he said. When he narrowly escaped being killed by young men who broke into his house, stripped him naked, whipped him and did things that still bring on nightmares to recall, he fled to Britain in 2007.
Now a lecturer at Humboldt University of Berlin in sexual and racial gender identity and behavior in Africa, he seeks out any kind of discussion to get Nigerians thinking about his cause.
So he was not bothered when Punch newspaper identified him as Nigeria's most hated person. "I have no anger against it," he said. "Even if your publicity is bad, the fact that people are talking is a good thing."