If you don’t know who Bisi Alimi is, you should – currently he’s in Berlin, on a lecture tour revolving around politics, race, sexuality and secularism. The following is a translation from coverage in Der Tagesspiegel, where he speaks compellingly to the impact of African Anglicanism on recent escalation of state-sanctioned homophobia and civil violence in countries like his native Nigeria. (The original German leaves something to be desired; in places, it’s been lightly paraphrased.)
In 2004, Bisi Alimi came out as gay on Nigerian TV. Forced to leave the country, he claimed asylum in London; ever since, he’s advised governments on HIV-AIDS and equality policy. On Tuesday, he is speaking at the Free University of Berlin.
Bisi Alimi knew what he was doing when he took his place on the couch of Nigeria’s most popular talk show host, Funmi Iyanda. This was in 2004. And it was the first interview to be conducted on Nigerian TV with an openly gay person in the west African country – to date, the only one. For Alimi, coming out to the nation meant needing to leave the country. He was granted asylum in Great Britain, and has lived since then in London. There, he founded a consultancy.
A sought-after conversant for governments looking to review their HIV-AIDS policy, he has also advised them for several years on developing strategies to protect LGBT activists in Africa. That means lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people standing up for their rights, and fighting above all for their sexuality not to be penalised. On Tuesday, Alimi is speaking at the Free University of Berlin on his experiences as an openly gay man in Nigeria and the difficulties of developing a non-heterosexual identity as well as living (that is, surviving) with it.
Almost everywhere in Africa, homosexuality is among the great taboos. Almost everywhere, moreover, it’s forbidden by law. Only in South Africa are gay rights constitutionally protected, though still unrecognised in reality. The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it. As long as one kept one’s mouth shut, one could count on not being troubled. But this unspoken agreement came to an end with the clashes in the Anglican church: African Anglicans refused to accept that homosexuals might become priests or bishops in their church. The argument has now divided Anglicans for the best part of a decade.
Alimi paid a high price for refusing to deny his sexual identity. Yet he is at least alive. For David Cato, from Uganda, and for Fannyann Eddy from Sierra Leone, campaigning for gay and lesbian equality proved deadly. Both were murdered – Eddy in 2004, Cato in 2011.