He has one goal - to change the mindset of Nigerians concerning sexual and human rights.
In Nigeria, there are two groups of people who often get the short end of the stick - women and LGBTI people.
There are commonly held beliefs that prevent women from getting the same rights and respect as their male counterparts. As a result, they are often discriminated and treated less than human, the recent arrest and alleged sexual harassment of some women by Policemen in Abuja comes to mind.
On the other hand, we have theLGBTI, who face their fair share of discrimination with laws like the federal Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2014 which says anyone found guilty of homosexuality faces up to 14 years in prison. There is also the Shari’a law practised in 12 northern states which imposes a penalty of death by stoning.
These two make up the minority group that Olumide Femi Makanjuola, a Nigerian activist is desperately trying to help. His fight for women and LGBTI rights started in 2005. Since then, he has been honoured by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and has become a prominent champion for minority rights in Nigeria.
He is is the former Executive Director of the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) and currently serves as the Programs Director at the Initiative Sankofa D’Afrique de L’ouest (ISDAO), a new West African Philanthropic fund that is working to ensure a just and inclusive West Africa free from violence and discrimination.
In a chat with Business Insider SSA by Pulse, Makanjuola talks about his advocacy for women and LGBTI rights and current same sex laws in Africa.
Here is the full interview, edited and condensed for clarity.
BISSA: When did you start advocating for minority rights in Nigeria?
Olumide Makanjuola: “I started around about 2005. It started quite informally, it wasn’t something that was planned by myself and a group of friends. We were just seeing different people complain about different issues, different experiences. We saw how people who were feminists would constantly get beaten and or bullied or those who would say things like “this one na gay, why you come dey waka like gay na?” Things like that. Why? Why can’t we just let people be, why can’t we just free people?
“So, it started rather informally in 2005, and then in 2007, it started taking shape. And then in 2008, we realized there was an issue at hand to deal and that’s when we thought about creating an organisation. For me, the urge was to resist injustice, so it wasn’t injustice that was experienced by LGTBQ persons, but everyone. I would generally flip at anything that abuses children. But I took a particular interest in LGTBQ and minority rights because it was something that a lot of people did not want to discuss, something a lot of people didn’t see as part of human rights.”
BISSA: Why are you so passionate about fighting for this group of people?
Makanjuola: “We hate women and we hate LGBTQ people so Nigeria is anti-women and anti-LGBTQ people. Talk about LGBTQ, everyone has the same voice, talk about women, everyone has the same voice. Look at the women who were arrested and molested by the police in Abuja. Now the same men who were complaining about how SARS officers were doing social profiling of what they call yahoo boys with the tattoos and dreadlocks. These same people came and asked why the women were wearing short skirts and why there were outside at 12 am. The only time our voices are collectively agreed is when there is some kind of injustice towards women and LGBTQ persons. I think there was a lack of education, lack of understanding, and lack of awareness of how diverse we are as human beings, that really got me interested in this subject.”
BISSA: What do you think about the Nigerian law on same-sex unions?
Makanjuola: “People think that when somebody says he is gay, he automatically wants to get married, but it’s a lie. How can you want to get married in a country that doesn’t even recognise you to begin with? Why would you want to get married in a county that doesn’t believe that your sexuality is valid? It is actually beyond marriage, it’s more about the ability for people to be who they are and have that freedom to express themselves. So, it is less about the law and more about people first understanding that human beings are diverse.”
BISSA: How can we create awareness and change the narrative about this minority group in Africa?
Makanjuola: “One of the ways we can do this is by changing the narrative which can be done through TV shows. We have to project alternatives because we can’t all be one thing. So we can do this through plays, books, storytelling. We have to create diverse things that show how people can be and let them make an informed decision. We have to also create space for conversation, things like symposium and political dialogues because a lot of times people don’t really understand the issue all they know is the headline they saw. This is why the media also has a role to play. Journalists need to learn to report the facts without bias.”
BISSA: What do you think about gay laws in Africa and the fact that South Africa is the only country that has legalised same-sex unions?
Makanjuola: “It’s not just about legalising same-sex marriage for me. You can legalise it and people still do not have equal rights. For instance, South Africa has some of the best equality laws in the world but lesbians are still getting raped on a daily basis by men who think they can change their sexual orientation. This is why we should be talking about the many African countries that have declared homosexuality as a crime. That’s what I care about. We have to stop criminalising homosexuality. So, let’s start with the fact that being gay is not a crime before talking about legalising same-sex unions.
“While waiting for the government to change the laws, let’s do what we can to help the minority groups. Let’s create policies at work that promote inclusivity and acceptance. Policies that prevent discrimination against women and gay people. Let’s change the structures that hinder the growth of women in the workplace, let’s have more women in top management positions. Businesses have to learn to think beyond just making a profit and focus instead on creating a respectful environment for their employees.”