The Lives of Great Men

By Patricia Karvelas on The Drawing Room

Chiké Frankie Edozien is a journalist, author and activist. His award-wining memoir Lives of Great Men explores what it was like to grow up gay in Nigeria — where it’s now a crime to be homosexual.

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Memoir gives voice to gay Nigeria

From Nine To Noon, on 27 February 2020

Across much of Africa, homosexuality is taboo and gay people face prejudice, persecution and even execution.

More than half the countries on the continent outlaw it, while four enforce the death penalty. In Nigeria, a gay man who holds hands with his partner on the street can face up to ten years in prison.

Portrayals of what it means to be gay in West Africa or the diaspora are rare.

Nigerian-American writer and journalist Chiké Frankie Edozien has written what has been hailed as Nigeria’s first gay memoir Lives of Great Men: Living and Loving as an African Gay Man.

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JAIPUR BYTES

From Legal to Normal: A conversation with Chiké Frankie Edozien

Chiké Frankie Edozien, author of “Lives of Great Men: Living and Loving as an African Gay Man”, in conversation with Jaipur Bytes host Lakshya Datta. In this podcast-exclusive conversation, Frankie talks to Lakshya about his time at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, what it was like to be in India soon after Section 377 was abolished, what the ruling in India meant for the LGBTQ community in African countries where they’re still fighting for legality and equality, and why the journey from legal to normal is going to take time. Frankie is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, and starting in January 2020, he will be the new site director at NYU’s campus in Accra, Ghana. Frankie’s memoir, “Lives of Great Men: Living and Loving as an African Gay Man”, won the Lambda Literary 2018 Nonfiction Award for Best Gay Memoir/Biography. He will be speaking at JLF Colorado on Sept 21.

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Retracing Ghana’s Old Slave Trail The story of slavery does not begin with the Middle Passage.

 

Elmina Castle Elmina Castle was used, by several European powers, to hold slaves for hundreds of years. ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP / Getty Image

by Chiké Frankie Edozien November 27, 2019

From Tamale, Ghana’s third-largest city, it has taken almost four hours to get here, on a single-lane highway following the White Volta River. Usually it’s under three hours, past shea trees on the sparse, dry landscape, but this time political rallies and visiting dignitaries—including the country’s president—have meant detours and delays.

I’ve made this journey, as I have before, to visit Pikworo. As far as the eye can see, it’s all grass, clusters of stunted trees, rocks, and even more rocks—some brown, some gray like a London sky, pocked with holes and crevices.

The name translates to “rocky area” in Kaseena, the local language. The rocks and boulders are strewn across a sweeping green meadow, the sight of which, after so much brown, is startling. Though it is the rainy season, the morning drizzle is gone and the clouds have given way to sunshine. Nearby, in Nania, a tiny village two miles from Paga, a town on Ghana’s northern border with Burkina Faso, people go about their business—selling, cooking, building a life on the roadside, but this stunningly beautiful square mile of rocks and grass is eerily quiet, save for the chirping of birds.

A small group of visitors and I, led by a guide I’ve encountered on previous trips here, Aaron Azumah, 35, stroll around some of the boulders. Azumah leads us to a couple that have large oval holes in them, like giant thumbprints pressed into the rock. One rather large, rectangular one is filled with water from an underground spring. There’s a sign: “Eating and Drinking Place for Slaves.” Some of the holes, we’re told, were dug by captives, who were forced to dig into the rock with their fingers to create “plates” where a local dish called tuo zafi, made from maize or millet, maybe with cassava, was served. They were eating from the rocks on which they were forced to stand.

Local stories say that these depressions were carved into rock by slaves at Pikworo for serving food. Michele Burgess / Alamy

All 2019, Ghana has been rolling out the red carpet to celebrities, political figures, and thousands of other members of the African diaspora for what it has termed the “Year of Return,” a 12-month commemoration of 400 years since ships first began to leave its shores, bound for the Americas, heavy with human cargo.

Most of those who have come have spent much of their time touring cities and visiting the castles built on the Atlantic Ocean. These were the last places that their ancestors saw of their homeland. Fewer visitors, however, continue on a reverse journey into the Ghanaian interior, to places such as Pikworo, where the insidious trade took root, where thousands died in the earliest stages of a journey that would, at every stage, claim thousands more lives: the trek to the coast, the slave markets, the Middle Passage, and then more markets, before they arrived at the plantations where those who survived were likely to spend the rest of their lives.

Making this journey in 2019 fills me with sadness. I am confronted with the harsh reality that for many, the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade commenced far away from the ocean, in tranquil villages like this one. Someone who had been captured into forced servitude in the interior might be granted freedom here, or marry someone free or even a royal, so that his descendants might end up free as well, or even in a position of power. But it was a different story for those who made it to the ocean: a generational sentence.

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In Nigeria, Plans for the World’s Largest Refinery

Construction workers at the Dangote Oil Refinery, which is being built on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria. The $12 billion project is planned as the world’s largest refinery.CreditCreditAkintunde Akinleye/Reuters

NEW YORK TIMES

BY FRANKIE EDOZIEN

On any given weekday, commuters in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, are snarled in traffic for hours.

Container trucks and tankers take up several lanes of traffic on the major thoroughfares close to the city’s ports. Often these trucks have been parked on the highways overnight.

Cars and minivans snake along the remaining single lane, sharing it with pedestrians fighting off early-morning road rage as they slowly make their way from one end of the city to another. There is a palpable fear of accidents, or a spill. Much of Lagos is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

It is here in this vibrant metropolis of 21 million people that Africa’s richest person, Aliko Dangote, is undertaking his most audacious gamble yet. Mr. Dangote is building a $12 billion oil refinery on 6,180 acres of swampland that, if successful,— could transform Nigeria’s corrupt and underperforming petroleum industry. It is an entrenched system that some say has contributed to millions languishing in poverty and bled the “giant of Africa’’ for decades.

Planned as the world’s largest refinery, Mr. Dangote’s project is set in a free-trade zone between the Atlantic Ocean and the Lekki Lagoon, an hour outside the city center. The site employs thousands, and upon completion — Mr. Dangote says in 2020; some analysts suggest more likely in 2022 — should process 650,000 barrels of crude oil daily.

That’s enough oil to supply gasoline and kerosene to all 190 million Nigerians and still have plenty to export. By the end of this year, the facility is expected to churn out three million tons of fertilizer. The production of diesel, aviation fuel and plastics will then follow.

“The construction site is already a huge beehive of activities, with workers, local and foreign, hard at work. It is going to be the largest manufacturing plant of any sort in Lagos,” said Kayode Ogunbunmi, the publisher of City Voice, a Lagos daily newspaper and lifelong Lagos resident.

Indeed, some 7,000 employees are working around the clock on the site, many arriving by private ferry from the city center. Another 900 Nigerian engineers and technicians are being trained abroad for jobs at the refinery. Mr. Dangote, whose net worth is estimated at $11.2 billion, has had to build a port, jetty and roads to accommodate this project, along with new energy plants to power it all.

Nigeria’s government, despite being a longtime crude oil exporter, has four underperforming and frequently broken down refineries with a combined capacity of 445,000 barrels daily. Those refineries — two in the oil hub of Port Harcourt, one in Warri in the Niger Delta, and the other in the northern city of Kaduna — are all operating at less than 50 percent of capacity.

Which means that even though Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, petroleum for everyday use must be imported. This has spawned fuel importers and diesel traders who have grown extremely wealthy. Nigeria’s government subsidizes fuel imports to keep pump prices low, and this has contributed to Nigeria’s well-documented culture of petroleum industry corruption.

“The failure to produce refined products over the last 25 years has created a huge architecture of graft and corruption around everything,” said Antony Goldman, the co-founder of the London-based Nigeria specialists ProMedia Consulting.

Mr. Goldman does political risk analysis in West Africa and has been working in and out of Nigeria for two decades. Corruption, he explained, stems from illegal refineries and the local criminal network that helps transport illegal crude out of the country. Both elements, he said, have not been sufficiently challenged by the government or law enforcement agencies, which has further contributed to Nigeria’s entrenched oil industry corruption.

“A refinery that actually works and can meet Nigeria’s refined product requirement? It’s a game changer,” Mr. Goldman added. But change, no matter how positive, is potentially destabilizing. “These are not people who relinquish things without a fight,” Mr. Goldman said of Nigeria’s fuel import merchants.

Aliko Dangote (center) listens to a speech in Lagos.CreditStefan Heunis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

 

When Mr. Dangote initially unveiled his refinery plans in 2016, he said its aim was to challenge the status quo, which had seen the government spend about $5.8 billion to import petroleum products over the past year.

“This refinery is attacking the entire system,” he said. “You export jobs and create poverty here, so that’s what we are stopping,” he told reporters at the time.

Despite creating thousands of jobs, Mr. Dangote’s refinery hasn’t been universally applauded in Nigeria. The biggest issue is its Lagos location: The refinery is being built hundreds of miles from the impoverished Niger Delta, where the bulk of Nigeria’s oil is extracted.

Two undersea pipelines are under construction in the Delta and will carry petroleum about 340 miles to the refinery in Lagos.

The pipelines will be costly; but also far harder to sabotage than conventional aboveground systems. And security is key in the Delta region, where local rebel groups like the Delta Avengers have kidnapped foreign oil workers and blown up pipelines to protest regional pollution and poverty.

Amid Nigeria’s complex regional tensions, Mr. Dangote — a northerner by birth and Lagosian by decades of residence — is the one person, industry experts say, who could achieve a measure of détente in the region.

Yet critics — and Mr. Dangote has many — worry that his new refinery will allow him to essentially take over the Nigeria’s oil and gas industry. Why would a nation leave an entire industry in the hands of one company? they ask.

The “monopoly” question has swirled around Mr. Dangote for decades. Twice divorced and currently (and vocally) looking for a third wife, Mr. Dangote made his initial fortune operating near-monopolies in cement, flour and commodities across Nigeria, where regulatory oversight is relatively lax. Mr. Dangote’s companies, including pasta producers and property management, are found across Africa.

A decade ago, Mr. Dangote and other private investors tried and failed to buy the government-owned refineries. He was unavailable for comment, but previously told Reuters he does not apologize for his expansionist desires. “If you don’t have ambition,” he said, “you shouldn’t be alive.”

And for some in a tough business environment like Nigeria, a well-run monopoly is better than the current situation, where getting fuel remains an uncertainty. Indeed, despite oligarchy concerns, Mr. Goldman says he believes that Mr. Dangote’s past success actually bodes well for the refinery and Nigeria. “He has a record of success and delivery, and he doesn’t make mistakes on things like this,” Mr. Goldman said.

And Nigerians are tired of power cuts and overpriced gasoline.

“Most Nigerians see Aliko as a doer,” Mr. Ogunbunmi, the publisher, said. “Many quietly hope the refinery will help reduce uncertainties. Gasoline will be available, and possibly power.”

Beyond solidifying his own legacy, Mr. Dangote hopes his refinery will help diversify Nigeria’s economy while reducing its dependence on imported oil.

“We have other opportunities,” he said at the plant’s unveiling. “Agriculture is there. Petrochemicals are there, Nigeria has more arable land than China. If we finish our gas pipeline, it can generate 12,000 megahertz of power. That’s huge. That’s more than what we are looking for in Nigeria and we can supply the rest of West Africa.”

As his refinery nears completion, Mr. Dangote says he will soon focus on his next dream, owning Britain’s Arsenal football team. “Once I have finished with that headache, I will take on football,” he said. “I love Arsenal, and I will definitely go for it.”

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Hidded in Plain Sight: Africa’s quiet LGBT revolution.

 

By FRANKIE EDOZIEN

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be seen.

And other times it’s just a start. Get yourself seen. Then heard. Then assert yourself as part and parcel of the community that’s been blind to you forever. Surely, the tone-deaf comments and embarrassing situations will begin to be chipped away as you are seen and heard?

Maybe even the kidnappings and beatings? Once people realize you are everywhere all around them?

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be seen.

And other times it’s just a start. Get yourself seen. Then heard. Then assert yourself as part and parcel of the community that’s been blind to you forever. Surely, the tone-deaf comments and embarrassing situations will begin to be chipped away as you are seen and heard?

Maybe even the kidnappings and beatings? Once people realize you are everywhere all around them?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I got a bird’s eye view in how visibility goes a long way in changing perception. I saw, not just crowds grow from one June to another at New York’s annual Gay Pride festivities, but how it seemed the entire region got in on it.

Today, mayors, senators, wanna-be politicos, their families, police officers, everyone, it seems unfurls a rainbow flag and dances down Fifth Avenue on Gay Pride day.

Decades before, brave queer folks—as they were dubbed then—had to angrily fight back to stop the violence directed at them, often chanting “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it.” That anger helped open the door to today.

Pride celebrations commemorating the full spectrum of the human family—LGBTs and the friends and families who support them—are now de-riguer in global cities. And marriage equality is now legal in much of the Western world and Latin America.

Yet in many parts sub-Saharan Africa, we’ve got a ways to go. But we are making slow progress.

It’s been longer than a decade since I’ve attended the Big Apple’s Pride events, as I’m often in Ghana for the American summer.

But from my flat in Accra, I beam when I see my fellow Nigerians proudly marching in New York, a bold act of defiance that could lead to long term imprisonment and entrapment back home and, indeed, in much of Africa.

Despite having the cradle of humanity on the African continent, we remain behind most of the world in embracing our LGBT families. Homophobia forces many LGBTs in Africa to flee and build up other societies where they are left alone and finally appreciated.

Many of our leaders gin up antigay sentiments for political gain, after all when electricity, pipe-borne water, and sound healthcare are tough to provide—one can simply demonize gays to distract.

It is routine. And sometimes borders on the absurd. As Kingsford Sumana Bagbin, the deputy speaker of the Ghanaian parliament did when he recently claimed homosexuality is worse than an atomic bomb.

Even though gays have been the fabric of society in Ghana for eons, political leaders and their religious counterparts would like you to think they were an anomaly or just pure evil.

Nonetheless, in the face of such onslaught, in many parts of Africa, the mentality of “retreat and be quiet” to save LGBT lives is finally becoming a thing of the past.

In South Africa, they may have laws protecting all—and legalizing same-sex marriage—citizens but still some want to silence anything perceived as gay. Earlier this year when the acclaimed South African film Inxeba (The Wound) was released, local censors fought to keep it out of movie theaters. The film tackles Xhosa manhood rites and is a tender love story that depicts wonderfully complex African men on screen.

It was controversial because it displays homosexual love in a heterosexual, hyper-masculine rural mountainside setting. I beamed with pride when this film—shortlisted for an Academy Award, and the first South African film to stream on Netflix—was allowed back in regular theaters, after the courts sided with the filmmakers’ legal challenge.

In Nigeria, I’m also often beaming with pride knowing that even with the relentless attacks and assaults on writers, poets and others who dare speak and write their truth, the works keep coming to critical acclaim.

These brutal attacks have spawned new voices, homegrown operators demanding representation in culture and politics with zero tolerance for homophobia. They’re fighting back daily and staying visible; some have even formalized their struggle through the very public #HowIResist campaign, which chronicles their struggles for survival on social media.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.

In Kenya, gays are resisting government humiliation and marginalization by challenging their continued victimization in court even though the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, continues to claim to the world that their rights are a nonissue.

“I will not engage in a subject of ‘no’ … it is not of any major importance to the people and the Republic of Kenya. This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights, “ he told CNN’s Christianne Amanpour in April.

But his LGBT constituents are staying visible and not cowering. And, they are winning court challenges against humiliating injustices—most horrifically, Kenya’s anachronistic “anal exams.” Most of these activists are homegrown, but some like Nguru Karugu are folks who lived abroad and returned to do the work they were doing in America for the homeland.

He’s now a director with Public Health Innovations, and engaged with marginalized communities. “The Kenyan LGBT movement has continued to exert itself … groups have gone to court to challenge these laws on their own determination to secure their rights.”

So their first step? End those brutal anal exams. Next step, end criminalization of their relationships, which are currently punishable by 14-year jail term.

I’m beaming.

And when the Kenyan Film Board, bans Rafiki (Friend) a Kenyan love story between two women from playing in movie theaters because they say it has a “clear intent to promote lesbianism” it is sad. But then the film goes on to become the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m beaming with pride, knowing that Kenyans and Africans all over will ultimately see this film, regardless of censorship.

In Uganda, home of the botched “Kill the Gays” bill, pride commemorations—albeit small ones—are already happening; though each year like clockwork, the government clamps down on LGBT cultural events (or really any cultural event they deem has a gay component). But year in year out, the events keep happening and more and people take their first public baby steps.

In Tanzania, the brutal onslaught by the government continues as they bully prominent activist—even as it impacts their own society’s health needs, particularly around HIV/AIDS.

Over in the tiny southern nation of eSwatini (Swaziland), where the absolute monarch has been known to deride gays, the LGBT citizens are beginning to come out of hiding and are planning a Pride commemoration to coincide with New York.

Will we, in Sub-Saharan Africa, have our pride moment? I’d say despite all it all, we are already having it. Marches may come and go, but we keep moving forward. And I beam with pride at every small step.

This story is part of our series on Global Pride. To read more please click here.