By Chike Frankie Edozien
It’s taken twelve hours on a ‘luxury’ bus to get here. My noise cancellation headphones block the relentless gospel music the driver favours. I rock to my heathen divas – Tina, Mariah, Beyoncé – and look out the window, watching the Ghanaian landscape change from verdant to sparse.
My first impression of Tamale is that it’s dry, dusty and low rise; not like overcrowded Accra. The Twi murmurings there are replaced here by smatterings of Hausa and Dagbani. I haven’t crossed a border but I feel I am in a different country. I’ve journeyed up north in search of women. Those dynamic women who, after trudging for miles at dawn, picking up shea nuts, process them into butter by hand.
This butter is used in confectionary products, but is better known for properties that nourish hair and skin. It is now a key ingredient in the cosmetics trade. The women who pick shea have rarely had a chance to go to school, but shea income pays for their children to stay in school. One of those ‘shea babies,’ now an adult, is helping me navigate the terrain.
His name is Will and he’s a heartthrob. I’ve come to write a journalistic piece on economic development and my focus is now derailed. I’m distracted and ‘Heartthrob Will’ is the culprit. We converse about shea but veer off into other things. I’m not sure how old Will is, but he estimates he’s thirty-seven. Like many Gonja people, he doesn’t have a birth certificate. He was born in a hut near Navrongo and uses a national holiday here as a birthday, putting that down on forms and also celebrating himself on that day, like other people do.
Will has made sure his own children were born in a hospital, where births are customarily recorded. Today he’s a clerk for a non-governmental organisation, with dreams of owning a coffeehouse. He’s been married, divorced, and married again. He remains a babe magnet. The women hover. It’s easy to see why. He’s skinny and very dark, but his smile and savvy fashion make him stand out among the other tall dark men in Tamale. He favors form-fitting Tee’s, jeans and sneakers in a place where traditional dress is often de rigueur. He has a full head of hair and delights in sporting mohawks, with shaved-in lines. The goatee and a high watt smile emphasise his deep dimples. He oozes vitality in a laid back Tamale. I’ve found a dandy.
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By CHIKE FRANKIE EDOZIEN
Growing up in Lagos, I don’t remember our contemporary leaders ever conceding that perhaps they just might have got something wrong. Often our leaders prefer to focus on what they feel are their positive contributions to Africa’s largest economy.
So when Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s most recent ex-president showed up in London in June 2016 to defend his governance record to the international community, I only expected a spirited defense of his stewardship of the country.
And of course more bluster from his surrogates. After all, his successor, Muhammadu Buhari accused Jonathan and his team of leaving behind an empty treasury.
As I watched Jonathan go on about how that was not possible at a roundtable organized by Bloomberg News, I started to reminisce about how I found my métier. Story telling.
It seemed like just yesterday I was crouched on floor of the old English colonial in Ikoyi, reading a stack of newspapers. I devoured them every time Dad returned from work carrying the bunch. The newsprint had a stale smell that I couldn’t get enough of.
In truth it was four decades ago that I was asking mum what those words in the Daily Times meant. I knew big words before my classmates knew the complete alphabet. So naturally I wanted to write stories. I wanted to be a journalist.
Like many Nigerians I abruptly found out telling stories could be fatal when I was sixteen. Dele Giwa, a writer for Newswatch, had a letter bomb sent to him at home. My folks talked about it for days and fear gripped the city. It was 1986.
Few years later, I left that increasingly politically charged climate and gallivanted abroad, holding on to my love of storytelling, particularly the African ones. As the years passed my frequent visits to Lagos provided occasions for me to write about us. But, as I was no longer a young man I would steel myself for the inevitable question.
“When are you getting married?”
I didn’t always know how to answer truthfully. Do I open up a can of worms with strangers and say ‘I’ll get married when marriage equality is the law of the federation?’ Or do I continue with my boilerplate response; ‘when I find the right one I’ll let you know.’
One of my Nigerian pals, Dike, is over 40 and gay. He now lives in London and it’s unlikely he will ever move home for good. But on his last visit to his hometown, Owerri, he told me how an aunt worried so much that he hasn’t brought home a bride. He thought he’d escaped the dreaded question until he went over to give her money before departing and she fell on her knees wailing.
“Please, please find a wife. Please I am begging you in the name of God, please.”
Dike replied: “Please Aunty, get up. I have heard you. I will see what I can do.”
Suddenly hopeful she says: “Oh, are you looking for one over there in England?
“Ah, ah Aunty, does it matter where she comes from?” Dike said.
“That’s true but it is better if she hails from these parts,” she replied.
“But aunty at my age, I don’t think I want to get married any more.”
“Eh?!” she screamed;
“Don’t say that oh. There is a 70-year-old man in the next kindred, who is looking for a young wife. You are a man. You can even marry at 70. I have been praying for you. I prayed for you this morning that a good woman will come your way, In Jesus Name.”
I feel Dike’s pain.
Recently a friend from secondary school called me up to ask I that donate to a fund to refurbish the school’s kitchen. He expected a substantial donation and said: ‘you are not married and you have no kids.”
His reasoning was I ought to have more to give since I’m only responsible for myself. I was flabbergasted since my friend knew of my long-term relationship and I had to gently remind him that my male partner of close to a decade is my family. And no, I may not be conventionally married, but I’m not single.
Sometime ago I decided to try and tell the story of folks who are either burdened by the weight of the dreaded question or work around it by jumping into unhappy matrimony. I began researching in Accra, Ghana. I found, men who were so in love with each other but then married women because it was what was expected. I found women who were routinely dating other women who were married to men.
Was this clandestine living the best they could hope for?
“This is Africa. Why are you asking questions you know the answers to,” one told me. I moved on to Lagos, where I wanted to get answers to the same questions.
But earlier that year, January 2014 to be precise, the president, (Goodluck Jonathan) had signed into law a bill criminalizing gays, adding even public displays of affection.
Clearly it was an Election Year gambit that while popular, yielded few votes for him. He lost by a landslide. But his actions opened the floodgate to beatings and harassment by police and unscrupulous citizens. Just the suspicion alone could land one in trouble. And who wants to risk a 14-year-jail term?
So even though I’d had high hopes for good reporting, my writing was stalled by the paranoia in Lagos and the sheer refusal of folks to speak on the record, or even off sometimes. Those who did were so afraid, it seemed that shadows freaked them. I could barely hear their whispers.
Still I found men and women in love or looking for love despite the cultural anchor on their necks. Jonathan’s action spurred open homophobia and shaming in spaces that ought to have been safe. Violence spiked and it was easier to be scornful and derisive of sexual minorities in polite company. All of this in a country that often condones pre-pubescent brides marrying elderly men.
No Nigerian space was truly safe.
In 2015 my sister had a milestone birthday party and all my brothers and a trove of cousins gathered to celebrate. My cousin Henry was there with his wife. I’d never met her but knew of her. I eagerly asked him introduce me.
“I’ve heard about you, she said. I smiled big and said ‘Good things I hope.’
But all that came my way was a small, tight, cold, smile that ended at her lips: ‘Not really.’
Then she laid into me.
“Where is your family?”
“Where is your wife?!”
“Where are your children?!”
It was aggressive. Menacing even.
In full view of my siblings and even my mother, she tried to shame me. I was dealing with an angry emboldened homophobe. (Thanks to Goodluck Jonathan, women of her ilk feel no compunction to go on the attack in public and I wish I could say it was an isolated incident but others have told me similar tales) So I smiled and said my partner was at home. ‘He couldn’t make it.’ And I left her company.
So I was truly caught off-guard when Jonathan, in the middle of his defending his government from corruption allegations and bilking the Nigerian treasury he told Bloomberg that the anti-gay bill he signed into law may have to be revisited.
“When it comes to equality, we must all have the same rights as Nigerian citizens,” Jonathan said at a forum at Bloomberg’s European headquarters. “In the light of deepening debates for all Nigerians and other citizens of the world to be treated equally and without discrimination, and with the clear knowledge that the issue of sexual orientation is still evolving, the nation may at the appropriate time revisit the law,” Jonathan said.
That only took thirty months. But from 2015 to 2016 he may have evolved but being out of office he’s not in a position to stop carnage.
Days after his pronouncement there was a grisly massacre of 49 gay people by a deranged gunman in Orlando Florida. Jonathan, who as president ignored his gay constituents, sent out a condolence message to the grieving families via twitter.
I condole with the victims and I pray that Almighty gives us the wisdom to deal with terror whether in #Florida or in any part of the world – Goodluck E. Jonathan (@GEJonathan)
But even that message also prompted controversy from the Nigerian ‘twitteratti.’
Jonathan cannot undo the damage caused by that law, but stories from those affected matter, and could change the reflexively antagonistic environment in Nigeria. Every Nigerian story will be told. And I have to do my part to tell our collective story. And that includes those who some want to shame and shunt aside.
I can start by answering the marriage question honestly. When will I get married? Maybe when we have marriage equality in our federation. Or maybe just when Scott, my partner wants to.
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“To the concern that not enough African voices are represented here, an obvious rejoinder: “More, please.”
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By FRANKIE EDOZIEN
While Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections have largely been acknowledged as a victory for democracy — with the first ever victory of an opposition candidate –it was also a model in how social media brings transparency to the electoral process.
President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressive Congress party lead in the vote last month quickly became apparent a few hours after polling units closed thanks to technologically savvy Nigerian voters using social media to share each step of the process.
Locally developed voter monitoring applications, Revoda and Nigeria Elections were in robust use during the entire weekend. Long before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) shared any official polling numbers, Nigerians who had volunteered among the 700,000 electoral officers shared the voter numbers from their units. While nearly every tweet and Facebook post came with the ‘unofficial’ caveat it was a good indicator of the trend. By Sunday evening Nigerian social media had turned into a land of ‘Nate Silvers’,
In some senses it’s not a complete surprise that social media was accurately reflecting a trend. Nigeria has one of the fastest growing Internet penetration rates. Last year alone it added 10 million new internet users to have around 75 million Internet users now. Nigerians who voted last month were about 30 million.
People displace by Islamist militants display their voters card.
Ever since the #OccupyNigeria nationwide anger strike in 2011, when the Jonathan administration suddenly removed fuel subsidies and set off inflation, social media has played role in the national discourse.
Its national prominence rose a year ago when the over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Chibok by the ultra violent separatists group, Boko Haram. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign reverberated around the world and even found its way to the White House. Before the vote, through Facebook posts, Twitter usage, and even sharing video through the messaging the application ‘WhatsApp,’ it often seemed that the campaign of President Goodluck Jonathan was playing catch-up in the lead up to the vote.
A senior person inside the Jonathan camp, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Quartz the president’s re-election campaign had been caught flat-footed on social media. “The APC campaign was consistent with their message on social media, they completely shaped the narrative there,” said the Abuja-based source. “By the time people here started to throw money at the social problem it was already too late.Then there was multiple messaging which was confusing for voters.”
And it was the same in this #NigeriaDecides campaign influencing both leading parties respective campaigns. As Techcabal noted, every trick in the book was in play even online polls with surprising results. On Election Day, everyone with a social media account played a role in disseminating results. #NigeriaDecides was the top trending hashtag on Facebook and Twitter on March 3oth as Nigeria and the rest of the world eagerly anticipated the results.
“Many people who stationed themselves at the polling centers until the close of election were able to know the results of those centers, record events and also photographed copies of results pasted,” Tony Okeregbe, a professor at the University of Lagos told Quartz.
“Then, they connected, via social media, with friends at other centers who did the same thing with other friends. At the end of the day, a rough estimate of what the results would look like was known before hand.”
BENUE IKURAV-TIEV1 WARD,LGEA SCH SORNYI POLLING UNIT REPS PDP:58 APC:158 SENATE PDP:62 APC:165 PRESIDENCY APC170 PDP: 53 #NigeriaDecides
— That Igbo Bae (@stephi_cartel) March 29, 2015
Ona Ara LG, FCT Minister Jumoke Akinjide’s polling unit: Senate: APC 101, PDP 88, SDP 7, LP 21, Accord 65, Void votes 27. #Nigeriadecides
— Y! Online (@YNaija) March 29, 2015
— The Unknown Genie (@grandespinale) March 29, 2015
The consensus from all sides is that while social media didn’t decide the vote it had a significant influence on perception, expectations and a demand for transparency. All in all it seemed that social media was a winner with the #NigeriaDecides hashtag resulting in citizens proclaiming that Democracy is alive and well in Africa’s most populous nation.
Some people are happy because APC won. Some are happy because Buhari won. But most of us are happy because democracy works. #NigeriaDecides
— AYO SOGUNRO (@ayosogunro) March 31, 2015
And as Nigerians tweeted, the victor isn’t always the winner.
— Bisi Alimi (@bisialimi) March 31, 2015
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