I recently attended the African Students For Liberty Conference at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan where different distinguished personalities from across Africa, Europe and America interacted with the audience, who were mostly students on the principles of liberty, rights and good governance. Ayo Sogunro, author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales, a lawyer and philosopher facilitated a session on ‘The Fallacy of Democracy’ in which he focused on our current political arrangement in Nigeria and how it guarantees fundamental rights, or otherwise doesn’t. Ayo proceeded from a question on the validity of our belief in democracy as a people without understanding the underlying principles, taking into context our social and cultural history, and then the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.
Ayo spoke on how the 1999 constitution seeks first to establish and secure the structures of government before it delves into fundamental rights, a thought pattern that has also been adopted by the subsequent operators of the constitution and the society at large.
It is for this reason that sustaining the might of government has been made a priority by its officials, to the detriment of the individual enjoyment of rights by the Nigerian citizens. The people have bought into this and are more than willing to assist the government in stifling the benefits some others enjoy, all done on the basis that the government is a representation of the collective thought of the people in a democracy. In Ayo’s words “We keep forgetting that it should be the people first and then the government.”
Perhaps a contentious issue especially among a generality of people who hardly explore the capabilities of depth their minds possess, homosexual rights have been known to polarize societies over the ages but Ayo Sogunro is not one to hide from the attendant controversy that comes with such dialectic exercise. The moment Ayo Sogunro announced he was making the anti-gay law enacted in a not too distant past the focus of his discourse on human rights in the Nigerian democracy, a familiar roar boomed through the hall. Grace, a lady seated two seats from mine exclaimed “I am sure this guy is gay!” That’s interesting to me because I follow Ayo on Twitter and I know of open declarations of affections in equal measures between himself and a lady whose thought pattern I similarly respect immensely, judging by her tweets. That right there has been the bane of the average Nigerian in such conversations: a simplistic take on matters without digging deep or around and oftentimes a conclusion that still does not validate the wrong position adopted.
I do not recommend a homosexual orientation but at the same time I cannot support an enactment that tears at people’s existence with disregard, much more when there are many other important concerns to deal with. The rights of an individual such as to life, dignity and association do not arise from his declaration of faith, accomplishments or submission to a system of governance, they are rather inherent in his existence, as valid as every breath that proceeds from his nostrils as long as he continues to do so. To threaten those rights is to threaten the person’s very existence and that is what the Act prohibiting same-sex relations in Nigeria has done, a potential mortal blow not just to the freedoms of those who for whatever reasons have more than passing affections towards people of the same gender but also to an indefinite class of people that may remotely or directly be connected to them. The Act is that deadly. “The anti-gay law is not wrong because we are in a democracy but it is wrong because it is against the tenets of human rights…essentially, the anti-gay law interferes with the rights to life and liberty,” Ayo Sogunro noted.
There is a greater need for tolerance in our society and that’s a major takeaway from Ayo Sogunro’s session, which I have also always believed. We need to be tolerant of people who are not like us even if we do not aspire to ever become like them and recognize that they may never become like us too. People of homosexual leaning may constitute a minority class among us in terms of sexuality but should nonetheless be protected. In Ayo’s words, “The Anti-Gay law is a tool for the repression of some minorities…democracy shouldn’t exist to oppress any class of minorities”. As Ayo further pointed out, we are all minorities in one way or another either by our peculiar ethnic distribution, habits, character traits or like Ayo mentioned, by even wearing glasses or being ambidextrous. Caution is therefore necessary when we relate with one another in matters like same-sex relations. “It is the violent among us that seek to impose our morals on other people,” was Ayo’s way of advocating for the individual internalization of morals as opposed to wielding state power to impose morals on others.
Going forward, it will be important to teach ourselves the importance of tolerance on all sides of the divide. As I once noted in my blogpost on homophobia when the issue arose, the government through the National Assembly may have done the wish of the majority, even that may be questioned, but the provisions of the Act need to be revisited if not done away with totally, to generally guarantee the inalienable rights to life, dignity, liberty, association among others that the implementation of the Act in its present form threatens. We don’t have to wait till people are thrown into jails for passing by a gathering of men supposedly paying undue attention to each other’s genitals without reporting them, and yes that’s in the Act too by inference.
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