One day in January 2014, award-winning Nigerian writer and rights activist Jude Dibia woke up gasping for air. Nigeria had just passed a law criminalizing homosexuality. This prompted Dibia to make the decision to leave his home country. Dibia now lives in Sweden, where he is a guest writer of the Malmö City of Refuge, a program offering shelter to writers and artists at risk.
Jude Dibia was happy earlier this year, after the U.S. took the huge step of legalizing same-sex marriage. He immediately went online to read what Nigerians and other Africans were saying about the law.
“Most of it was a fear of this coming to the continent. It almost intensified the hatred people have for gay people,” he said.
Dibia was discouraged, but not surprised.
“It's telling, it's happening just now. Africa is still struggling to come to terms with the whole concept that gay people do exist in our society," said Dibia.
Nigeria has outlawed gay marriage, public displays of same-sex relations and belonging to gay groups. The bill, which also made it illegal to support gay rights, sparked international condemnation.
"Before there wasn't a law, there was just a huge dislike against people who were different. Now, with the law saying that these people should be in prison, it changed a lot. It empowered mob actions. It empowered people to interpret the law the way they wanted to and to attack LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people in the society," he said.
Jude Dibia was bewildered as he watched usually vocal LGBTI rights activists go quiet fearing the law would be used against them.
“People were hiding; they were running because they didn’t know what to think of the law or how it was going to be used against them. So, you know, there was that change, there was that fear, so to speak,” he said.
Dibia felt like he and many others who spoke on equal rights for LGBTI people were being silenced.
“I felt stifled. I felt like someone had a pillow against my face and choking me to death. To wake up to that kind of news and as a writer I felt I won’t be able to talk on certain issues that I’m very passionate about. I won’t be able to be myself completely,” he said.
Dibia grew up in Lagos, Nigeria’s financial powerhouse, in the south of the country. In 2005 he published his first novel, Walking with Shadows. It centers on Adrian, a successful Lagos executive who is exposed as gay by a former employee.
“Walking with Shadows basically came out because I couldn’t find any literature that spoke about LGBTI people within our country, within the context of Africa. I told a story of a man who was closeted, who was married, which is always the case. Who had wife, kids, a lovely career, law-abiding, and all of a sudden his world is shattered because he’s exposed as a gay person,” said Dibia.
His greatest sales figures for the book still come from Nigeria.
Dibia said that to change the overall attitude towards LGBTI people in his home country will take time. Change in Nigeria needs to come from within from people who speak up, like Dibia.