Human rights advocates in Nigeria are voicing alarm about recent arrests of cross-dressing men and of women allegedly wearing ‘indecent’ clothes, saying the arrests could signal a deterioration of civil rights.
In the mostly Muslim city of Bauchi in northern Nigeria, 18 men were arrested last month while dressed up as women. In the country’s biggest and traditionally more permissive Christian city, Lagos, scores of women have been arrested in recent weeks for allegedly dressing indecently.
“The reports from Bauchi and Lagos are worrying,” said Waheed Lawal, an Abuja-based lawyer and member of Civil Rights Congress, a local rights group. “They could have implications for the rights of ordinary people.”
He and other human rights activists warn that state and federal officials are eroding basic civil liberties by re-activating archaic and sometimes defunct laws.
In Bauchi police raided a party at a hotel on 4 August, claiming that men there were planning a group same-sex wedding. The men were taken to an Islamic court in Bauchi and charged with sodomy – an offence punishable by death under Muslim law.
Most of those arrested were held until 21 August after which they were charged with the lesser crime of soliciting homosexual sex which is punishable by one year in jail and 30 lashes. But they were all freed on bail later the same day.
While northern Nigeria is seen as the most conservative part of the country, a tradition of transvestism in many cities has been tolerated.
Lawal accused the state government – one of 12 in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north to have adopted the Shariah code – of whipping up hostile sentiments against the suspects.
“I see a case here of overzealous law enforcement infringing on civil rights,” he said.
Lawal expressed similar concerns over the action of police who arrested scores of women in Lagos in August on allegations of either ‘indecent dressing’ or ‘wandering’, a term from a law that was repealed more than a decade ago. Some police still apply the law defunct law wittingly, or unwittingly, civil rights lawyers say.
Most of the women arrested were held without charges beyond the two days stipulated under the law and some were allegedly raped, abused and forced to pay bribes.
Lagos Police Commissioner Muhammed Abubakar told journalists on 31 August that he had never given a directive to police to arrest women for indecent dressing or ‘wandering’, and called on members of the public to report any cases of police harassment.