The 57 men stumbled out of the back of a dark police truck into the glare of a sunny courtyard and a phalanx of cameras. Some clutched another’s hand, as if for comfort. They lined up on wooden benches in the dirt, almost all of them trying to hide their faces, and not succeeding.
Standing behind a bank of microphones, the Lagos state police commissioner, Imohimi Edgal, told the gathered journalists that he personally had ordered the raid that swept up the men after the authorities received a tipoff that young men were being initiated into a “homosexual club.”
Left: Police raided the Kelly Ann Hotel in the late-night hours in August 2018, arresting 57 men. Right: A man stands in a doorway of the Kelly Ann Hotel, where the raid swept up 57 men.
The phrase “they didn’t caught me” quickly went viral. Video footage of the August 2018 news conference has since been viewed more than half a million times. Friends, colleagues and strangers all learned of the allegations from the videos that circulated online.
Last November, after more than a year of court hearings, Brown was among 47 men who pleaded not guilty to a charge of public displays of affection by people of the same sex. Arrest warrants were issued for the 10 other men who failed to appear in court. In a landmark case that may reach its resolution next month, the men face 10 years in prison if found guilty under the 2014 law, which has never been used to secure a conviction.
But prison time or no, the men have already been punished. In this resolutely Christian and Muslim country, homosexuality is broadly rejected across society, in ways as casual as a snub on the street and as serious as Sharia law that threatens death by stoning.
One of the men is a married father of four who says he had driven people to the party to earn extra money. For a time, he went without electricity because he couldn’t pay the bills after being fired; even in the darkness of his house, the strain between him and his wife was visible to a visiting Reuters journalist. Another man slept in a church outhouse after his family threw him out, until he was finally cast out of that safe harbour, too. A third man lives in fear of the street toughs who have beaten him up three times after recognizing him from the viral videos of the perp walk. And the man who was celebrating his birthday avoided arrest but is now overwhelmed by guilt, seeing blame even in his friends’ eyes.
These are the stories of lives broken by a birthday party late one night in Lagos – and by a culture that has cast the men adrift.
For the family man, Oguaghamba, his options look limited. If he is evicted, he might have to uproot his children from the only home they’ve ever known and return to his home state of Anambra, in southeast Nigeria. He hasn’t lived there in more than 20 years.
“I am not happy at all,” he said, perched on a threadbare armchair in his living room.
Despite the setbacks, however, he remains optimistic about the future.
He maintains he is innocent and believes he finally has a chance to defend himself after seeing his image tarnished on social media.
“All my joy is that we are in the federal high court and that this matter will come to an end,” he said. “I believe that victory will be mine.”
Photo editing Marika Kochiashvili; Text Editing Kari Howard