Sunday, February 27, 2011

'A non-discriminatory programme for gay men will reduce HIV infection in Nigeria'

Bisi Alimi;a case for non discriminatory HIV prevention for Nigerian gay men

In 2004,Adebisi Alimi was on the Funmi Iyanda Show told Nigerian he was gay thus becoming the first openly gay man in Nigeria.That bold move made headlines.Expectedly, the backlash was overwhelming sending Bisi back to the closet and constantly watching his back during public outings.He was granted asylum by the UK government in 2008 and currently studying for a Masters degree in Global Governance and Public Policy at the University of London.Bisi studied drama at the University of Lagos and before leaving for the UK had become a strong advocate for non-discriminatory programming for men who have sex(MSM) in Nigeria earning the membership of groups such as UNAIDS Intervention Team for MSM in Nigeria and amFAR MSM/HIV review panel for Africa 2008.He spoke with NIGERIAN HEALTH JOURNAL on his current efforts and the future of HIV prevention for MSM in Nigeria.

How would you appraise Nigeria’s HIV/AIDS programming especially as it relates to an all-inclusive programming for most at risk groups?

I left Nigeria about 4 years ago, and the impression I get each time I meet Nigerian HIV advocates at International conferences is that things are changing, and I can see that too. At the Microbicides Conference in Pittsburgh in 2010, the Nigerian delegation were discussing Rectal Microbicides. At the Int’l AIDS Conference in Vienna, I attend the session on HIV funding, and the Nigerian government representative spoke about investing in vulnerable and high-risk communities. Whether this is the case in reality I am not sure but the mere fact that we have moved away from the culture of ‘do not talk about it’, to that of developing policies that seem to be inclusive is very interesting. I have seen an increasing number of MSM community-based organisations(CBOs) working on Men who have Sex with Men(MSM) issues responding to the crisis within the community, and I am really happy about the stage we are now.

Programming for sexual minorities like MSM might remain a hard nut to crack in Nigeria. Does this reflect a lack of capacity to programme for MSM aside the issue of intolerance?

There are a lot of issues to this.The MSM or what you may want to call the “Gay community’ in Nigeria needs to do more in the area of creating proactive visibility. Visibility was what *Dare Odumuye and I did in the 90s and early 2000. We didn’t just sit around waiting for miracle to happen; we took our cases to those that matter. Now the MSM community is characterised by bickering and struggle for funding instead of coming up with very creative approach to involvement. Living in the UK has opened my eyes to community involvement and engagement and I feel there is need for more of that approach from CBOs in Nigeria. There is also the hypocrisy around human sexuality and religion, which we have been deceived to consider as our culture. Nigeria’s cultural identity is not built around Islam or Christianity. Let me add that government has not created an enabling environment for most of these organizations to prosper or take shape and when they struggle to exist, there is not enough protection for them. The anti-gay scenario in Nigeria is not encouraging either.So,for there to be an active HIV intervention and proactive service delivery to reduce the impact on HIV within the gay community,everyone has a role and our approach and attitude towards alternative sexuality and lifestyle needs to change.

What does it take to bring MSM issues to the front burner of our AIDS given the fact that religion keeps popping up even in addressing public health challenges?

It will not be easy, and I quite agree with you that religion is one of the key barrels to providing adequate and all inclusive sexual health services .Mind you, this is not just an MSM issue, even women HIV response in Nigeria is still behind the desire for the MDGs. Nigeria still does not have a clear cut policy and working framework for prevention, and access to treatment in Nigeria is still below the target for universal access. So, the agenda of inclusiveness will be key in bringing the issues of MSM and HIV to the table. The MSM activists should know that it is very important they work in a very inclusive environment, where they collaborate with other activists to have a comprehensive approach.When this is done, it will break the barrel of religion. Unless this is done, and the approach of ‘we and them’ is ditched, the desire for inclusion will continue to stay in the dreamland.

Can you articulate what Nigeria stands to benefits from a comprehensive programme for MSM and related groups?

It is a fact that in countries where there are inclusive HIV prevention and treatment approach, the rate of infection will go down and there is an increased awareness. Also,we know from social scientists that sexual behaviour rather than sexual identity are the drivers for increase rate of HIV infections, also in countries where people are given the freedom to make informed choices based on non-discriminatory HIV information,a low rate of infection means a healthier country, and a very productive one. Prevention has been seen to be very cost effective if it is inclusive. A well-formed intervention means that there will be less tendency for risk behaviours and that means people will do what will make them healthy. There will be an increase in sexual satisfaction and that also means people having the sex they desire with enough information on safer sex. A non-discriminatory comprehensive programme for MSM will mean less infection rate and a healthy nation for all of us.

Is it true that the major source of risk from the MSM community to the general population are the bisexuals. Could you please clarify or put this in the right perspective?

I distaste stereotyping and scapegoating. I strongly believe people should be able to enjoy sex through the expression of their sexuality. What is missing is necessary and needful information for people to have informed choices about the kind of sex they have. Like I said, HIV is not an issue of sexual identity or sexuality, it is more of sexual behaviour and that is what we have to look into. There are evidence now that there are increasing heterosexual anal sex and this is a new revelation in Africa, so we need to be very careful when we talk about these things.

Do you subscribe to the proposal that programming for MSM should be addressed under the general purview of men’s health so as to navigate the stigma and discrimination.

No,I strongly oppose that. There are differences in issues affecting these populations and it will be unfair for us to merge the two issues together. Heterosexual men have little or no concern about anal cancer, and many other sexually transmitted infections( STIs) that are common in the gay community. Also the issue of understanding sex and sexuality differs from the two groups, just as much as issues affecting men differs from race, to ethnicity, so it will be one of the biggest mistakes of prevention to confuse the two.

Advocacy for MSM in Nigeria dimmed with the demise of Dare Odumuye in 2007.What would you attribute this to?

Dare had a vision to start an advocacy that will open the door for prevention that is inclusive. Now,what we have are career advocates.Dare and I had a passion and it was that passion that dictated what we did. We were not paid, we had no means of making money from the advocacy,and even our aim was not to travel out of the country. But now, advocacy is tied around money and overseas trips.Also Dare knew what needed to be done; he knew who has the power to get it done. He was more local than global and it worked, he was able to open doors, network and get result locally and that is what is missing. I want to see more passionate advocates;those that will not aim to be super heroes of the community, but spokespersons for the community-speaking not what they think but what reflects the desire and need of the community.

Is there a leadership gap to be filled at the moment and who is playing that role?

There is a leadership role to be filled indeed, and there is no one I can single out is playing that role. The community is seriously fragmented and the increasing competition for funding is creating a divided community where there is no cohesion and no clear-cut agenda for advocacy and this is a big shame. When Dare was alive, we all look up to him to lead the way, but now, it is a different story.

Your absence also has created some gaps. What have you been up to lately?

Really? I will take that as a compliment. I moved to the UK in 2007 after my coming out on Funmi Iyanda’s show. I know many people are saying that I used the show as a means to run away. I think I will be happy to make it clear here that it was never my wish to leave Nigeria. I miss Nigeria a lot and wish I could go back home and share my experience. I really wish to get back in the struggle and tackle some of the issues you raised in your questions. I am not boasting, but I think I still command respect within the community and I can help in coordinating an agenda. As for what I am doing; well I am doing my Masters at the University of London at the moment, and that will finish in the summer. I am studying politics but with special interest in International development and Aids. Im looking at how the systematic global north funding has either helped or undermine development in Africa, but I will also look at HIV and Poverty within minority groups. Finally, possibly come back home one day and get involved in politics.

Do you see a change soon in attitude towards MSM in Nigeria especially as we continue to seek for innovative ideas and ways to control this epidemic?

Yes I really do see a change; I am more optimistic now than I was 4 years ago. I have seen loads of changes, there are increasing room for discourse around human sexuality now, though most times in negative ways, but I know that even negative publicity is sometimes a good step in the right direction. All that we need is a very strong and cohesive community of MSM, which is driven by passion and ready to effect a change without discord.