OPINION: As a lawyer in Nigeria, one trans woman has renewed my hope

by Chizelu Emejulu | Minority Watch
Thursday, 18 January 2024 09:40 GMT

The Statue of Lady Justice is pictured at the premises of the Federal High Court in Lagos, Nigeria, March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As a lawyer who focuses on LGBTQ+ rights, I know cases like this one — an assault against an LGBTQ+ person — rarely makes it to court

Chizelu Emejulu is a Lagos-based human rights lawyer and the Executive Director of Minority Watch.

I watched with apprehension as my client entered the witness box in a courtroom in Lagos late last year. I expected Abeni* to ignore my advice to be honest about her gender identity during her testimony in order to protect herself from possible blowback from those in the courtroom. 

It wasn’t an irrational fear. Since the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was passed in 2014, there has been growing climate of hate against LGBTQ+ Nigerians, permeating the police, judiciary and everyday citizens.

But Abeni was bolder than I imagined. Lawyers and litigants alike silently looked on in astonishment as she not only introduced herself as a transgender woman, but also testified against a man she said she met on a dating app who lured her to his home, then beat and robbed her.

In a country where LGBTQ+ people are routinely harassed with arrests, criminal charges and subjected to extreme physical violence, Abeni made it clear that she was not afraid to publicly exercise her constitutional right to seek justice from the Nigerian courts.  

Abeni brought the case to the police in August 2023, leading to the 27-year-old man she accused to be charged with assault and theft. As a lawyer who focuses on LGBTQ+ rights, I know cases like this one — an assault against an LGBTQ+ person — rarely makes it to court. 

But not only did the case land in court, it marked significant progress for LGBTQ+ Nigerians in two ways. 

First, as a trans woman, Abeni was treated with the utmost respect in a Nigerian courtroom. The magistrate who presided over the case respected Abeni’s right to fair hearing, regardless of her gender identity. Her identity was not weaponised against her, nor was the case turned into a debate about the idea of “transness.”

The second way this case marks progress is in its prosecution of what is known as a “kito” in Nigeria, an assailant who lures an LGBTQ+ person to a location through a dating app to assault, rob and blackmail them. 

When filing the initial report, the police were informed that the victim was a trans woman. This was corroborated by the accused when he tried to use the victim’s gender identity as a defense to his crimes. 

This is a common strategy employed by perpetrators, and typically it’s successful — upon learning the victim of such an assault is LGBTQ+, police typically lose interest in the case. But in Abeni’s case, the police broke this pattern and charged him with assault and theft.

Part of why these cases don’t make it to court is because of a founded fear by LGBTQ+ victims that police will ignore them at best, or revictimise them at worst.

As a speaker at an online event about victims of kito and how to challenge rights violations in court, a young man asked if I had ever won a kito case in court before. The question came off as an affront to my professional competence, but it was a relevant question — especially because I hadn’t.

It’s become a catch-22: victims are too scared to speak out, and lawyers like me rarely have cases that can assure them coming forward is worthwhile.

But the next time I’m asked that question, I will have a more encouraging response. Abeni’s case resulted in a settlement out of court on Jan. 9. She told me how satisfied she is with the conclusion of this case, as it gave her much-needed closure.   

While the case hasn’t provided a legal precedent, it has set a personal precedent: a fresh approach to the way I do my work. It has renewed my hope to be able to use the Nigerian judicial system to protect LGBTQ+ people

*Using a pseudonym to protect her identity.  

This story is part of a series supported by HIVOS's Free To Be Me programme 

Related stories:

LGBTQ+ rights in Africa 2023: Progress and setbacks

OPINION: Nigerians who don’t conform to gendered expectations pay the highest price

A police raid, viral videos and the broken lives of Nigerian gay law suspects

Update cookies preferences