For queer Nigerians, online dating can carry deadly risks
Boluwatife, an interior designer who lives in Nigeria, says 2019 was the worst year of his life.
That year, there were job losses. Boluwatife’s father also died, sparking a major family dispute over his succession.
“But the worst part,” Boluwatife told The Record, is that he “was kited the same year.”
In the local queer community, the slang “kito” is used to refer to situations where homophobes disguise themselves as queer people in order to attack, exploit and even kill queer people they attract with dating projects in love.
Using fake profiles to scam people – also known more generally as “catfishing”, especially when it comes to dating sites or apps – is a common form of social engineering.
But such attacks can be particularly devastating for sexual minority victims in countries that stigmatize same-sex relationships, lack laws protecting gay people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, or even criminalize homosexuality. – as is the case in Nigeria.
Kitoing and similar incidents in other countries also highlight the heightened online safety risks that many gay people around the world face on a daily basis, especially in instances where the internet may be one of the few places where they can access the community.
But some queer Nigerians have also used the power of the internet to create online communities to speak out against bad actors, including creating digital posts to warn others of apparent insider threats.
Boluwatife, who we only identify by first name for safety, said he had friends who had been kited before and thought listening to their experiences would help him avoid the same fate.
But he was wrong.
Boluwatife told The Record that her experience started on Badoo, a popular online dating app.
“I don’t often like Badoo because of how my friends describe it as ghetto, but I thought I might find something legit there,” he said. Badoo did not respond to a request for comment.
Like anyone who meets someone they find attractive on a dating app, Boluwatife started flirting. Before he knew it, they were down for an affair.
“We decided to meet at a hotel he had chosen. When I arrived, I felt something was wrong, but I was so eager to move on because I felt that I had chatted with this person for a while and I basically knew him, so I approached him sitting in a bar and we started chatting,” Boluwatife mentioned.
Then three men approached them and started beating him.
“I was so confused at first, but then I realized I had been framed. They kept calling me ‘gay’,” Boluwatife said.
“They even used a small knife on me, I was bleeding and screaming for help but the only person available was the bartender who was probably one of them,” he said.
The attackers took his watch and phone, forcing him to open the latter so they could check his messages, he said. They also asked Boluwatife to transfer 300,000 NGN (around $724) to them, according to Boluwatife. Then they kicked him out.
The experience left him traumatized, he told The Record, but he felt unable to report the incident – homosexuality is illegal nationwide and can lead to imprisonment.
A global problem
Boluwatife’s experience is shared by other queer people in Nigeria and other countries around the world where same-sex relationships are highly stigmatized or criminalized. This can translate into the digital world in ways that put queer communities at risk of surveillance, censorship and discrimination, as highlighted in a 2020 Registered future report. For example, a similar extortion based on sexuality in a dating app was reported in India. And being open on other online platforms can also carry the risk of sanctions by repressive regimes.
In 2020, Human Rights Watch published a report on a Yemeni blogger named Mohamad Al-Bokari who was sentenced by a Saudi court to 10 months in prison, a $2,700 fine and deportation to Yemen for posting a social media message calling for equal rights for all Saudis , including homosexuals.
After his arrest, he was subjected to an anal examination by security officers, an intentionally painful examination that allowed them to check whether he was engaging in homosexual practices.
The nation-state and other threat actors have yet to target gay activists and groups. And the queer community also remains at greater risk for activities like doxxing – when personal information is posted online and used for harassment – which can compromise their physical safety.
Although the internet can be a place of liberation for many queer Nigerians, the general oppression they face can make it difficult to assess risk and nearly impossible to seek help from victims.
In January 2014, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the former Nigerian President, signed into law Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act or SSMPA. The law criminalizes sexual relations between two people of the same sex and provides for penalties of up to 14 years in prison.
Although no one has been convicted under the law, the law means that gay Nigerians live under constant legal threat and “significantly contributes to a climate of impunity for crimes committed against them”, according to a Human Rights Watch 2016 Report. The SSMPA Act also imposes a 10-year sentence for those who “join, operate or participate in gay clubs, societies and organisations, or directly or indirectly make public displays of same-sex romantic relationships in Nigeria”.
In the northern part of Nigeria, some areas also uphold a version of Sharia law that requires death by stoning for homosexual activity, although those convicted are usually physically punished. In March 2014, Al Jazeera reported of four men who were convicted by an Islamic court and were punished with 15 strokes of the cane if they failed to pay the $120 fine attached to them.
With the existence of these laws, gay Nigerians are often forced to go online in order to gain some privacy while finding a community. But homophobes followed suit, in some cases recruiting gay men to help victimize the community through kito as a source of income for themselves, essentially creating insider threats within Nigeria’s online gay community.
Emeka, a young professional from a major Nigerian city whom The Record only identifies by his first name for security reasons, said he was the victim of one such attack.
Last April, he ran into a friend on Tinder he had known since 2018, so they made a date, Emeka said.
“He invited me to his home, served me and made me feel comfortable. He told me he was going to buy condoms and lube. After about six minutes, four guys came into the room, they were holding bottles and rods,” Emeka said.
“At first I didn’t understand what was going on,” Emeka said, as he knew the person – whom he called Junior – who had attracted him.
The men beat him, stripped him, then doused him with alcohol, he said.
“They said if I didn’t start confessing I was gay they would set me on fire there, so I obeyed and they filmed me,” Emeka said.
Then they took his phone, he said, and withdrew the money that was left in his account – about $85.
For Emeka, the trauma of the betrayal lasted a long time.
“What killed me the most was to think that Junior felt what I felt when we met. It even hurt me the most when he threatened to report me to my family. It’s not every day that you love someone and they betray you,” he said.
Victims of kito can also often feel helpless because reporting it to law enforcement, like you might for any other violent crime, could get them prosecuted under SSMPA, leaving them worse off. .
A safe space for queer Nigerians
However, some of these victims do not.
Kitodiaries is a blog that has helped queer Nigerians navigate their sexuality.
Founded after the coming into force of the SSMPA Act, the blog functions as a safe educational space for queer Nigerians where they can come and try to learn from the good and bad experiences of other members of the community.
The blog also has a page called “kito alert”, where they provide information on individuals who commit such attacks. This allows queer Nigerians who are regular readers to be aware of people who are known threats to the community.
But talking about LGBTQ+ rights in the country also carries risks.
Matthew Blaise, one of Nigeria’s most prominent LGBTQ+ activists, was arrested by the men of the disbanded SARS unit over the issue of perceived homosexuality, although technically identifying solely as gay is not a crime in the country. (SARS, also known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was a sub-group of the police force and founded in 1992 to combat the vices of society like armed robbery, worship and other major crimes.However, the unit has become notorious over time extorting and killing young people for having dreads or carrying iPhones and laptops – leading to #EndSARS protest which ended the unit.)
For Blaise, they were beaten and tortured in prison.
In a interview with Open Democracythe activist described being haunted by the experience.
“They played with my sanity. I continued to see these men in everything I do. In the street. In front of people who sincerely love me. That’s what they do to you. They break you down until you can’t pick up your broken pieces anymore,” they said.
Ugonna-Ora Owoh is a journalist and writer living in Nigeria.