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Social media, online resources boost awareness about minority rights in Africa, professor finds

Monday, June 23, 2014

LAWRENCE — The Nigerian government came under international condemnation in January after passing a law prohibiting same-sex marriage and prescribing imprisonment for people who participate in gay social associations or makes a public show of a same-sex amorous relationship.

However, according to media reports, it appears to be a popular decision with the majority in Nigeria, creating an unlikely alliance of government officials, journalists and religious groups, both Muslim and Christian.

A University of Kansas researcher who studies civil society and social change in Africa said those who favor gay rights — the minority — in Nigeria have become creative and used the Internet and social media to mount resistance and bypass old ways in which the state could squelch information getting to the public.

"That's the future, and I think we cannot underestimate the importance of that because you could send physical soldiers to arrest an editor or close down a newspaper to stop you from printing," said Ebenezer Obadare, an associate professor of sociology who worked as a journalist in Nigeria in the early 1990s. "Before, whatever message was in those papers never got out to the public. Now with the Internet, the public has unlimited access, direct access unmediated by agents of the state."

Obadare recently co-edited a book, "Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of Resistance in the 21st Century," and has a forthcoming essay, "Sex, Citizenship and the State in Nigeria: Islam, Christianity, and Emergent Struggles over Intimacy," in the journal Review of African Political Economy. He said the issues raised in the book and essay illustrate the struggles of the development of democracies in Africa, particularly with respect to the protection of minority rights.

"When a particular society comes to a decision that those people are to be shunted off or to be removed, it means there are fundamental questions that need to be asked about: What does it mean to be a member of that society? What does it mean for the question of difference?" Obadare said.

He said while he has seen gay-rights supporters use social media to advocate for their cause and build support, the more traditional media, such as newspapers in Nigeria, seems to have sided with the government's enforcement by publishing names of people who are believed to be gay, which can incite people to violence in a very indirect way, creating a seemingly unusual alliance.

"Basically, you can't understand that consensus unless you put it within the political and economic context," Obadare said. "African societies are under stress in the context of globalization. Governments need a scapegoat. These societies in particular need a scapegoat, and the most convenient scapegoat right now are gays."

He said issues surrounding gay rights in Nigeria demonstrate questions about democratic systems of government in Africa. In the past, most people would consider it a sign of progress if an African country held two or three democratic elections in a row.

"That was the old standard for a democratic society, but right now this thing has truly spun forward where I would say: 'Hold on, there are still fundamental issues that we still need to think about,'" he said.

Obadare hopes the book and article can spark more discussion and understanding about facets of democracy and individual rights both in African countries and others across the world.

"Society always comes up with these challenges," he said. "Part of what democratic societies have going for them is that at the end of the day, if a multiplicity of voices is allowed, if people are always free to speak their mind, if the rights of the individual are always protected, there will always be resources within the system to maybe not definitively resolve but at least to come to some sort of working consensus about whatever it is that emerges as a challenge."


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