“I never said Elnathan John is gay” – Ruona Agbroko Meyer reacts to charges of homophobia

Nigeria twitter was abuzz all yesterday with a day long twitter exchange between award winning journalist, Ruona Agbroko Meyer and brilliant satirist and Booker prize judge, Elnathan John.
The feud was sparked by a tweet from Elnathan John in which be said – “One would have taken the fight for Nigeria serious if there was some sort of frontline where like minds could fight injustice. But a politician can arrest and imprison me for my writing, then right after host a party for writers, which they will all attend and take selfies at.”

Many Nigerians reacted to the tweet but fellow German based Ms. Meyer who was a first time guest @kabafest2019 where her award winning documentary “Sweet Sweet Codeine” was screened had responded directly to Elnathan John and in the ensuing verbal altercation had called him a “dick refugee.”

That comment has now been interpreted to mean a homophobic slur.

Thelagosreview reached out to Ms. Agbroko-Meyer whose award winning documentary “Sweet Sweet Codeine” is up for an International Emmy for her reaction:

Thelagosreview: You were a first time guest @Kabafest2019 where your documentary was screened. How was your experience?

Ruona Agbroko- Meyer: I almost didn’t make it to KABAFEST as I had had surgery a few weeks before, so the organisers did give me some time to answer emails, prepare, and all of that. Being a first time guest at KABAFEST left me floored. I sat in front of, with and before some of the most brilliant creatives and truly humane beings I have ever met. There was a panel on the #MeToo movement, on religion, feminism, film screenings that covered political and social issues,  music, dance, and an indigenous language panel on Hausa romance, all garnished with copious amounts of poetry and other artistic performances. At every panel and performance, we screamed, cried, heckled, stood up waving hands to contribute to emotional debates…it was a very intimate space. When it was time to sit down and discuss, listen or be entertained, everyone was equal, and that sense of camaraderie lasted all through each day. I now count several of the fellow guests, visitors, volunteers and organising team as personal friends. We were that free with each other. 

TLR: Your panel discussion was on reporting and security. How did an audience in Northern Nigeria engage?  

RGA: My panel discussion was on “Objective Reporting and its Role in Security.” I was supported by top investigative journalist Fisayo Soyombo and Abdulaziz Abdulaziz of Premium Times – we were moderated by Abdulkareem Baba Amina of Daily Trust  Media.  The audience was very animated, and had very tough questions for us. We discussed how we each undertake investigations, how to be responsible in withholding alarmist details, and when it is okay to draw a line between appearing to promote terrorist activity, as opposed to reporting it. So, it was a very fast-paced discussion. The panel had to go off being broadcast live for a bit, due to sensitive information being discussed, so from time to time it was very critical of the system. The audience at a point even booed the government – but then, that was the beauty of KabaFest – people could say their mind, with no consequence, whether a government representative was there or not.  I think the time I began to feel it went down well was when a reporter with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle called all of us panelists for an interview. He said he was covering Kabafest, and was interviewing some guests. I felt happy to see that a creative festival in Northern Nigeria was deemed newsworthy by a European broadcaster. It is a great thing, for me. 

TLR: No stranger to robust social media exchanges, you were in a twitter slugfest with German based writer Elnathan John all of yesterday. An online publication accused you of hurling a homophobic slur. Is that charge justified?  

RGA: I wouldn’t call it a charge, because they would have to at least be a court, and to call them an online publication is to be kind – it was a hasty set up, fit for purpose – to malign me to suit the narratives of two men, one being Elnathan John, who had an issue with my response to his personal abuse. To be homophobic, I would have to intentionally, and in the entirety of my remarks, refer to his sexuality. I did no such thing, because in response to insults casting aspersions on my sex life, I responded in like language, even mentioning the opposite sex in my tweets to him, so, since I never spoke about only one gender, to take one tweet and retweet it, and run with it is to be mischievous. The word homophobic has never and can never be used to describe me. On these same digital streets, I have stood actively to defend the rights of others to their sexual preference so I consider this my own way of countering the shoddy attempt to use a well known propagandist rag to suit a failed campaign of calumny. I am responsible for what I have said, and the intent with which it was said, not what you think I have said, or want to imagine I have said.

TLR: Why did you feel a need to respond to Elnathan’s tweet about writers taking selfies with governors even though he did not mention you by name?

RGA: Because the instigator released his tirade shortly after videos, and pictures of our panel were widely shared. In fact, another panelist Fisayo, was also terribly insulted on the same thread by the frenzied mob he aimed to garner. These tweets are there. I responded because of his overwhelming use of Eau de Hypocrisy – this was someone whose books was at KABAFEST, somehow did not feel the need to withdraw his books, but suddenly, a whole FIVE days after the event was over, begins demonising the event and participants of which I was one, with sweeping statements.   I responded because none of us: I, Soyombo and Abdulaziz even went near the governor, mush less took a photo with him. In fact, the governor was not even at our panel. Yet, this creature was making sweeping, erroneous statements including that I in particular was given lots of “blood money,” I was fighting for despots to remain in power with my blood, he said we never criticised government  – truly shocking, outright lies. I mean, what money was there when we had to literally pass round a bag and dip in our pockets to support some of the performers? Funny, right? Our flights back were so connected and VERY economy class, that my ankles got swollen. So, you look at that, and see what this creature is doing, and you are gobsmacked. However, soon after I started responding, I discovered based on reactions, that this is a yearly occurrence by Elnathan. I thought of the young students who asked passionate questions, the teenagers who sobbed in my arms when we were asked to stand up if you have ever been sexually assaulted and blame yourself for it – and I knew that whatever grouse he had with the organiser, if no one spoke up, and strongly, this repugnant habit of regularly saying people must act a certain way and protest in a certain way at a certain time in a certain place, was likely going to rob the young people I saw of the ONLY literary festival in Northern Nigeria.  It’s a dictatorship, really. How do you say we all must protest a certain way? How do you call people murderers, just because you were not invited to a festival? How do you try to destroy the one thing at least one thousand young people came to, just to get clout on social media? It is unreasonable. How do you then also do all this divisive caterwauling from a foreign country, when you have never been recorded as running a successful festival, on the scale of KABAFEST, for the duration of KAFABEST? It’s irresponsible, even for a carefree artist. So, let this creature know – if you have a problem with the State, or organisers, hurling all these blanket , personal abuse every year is not the way. I reminded him that he was nominated for a Prize administered by a government-corporate entity cohort accused of fraud and human rights abuses, yet he still cites the Prize. I asked him if you won, would you have taken selfies too? I remember telling him no one has a monopoly of crassness, and I was as courteous as possible. However, I hit a nerve, clearly, as this creature got personal. So I reciprocated.   

TLR: Why do you think your “dick refugee” comment has been interpreted as homophobic?

RGA: I reckon because of the association of both words: the dick is slang for the penis – a male term, and my use of the word refugee.  Now, while it was misconstrued as such, to whoever cares to discern, that was one in a series of tweets – because along his thread and on retweets by his friends I was called a prostitute, all sorts of sexual names, I was still in jest mode and referring to his staying abroad when I called him a dick refugee. Now, because the whole prostitute thing came by way of his vitriol, I responded by hinting he was the actual loose one, actively seeking women. Note I plainly said he sought WOMEN, and then proceeded to say the dick thing.

Now, they of course ran with that, tagged as many handles as they thought could be manipulated, and even ended up tagging the Emmys – their goal being to what end, I do not know.  In fact I wondered at first, because I thought the accusation was linked to the words “sexual immigrant” – which I was told is a slang in certain places for gay people. I told the friend who pointed it out that no, as he was mentioning our both being in Germany, I used immigrant.  My friend says “oh you first started with women, so I know what you meant – I am just letting you know because you are clueless with slang.” I thanked her profusely So, to see it was the refugee thing, with no recourse for context or the first tweets, in the usual frenzy to pander for social media clout, was to see a mob erroneously think they had seen easy prey. I am not homophobic, and that is one label that will not stick, no matter how many raggedy blogs they paste the lies on. All it showed was the mindset with which this creature started his “campaign”in the first place – self-serving by selective filtering and retweeting of text. By afternoon, there was a phishing attack on my email, then a few hours later,  I saw they went on to tag an organisation they erroneously thought was my employer, and then tagged the Emmys,  At that point, I actually felt great relief. It proved to me that I was justified. I immediately remembered the words of a friend: “you know you are doing the right thing when the bullies feel the need to scurry away from the playground and try to feign injury before whoever they perceive is the headmaster.” The messages of support have been heartwarming. I had former guests who said they have felt victimised by this same creature’s comments and were happy someone spoke up. Someone had to point out that the young people would suffer because how one performs activism, is as important as activism itself.  What kind of “freedom fighter” will want to police how people protest, where or when they protest, leaves a verbal argument to go and try to manipulate systems against those perceived as opponents?  Just the same way they were ready to discredit KABAFEST, without regard for the young people it serves in Northern Nigeria, they were also willing to try and rob Nigeria of seeing me, the only woman on this country’s Emmy nomination team take my hard-fought place at the ceremony. I am happy to say they have failed, on both counts. KABAFEST and more like it will continue to serve our children, I will maintain my right to reaction to abuse and freedom of association, and no one will stop it. No amount of personal vendetta should deprive our children of spaces to express their art, and see others like them at work. I have since heard that one young woman wrote in about how she listened to our panel, and was emboldened to go home, and tell her parents she wanted to be a journalist.   I don’t care what bee Elnathan has in his bonnet, and with whomever, because there is a world out there, bigger than writers. I have not worked 16 years as a journalist, almost a decade of that as an investigator, to stand by and watch initiatives that benefit the ordinary youth suffer, just because one writer feels so entitled that their personal motives make them threaten the existence of spaces for our youth, while casting aspersions on one’s integrity. For these two reasons I’ll fight. Over and over again, and in the language and tone with which I am attacked. 

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