The Flames of Homophobia Burn in Nigeria

By Damian Ugwu, IGLHRC's Regional Program Coordinator for Africa

The flames of homophobia are burning in Nigeria. The latest version of the deceptively named "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill” has dangerously resurfaced.

On May 30, 2013 the Nigerian House of Representatives passed a bill banning same sex marriage and further criminalizing same sex relations. The bill, among other things, introduces criminal penalties including a term for up to 14 years for marriage ceremonies between persons of the same sex as well as for persons witnessing or helping to formalize such marriage. The Nigerian Senate passed the bill in December 2011. Now, with both houses having passed the bill, it requires only the signature of Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck to become law.

This is not only overkill, it is also outrageous. Under Nigeria’s criminal code penal code, consensual same sex conduct between adults is already punishable: Chapter 42, Section 214 of the criminal code provides a sentence of 14 years "imprisonment for carnal knowledge against the order of nature." The proposed bill in fact contravenes the basic rights of every Nigerian to life, liberty, freedom of expression, association and assembly as well as fundamental freedoms protected under international law as in included in numerous international human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a signatory.

So why this legislation? Why now? The Nigerian anti-gay bill must be understood within the context of the sociopolitical crises within the country and the rise of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria. Since the return of civilian rule in Nigeria in 1999, the much-awaited "dividends of democracy," including improved health care, education and infrastructural development, have been largely unmet. This, coupled with an unprecedented level of corruption and mismanagement of the common wealth, leaves many Nigerians in a quandary.

The last 10 years in Nigeria have seen frightening levels of terrorism and religious and ethnic violence. At no time in the history of Nigeria is the unity of the country more threatened than now, never have we witnessed such deep-seated mistrust of Nigerian elites and ethnic leaders. It seems that the only thing these leaders – and most Nigerians- can agree on is their love of football and their hatred of homosexuality.

It is within this context that the anti-gay bill is situated. This bill must be understood for what it is: a diversionary tactic by politicians to confuse the public and distract attention from pressing socio-economic realities.

Responding to the challenge by ensuring that the bill does not become a reality requires a thorough understanding not only of these realities but also of the state of LGBT activism in Nigeria. LGBT activists in Nigeria, like most of their colleagues in Africa, operate within an extremely hostile and challenging environment. They remain under-resourced and severely isolated. These young men and women have previously exhibited commendable bravery and resilience when they fought the bill in 2007 and 2011, even with very limited resources at their disposal.

What they need is support and encouragement. The truth is, the battle cannot be won primarily in the streets and conference halls in New York or Geneva but here in Lagos and Abuja. This is not to say that support from international NGOs, activists and diplomats are not important – far from that. The point is that local activists need to be empowered to drive the process. They need offices, computers and, more importantly, the training and skills to lead the process. They must be allowed to take the lead.

Circumventing this process will only exacerbate the problem, as has been shown in several African countries. Like with the case of Uganda, pressure from the West only emboldens the religious fundamentalists and their political allies. It also exposes local activists to increased anti-gay attacks and provides fundamentalist with the weapon to argue, "We told you so: It was planned and delivered from the West."

The impact of this bill would reach far beyond gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities in Nigeria. It will impede the work of civil society, public health workers and human these defenders. It is an assault on the human rights not only of LGBTI people but on all Nigerians.

As for most Nigerians, what they need is to be told the truth. They will understand this best, when their fellow compatriots, their brothers, sisters, uncles and nieces tell it. And this truth is that Nigerians are being taken for a long ride by legislators and their religious allies, just to make them forget, even if temporarily, their present socioeconomic predicaments.

With such knowledge, every Nigerian would join in calling upon President Goodluck to refuse to sign this egregious bill.