Nigeria is about to set itself apart, yet again, in one of the most sweeping anti-gay laws in the world. While the pending civil law proposes a lighter sentence than the criminal law, its legal reach is breathtaking. Interestingly, homosexuality is already criminalized in Nigeria. Depending on whether the accused is Christian or Muslim, the penalty is either 14 years imprisonment or death by stoning. So, with such legal deterrents already in place, what is the purpose of the new Same-Sex Bill? Have the numbers of gays and lesbians seeking to marry or procure civil unions in Nigeria become so significant as to warrant a specific prohibition? In fact, the bill is about much more than protecting the sanctity of marriage.
The full title of the pending law is A BILL FOR AN ACT TO MAKE PROVISIONS FOR THE PROHIBITION OF SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PERSONS OF THE SAME SEX, CELEBRATION OF MARRIAGE BY THEM AND FOR OTHER MATTERS CONNECTED THEREWITH. As such, its primary purpose is to prohibit same-sex marriages, whether civil or religious. It extends the criminal ambit to include all persons who aid, assist, preside over, witness or even cater such an occasion. Marriages made and recognized by other countries will become null and void in Nigeria. The law also forbids gay people from forming associations, whether to publicize or defend their lives.
Furthermore, the Nigerian government proposes to criminalize any organization that works on gay and lesbian issues, even if it doesn’t do so overtly. Any public display, including a march for gender equality or the rights of the disabled or a group of youth rallying for their favorite sports team, if there is a “gay” person present, will be a criminal act. Any literature on gay and lesbian issues published by the media, even electronically, will be a criminal act. Any one who exercises his/her right to associate and work collectively with people, to write and express ideas, to witness for and advocate on behalf of others, whether those others are actually gay, will have committed a crime. And finally, whether Nigerian citizens do these things in public or in private, they will be legally liable for them.
Effectively, the new law will isolate gays and lesbians from community and from legal recourse. Under the guise of preventing gay marriage it will, in one fell swoop, create a new category of person in Nigeria. This new person need not be identified but may merely be suspected. He or she will have little individual right to protection from injustice because his/her very right to exist will be in legal limbo. He or she may not join others to protect themselves nor seek public or private support and protection because basic rights of association will not exist for them. Such a person, cut off from legal moorings in the polity becomes an outsider and an easy scapegoat in distressing times.
So we ask ourselves, this bill is such a surprise at this moment in Nigerian political life, what else is going on? We know who it hurts but whom does it benefit? At its worst, it stands to unleash hysteria against citizens of Nigeria. At its very least, it is a diversion from something else. By playing on presumed national homophobia, it seeks to divert domestic attention away from other matters. From the looks of the political landscape, it isn’t hard to imagine why Nigerians might need some distracting.
President Obasanjo, is trying to force an illegal third term and has polarized the country, raising political tensions to a fever pitch. His challenger is a Muslim whose supporters have made possible and backed the last 30 years of military rule. They now insist that the President will not have a third term. Overall, Muslim and Christian tension is at an all-time high and has lately broken out into deadly violence. Refugee organizations estimate that up to 5 million people have been displaced by communal violence in Nigeria in the last five years.
While disagreeing on many issues, Muslim and Christian leaders in Nigeria seem to agree on the nefariousness of homosexuality. So a political strategy that involves disenfranchising gays seems a reasonable approach to accord between them. Such astute guidance comes currently from the person of the Archbishop of Nigeria, Dr Peter Akinola. (The Archbishop is actively seeking to split the Anglican Church and to move its center to the southern hemisphere, ostensibly to Nigeria.) In order to galvanize support for his more imperial objective, he has demonized gays and uses an anti-gay pulpit to advance his agenda. President Obasanjo publicly supports the Archbishop saying, that homosexuality is “un-Biblical, unnatural and definitely un-African” and that it is "a perversion of the divine order, and sin."
In the meantime, rebellion is in the air in the economic heart of the country. The beleaguered peoples of the Niger Delta have finally taken matters into their own hands with an insurrection that has cut oil exports by over 25%. If eastern parts of the Delta join in, exports could drop to 50%. Between the fears of civil conflict throughout Nigeria and an open armed hostility in oil country, the world’s eighth largest exporter, finds itself at another pivotal moment in its history. Its response is to incite furor against an already marginalized group of people who pose no threat either to the government or to the society.
Fomenting anti-gay sentiment is a simple, cost-effective means to animate and coalesce a splintered and critical electorate. This bill is an Abujan horse, a cover that mollifies enough people while sneaking insidious forces into their midst. It is a pre-emptive law that trades on public, national homophobia to pass sweeping controls on the rights of association, conscience, __expression and assembly. It will open the way for increased violence against gay and lesbian citizens, violence that is already occurring with impunity and, often, at the hands of public servants.
Next week, the Nigerian parliament is expected to pass this bill into law.
In solidarity with gay and lesbian citizens of Nigeria, human rights organizations, and concerned Christian and Muslim people around the world, we urge the government of Nigeria to:
- Withdraw the bill
- Guarantee safety and protection for all persons irrespective of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and __expression, or religion;
- Respect its international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
We urge lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and allies around the world to add their voices against this bill, to support our friends in Nigeria, and to demonstrate to governments of the world that our lives will not be easily used for their political purposes.Uhuru-Wazobia
Our primary goal is to provide support, contact and growth opportunities for our members who are dealing with the many complexities of being gay, African and living outside of their countries of origin. Uhuru-Wazobia will also serve as an information center for and about African gays and lesbians, a voice for our community in its relationship with government, the media and other relevant organizations.
Uhuru-Wazobia is a democratic, egalitarian, participating organization that aims to be a supportive, safe and empowering space for its members. Uhuru-Wazobia aims to enshrine the best traditions of African community and family, while allowing us to define our own sexual and cultural identities, independent of both western imposed constructs and the imposed constructs of African “heterosexism.”
Published on May 15, 2006 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization