One of the most sweeping anti-gay bills ever introduced in any parliament in the world is in danger of rapid passage in Nigeria in the coming weeks. Although billed as a ban on same-sex marriage, the proposed law includes provisions that would make any expression of homosexuality — not only sexual conduct but any homosexual inclination or reference — in public or in private, a crime.
This draconian, far-reaching piece of homophobic legislation provoked a full-throated outcry from the globe’s entire human rights community when it was introduced last year, and for a while it had been dormant. But now the bill has been fast-tracked for speedy passage in advance of Nigeria’s national elections in April, and the BBC’s correspondent in the country’s capital of Abuja reported last week that “it is likely to be passed by both chambers of the Nigerian National Assembly by the end of March.”
Homosexual conduct among consenting persons in Nigeria is already a crime punishable by 14 years in prison, a 19th century penal provision that is a legacy of British colonial rule. But the new legislation goes much, much further in terms of curbing fundamental rights of expression, association, and communication. Among the proposed new law’s many noxious provisions, it would, under penalty of a stiff prison term of five years:
– outlaw membership in a gay group, attending a gay meeting or protest, donating money to a gay organization; or even advocating gay equality in any way, shape, or form;
– outlaw hosting or even visiting a gay Web site;
– outlaw expressions of same-sex love in letters or e-mails;
– outlaw attending a same-sex marriage or blessing ceremony, screening or watching a gay movie, taking or possessing photos of a gay couple, and publishing, selling, or loaning a gay book or video.
Even mere socializing by two or more gay people, like having dinner together, is likely to be interpreted as illegal.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals would be targeted not only for specific acts but also for simply existing under this proposed law, and even heterosexual people who “promote” the lifestyle of homosexuals, for example by selling them a house, would be criminalized.
“It’s critical that the Nigerian government understand that this is not an issue of liberalism or Western cultural encroachment, but that this new law violates the most basic of freedoms,” Cary Alan Johnson, senior specialist for Africa of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) told me.
And, added Johnson, “Nigeria is battling for a place as a leader of the Global South and the world as a whole. Passing the bill into law would seriously jeopardize any claims to leadership by showing that basic human freedoms are still not available in Nigeria.”
Islamic Sharia law, which makes homosexuality punishable by stoning, has been imposed in 12 of the 36 states in the Federal Republic of Nigeria — all of which have Muslim majorities and are located in the north of the country.
And now the nation’s term-limited authoritarian president for the last eight years, General Olusegun Obasanjo — having been denied a third term when the National Assembly, disgusted at his regime’s high-handed corruption, refused him a constitutional amendment allowing him to stay in office — has bypassed the primaries of his ruling People’s Democratic Party to hand-pick as his successor the governor of one of those Sharia states, Umaru Yar’Adua, known as a strict advocate of the Islamic legal code.
Obasanjo, a favorite of President George W. Bush, has been accused by opposition parties of trying to rig the April elections in favor of Yar’Adua, who is expected to be an enthusiastic enforcer of the proposed new anti-gay law if, as seems likely, he is elected.
Last week, an MD who is Obasanjo’s assistant on health issues, argued that the new anti-gay law was needed to prevent HIV/AIDS — by keeping gays from infecting their wives and children — and he also bizarrely asserted it would help in preventing breast and womb cancer, to which he claimed lesbians are particularly vulnerable, and in preventing depression and suicide.
In fact, UNAIDS and other AIDS-fighting organizations have roundly condemned the proposed new law, saying it would encourage the spread of AIDS by driving at-risk populations, including men who have sex with men, underground and invisible to prevention workers. And depression and suicide among same-sexers would undoubtedly be increased by the psychological ravages of the repressive bill, not decreased.
The national bodies representing Christians and Muslims, however, are both strong supporters of the bill.
Representatives of a broad civil society coalition opposed to the proposed law — including LGBT advocates — were initially denied entry to a so-called “public” hearing on the bill last week on the grounds that it was “by invitation only.” But after intervention by representatives of the European Union and foreign embassies, the bill’s opponents were able to pass through the National Assembly’s gates and get to the hearing, according to reports from Nigerian gay activists received by Human Rights Watch.
“There has been an absolutely amazing coalition of Nigerian LGBT and mainstream human rights activists who have come together under the banner of basic human freedoms” to oppose this bill, IGLHRC’s Johnson told me, adding, “It is really a watershed moment in LGBT history in Africa.”
The dangers of the proposed law for the fight against AIDS, and its crushing effects on already-beleaguered Nigerian gays, were underscored dramatically in a new report issued February 17 by IGLHRC, and entitled, “Voices from Nigeria: Gays Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders Speak Out Against the Same-Sex Bill.”
For example, a 37-year-old gay man named Chuma told IGLHRC, “I have been targeted myself because I am gay. Two months ago I was arrested and detained by the police in Lagos. This happened when I was carrying out research for the study on the prevalence and risk factors of HIV/AIDS, STI infections, and social risk behavior among men that have sex with men in Nigeria. A team of policemen in Lagos came to my apartment and took me away to an unknown place for two days. I was beaten beyond recognition, and I am still receiving treatment for the head injury I received. I was dehumanized and paraded naked to the press. My money, ID card, and shoes were taken. Eventually I was released without being charged or tried. My only offense was that I am gay.”
“On another occasion, ” Chuma continued, “when I was at a gay bar, police came and arrested everyone there. Twenty-three people, including myself, were kept in detention for two days without a trial. I am concerned that the same-sex bill proposed by the Nigerian government will further force gays underground. Hate campaigns against GLBT people will increase and fundamental freedoms will be challenged. The laws will also affect Nigerians more broadly. HIV/AIDS will increase because visible support for GLBT organizations will vanish. Unemployment will increase. GLBT-friendly lawyers will refuse to defend gays for fear of persecution.”
The entire, must-read “Voices from Nigeria” report is available online for you to read — as you should — by clicking here.
One report last week from a leader of the LGBT-civil society opposition to the bill suggested that the Nigerian National Assembly is divided on its passage at the moment, with one-third for, one-third against, and one-third undecided. And IGLHRC’s Johnson told Gay City News that “There is still time to prevent the passage of this bill.”
Asked by this reporter what U.S. gays could do to help, Johnson said: “While Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin have both weighed in against the bill, Americans still need to put pressure on their representatives to condemn the bill. Your readers should call their members of Congress and the State Department and ask them to speak out against the Same-Sex Marriage Act. Full-scale activism is what is needed at this point.”
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Feb. 21, 2007. The article was written for Gay City News — New York’s largest gay weekly.