Family values, hate speech and the right to be gay in Nigeria

Cary Alan Johnson and Fadzai Muparutsa

Nigeria, which has ambitions for international and African leadership, is currently debating a Bill that if passed will lead to a crackdown on gay rights. Cary Alan Johnson and Fadzai Muparutsa says the governments is crushing a minority to make points with conservatives.

The National Assembly of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is debating a bill that makes same-sex marriage as well as any form of protest for gay rights punishable by five years in prison. Make no mistake - the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act is not about gay marriage, which is essentially a non-issue in Nigeria. The intent of the proposed law is to further vilify and stigmatize an increasingly vocal minority.

Official debate on the bill hasn’t even started and already public attacks on homosexuals are on the rise. In the Federal Capital Abuja last month, a male couple was beaten by a mob shouting anti-gay slurs. The Sunday Sun weekly newspaper recently reported the expulsion of 15 “homosexual suspects” from the Nigerian Defense Academy in Kaduna citing the anti-gay position of the government to justify its action.

Why would a country with a vigorous a civil society, a relatively free press, and a vocal political opposition find itself debating such an undemocratic piece of legislation? Why do most Nigeria experts feel that the proposed bill would pass with little or no opposition with parliamentarians disregarding the long struggle Nigeria has waged for rule of law in their country - first against a brutal colonialism and then in the face of a series of repressive military dictatorships? Where are the voices of reason which, despite personal discomfort with homosexuality, will name this Act for what it is - a bigoted piece of hate speech posing as Nigerian family values?

With Nigeria facing major political, social and economic challenges, this attack on the country’s highly homosexual minority seems calibrated to curry favor with religious conservatives - Christian and Moslem - who agree on very little, but find common ground with the government in the condemnation of gay men and lesbians.

Same sex attracted people have always been part of Nigerian culture, but now many politicians and religious leaders want to characterize homosexuality as “unAfrican” and “immoral”. A “sodomy” conviction can already get you up to 14 years in prison in most of Nigeria and in the states of the north operating under Sharia law the penalty is death. The proposed Prohibition Act would make gay meetings, the registration of gay organizations, and any “public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private (sic)” punishable by five years in prison. The bill would make media debate of sexual rights, any gathering of gay men and lesbians -political or social - and any private intimate relationship between two people of the same sex a crime. Extortion, already a common feature of the lives of most Nigerian gay men and lesbians, would know no bounds.

Passage of the proposed legislation would constitute a major violation of international and regional human rights standards and challenge the protections of freedom of speech, assembly and association in Nigeria’s own constitution. Even the US State Department has expressed concern that the proposed law would be inconsistent with Nigeria’s international obligations.

The proposed curtailing of free speech is particularly frightening in light of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Nigeria, where 5.4% of adults are HIV positive. HIV outreach workers must be free to provide HIV education and other services to men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women and to engage in frank, respectful discussions about human sexuality with all their clients. Anything less will jeopardize Nigeria’s HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment efforts.

The debate over same-sex marriage is likely to rage for years, but the right to participate in that debate - or the debate over other controversial topics - should be sacrosanct. Nigeria has proclaimed itself ready to lead Africa, and the world, in the 21st century, by lobbying for a permanent seat on a proposed reconfiguration of the UN Security Council. The attack on basic human freedoms embodied in the Prohibition Act is a throwback, exposing the reactionary leanings of a government willing to crush an unpopular minority to make points with conservatives.

Nigerian media has reported that gay rights activists “stormed” the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Abuja in December of last year demanding their rights. In fact, openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Africans did participate in that conference, asking their governments, international donors and AIDS service organizations to pay greater attention to the HIV vulnerability of men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women. In response to this request, the Nigerian government is proposing legislation that threatens their very existence. In a country making claims to moral and political leadership on a continent struggling for economic justice, isn’t it already crystal clear that no part of the African family is expendable?



Cary Alan Johnson is Senior Specialist for Africa with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; Fadzai Muparutsa is Board Member,Coalition of African Lesbians

This article first appeared at Pambazuka


May 2006

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