The criminalization of homosexuality in Nigeria is one of the laws left over from the colonial period and is based on the then-British law against sodomy. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain. However, many of the former British colonies which were by then independent did not follow suit. The colonial laws remain in place today in countries such as Nigeria and Uganda, as well as in India.
In January 2006 the Nigerian Government under President Obasanjo announced the introduction of a Bill which would eradicate the rights of LGBTI people in Nigeria as well as anyone or group who supported them. The Bill was a huge shift away from the present law (which carries a maximum of 14 years imprisonment); it also criminalized same sex Marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Even more worrying was the addition of criminalizing anyone who associated with gays, lesbians or transgender/transsexual people and the outlawing of any club, association or gathering of LGBTI people.
The Anglican Church in Nigeria, led by Bishop Peter Akinola, has played a huge part in fuelling religious and state sanctioned homophobia in the country. In early 2005 some 300 Nigerian bishops met to discuss future ties with the global Anglican church and used the meeting to declare homosexuality as 'unAfrican', 'unbiblical' and 'unnatural'. The Bill was so draconian that even Nigerians were reluctant to agree to it when it was presented to the Senate. The Bishops, along with the Nigerian Government, clearly failed to see the irony of declaring homosexuality 'unAfrican' and 'unbiblical' when Christianity was to a large extent imposed on the people of Nigeria by the British colonial government and missionaries.
It is very possible that the Senate's response was also based on the international outcry and the objections raised by local Human Rights Defenders. Human Rights Watch published a report condemning the Bill, which contravened international law on Human Rights. Although the Bill was eventually shelved, a brief glance at the comments left in the blogosphere and on Facebook shows the hostility and uncompromising position of the majority of Nigerians towards LGBTI people.
Some two years later, LGBTI people continue to face harrassment and violence and a number of activists have had to seek asylum in the West. Now, the Bill has resurfaced - or rather metamorphosed - into the Same Gender Prohibition Bill. The latest Bill has already been passed by the Lower House of Representatives and it is doubtful there will be any dissent this time in the Senate. The new Bill is, however, considerably different from the 2006 version: it is limited to prohibiting same-sex marriage and does not include criminalizing by association or criminalizing any form of protest, be it through the media (such as blogs or Facebook) or organizations, clubs and gatherings. The point of the new Bill is not clear: since homosexuality is already illegal then by inference any marriage between two men or two women would be as well. It seems the legislators are pandering to religious bigotry and going through a process of 'saving face'. But I believe the Bill also needs to be seen in the context of continuing human rights abuses in Nigeria as well as media censorship and attacks on freedom of speech.
*The quote 'Is African identity a house of ideas that imprisons and silences?' is from Nigerian writer Amos Tutola