When Goodluck Jonathan etched his presidential signature on the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act last month, indelibly marking all gays and lesbians in Nigeria as criminals, he said it was a reflection of the country’s ‘beliefs and orientations’, but as the clampdown continues, the global voices of dissent grow louder.
‘The government is duping the conscience of the people,’ said Davis Mac-Iyalla, a Nigerian LGBT activist, who along with around 100 others took to the streets of London to protest the decision last week.
Gathered outside the Nigeria High Commission, holding placards penned with the words ‘Love Is Not A Crime’, ‘LGBT Rights Are Human Rights’ and ‘Stop State Homophobia’, protesters voiced their disgust at a law which has unashamedly created a parallel pariah state in the country
Adopted by the Senate in 2011, passed by the Lower House of Parliament in May last year and signed by Jonathan on 7 January, the bill has made same-sex marriages and civil unions punishable by 14-year prison terms. Public displays of affection, gay nightclubs, LGBT societies and advocacy groups are outlawed too, all of which has left the LGBT community in Africa’s most populous nation more isolated and exposed than ever before.
The demonization of gays and lesbians in Nigeria is an embedded cultural view. A recent study revealed that 98 per cent of the country believed gay people should not be accepted in society. And even before the latest draconian measures were introduced, homosexuality was still illegal and the LGBT community a marginalized element of society.
Mac-Iyalla, founder of Anglican LGBT organization Changing Attitude Nigeria, was himself forced to flee Nigeria in 2008. Arrested, beaten and tortured by police in the capital Abuja two years earlier, Mac-Iyalla’s campaigning for LGBT rights had made him a target back home.
Protesters voiced their disgust at a law which has unashamedly created a parallel pariah state in the country
After receiving a series of death threats while speaking at the Anglican church’s Lambeth Conference in 2008, Mac-Iyalla was granted asylum in Britain and has been unable to return home since.
‘Where in the Bible does it tell you to persecute people who are different to you?’ asked Mac-Iyalla as he looked up to the vacant windows of the embassy building, knowing a response would not come.
The fervent belief in fundamental Christianity among many Nigerians denounces homosexuality as ‘sinful’ and ‘abnormal’, while the sharia law practiced in the largely Muslim north advocates death by stoning for those suspected of homosexual activity.
Religion is a driving force in the lives of millions of Nigerians and Pentecostal preaching against homosexuality has been applauded and taken as gospel for decades. Homophobia has trickled down the generations and the new law is ‘locked in to an African Christian mentality’ according to one Anglican priest.
‘It is nothing to do with Christianity, but the majority of Nigerians think they are expressing basic Christian values. It is something which is locked in to an African Christian mentality,’ said Colin Coward, founder of Changing Attitude UK.
Since the passing of the law, violence towards the LGBT community has escalated sharply, and Coward, a prominent LGBT activist, revealed how a friend was one of 14 men hunted down in Abuja and assaulted by a vigilante group last week.
He said: ‘A friend in Abuja was taken out of his home at night and beaten by a vigilante gang who suspected him of being gay. They took him to a police station, where he was stripped naked, interrogated and physically and mentally abused by police officers. All his possessions were taken and now he is in hiding.’
Public reaction to the decision is alarmingly evident, as is the politically motivated timing of its enactment.
‘It is nothing to do with Christianity, but the majority of Nigerians think they are expressing basic Christian values. It is something which is locked in to an African Christian mentality’
On 28 May 2011, Goodluck Jonathon gave his inauguration speech as president. He talked of an ‘era of transformation’, promising to tackle the ‘bane of corruption’ and ‘to create greater access’ to education, employment and healthcare, but almost three years in and Jonathan’s presidency is floundering.
Only last week, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Mallam Sanusi, was suspended for ‘alleged mismanagement of funds’ (although conflicting accounts have emerged), while reports of malpractice by senior government officials and companies including the National Petroleum Corporation are widespread.
With unemployment levels spiking over 22 per cent, several state governors defecting to the newly formed All Progressives Congress party and Boko Haram insurgency unabating, the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act is clearly an attempt to win public favour ahead of next year’s general elections.
‘The government has a tendency to throw at the baying mob a populist cause just to sure up their own popularity,’ said Nigerian cabaret artist Son of a Tutu at last week’s London protest.
The law has made the LGBT community a ‘scapegoat to distract the people’, according to Mac-Iyalla, while Yemisi Ilesanmi, one of the protest organizers and author of Freedom to Love for ALL: Homosexuality is not Un-African, believes the ruling PLP party has deliberately targeted a ‘vulnerable’ section of Nigerian society.
‘As a Nigerian and bisexual it is important [for me] to speak out – we must be the voice for the voiceless back home. The government uses vulnerable groups and passes such laws to attain political support and popularity among the Nigerian people,’ she said.
In a country where gender roles are largely conservative, the bill represents a sombre assertion of traditional values.
Worryingly, they are draconian laws which are spreading across the continent – homosexuality is illegal in 36 countries in Africa. On 24 February, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni introduced stricter anti-gay legislation in the country making same-sex marriages and acts of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by life imprisonment.
Alastair Stewart, of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based LGBT rights group, fears the Nigerian bill could be a catalyst for similar laws across the continent.
‘There is a growing concern of a domino effect occurring. These laws are empowering conservative organizations and rightwing religious groups to seek such laws in other parts of the continent,’ said Stewart.
With a population of 160 million, over 500 languages and more than 100 ethnic groups, Nigeria is a place where diversity abounds; yet this legislation, however much intended as a display of autonomy and a rebuttal of Western ideology, is a symbol of regression and ignorance, as Mac-Iyalla pronounced through the microphone: ‘You call yourself the “Giant of Africa”. What is giant about this law?’
Whether Nigeria will one day come to celebrate its LGBT community is unknown, but this latest law further oppresses and ostracizes a part of society who should be helping the country kickstart its era of democratic transformation. As author Chimamanda Adichie eloquently surmised in a recent essay, ‘The mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority, but in the protection of its minority.’