Humanist organizations from Nigeria and across the world are condemning Nigeria’s Senate for passing a bill that would criminalise same-sex marriage, outlaw LGBT advocacy groups, and even ban displays of amorous affection between people of the same sex.
“This anti gay marriage bill is a clear indictment of our sense of common humanity and our commitment to human rights principles as a people and as a nation,” says Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, a member organization of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Igwe, who for many years served as IHEU’s representative in West Africa, asks, “Can the senators tell me the practical, political, moral relevance of this bill except to legislate and institutionalize hatred and persecution of minorities, gay cleansing, moral hypocrisy and inquisition?”
Although homosexuality is already illegal in Nigeria, the Senate voted on Tuesday 29 November to criminalise same-sex marriages and civil unions, with penalties of up to 14 years jail for participants and 10 years jail for anyone who helps or witnesses such a marriage or union. During its passage, the bill was dramatically widened, creating a broad assault on LGBT rights. It now also criminalises gay organisations and advocacy groups, as well as criminalizing the “public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly.”
The bill must be passed by Nigeria’s House of Representatives and signed by President Goodluck Jonathan before becoming law. However, public opinion and lawmakers’ calls for even harsher penalties show the widespread support for the measure in the deeply religious nation. “Such elements in society should be killed,” said Sen. Baba-Ahmed Yusuf Datti of the opposition party Congress for Progressive Change, drawing some murmurs of support from the gallery.
Gay sex has been banned in Nigeria since British colonial rule, but religious homophobia has pushed opposition to LGBT rights up the political agenda.
In September 2011 the Anglican Primate of Nigeria called gays and lesbians “evil”, saying that God had created women as “helpmates” for men. “What is being known now as ‘gay’ and ‘homosexuality’ is contrary to God’s plan for human sexuality and procreation,” the Most Reverend Nicholas Okoh said. “It is against the will of God, and nobody should encourage it, and those who do will earn for themselves the damnation of the Almighty.”
George Broadhead, secretary of the Pink Triangle Trust (PTT), a UK-based member organization of the IHEU which campaigns on Humanist and LGBT issues, condemned the bill for adding to the abuse of LGBT Nigerians, saying, “Gays and lesbians already face open discrimination and abuse in a country divided between Christians and Muslims who almost uniformly oppose homosexuality. In the areas in Nigeria’s north where Islamic Sharia Law has been enforced for about a decade, gays and lesbians can face death by stoning.
“It seems that there is a very real threat that this barbaric bill will become law, and if it does, Nigeria will become the most homophobic nation in Africa. If the bill is legalised, the situation for LGBT people in Nigeria will become completely untenable and set a precedent that would threaten all Nigerians’ rights to privacy, equality, free expression and association.”
Broadhead also highlights the contrasting position of religious and Humanist groups in the battle for gay rights, saying, “It is clear that the impetus for such legislation has come from religious sources and the Nigerian Humanist Movement, which has had financial support from the PTT, has been one of the few heterosexual institutions defending LGBT rights in the county. Its leader Leo Igwe deserves much credit for courageously speaking up for their rights in the country’s parliament.”
Igwe sees other African countries following the same homophobic trend as Nigeria, but he rejects the argument that it is “unAfrican” to tolerate homosexuality.
“Those who are saying that respecting people with homosexual orientation is unAfrican are really misrepresenting the African culture,” says Igwe. “If there is anything history tells us it that Africans have been traditionally tolerant of people with same sexual orientation prior to the introduction of criminal provisions based on the alien religions of Christianity and Islam.
“African politicians and lawmakers should make African traditions compatible with human rights. Unfortunately, the anti-gay-marriage bill entrenches and legalizes homophobia not human rights. Not only in Nigeria but in most parts of Africa, there is a growing trend to tighten laws against homosexuality and to ban gay marriage. There is a escalation of the clampdown on those really or imagined to be homosexuals in Ghana, Cameroun, Gambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Senegal, Malawi, Kenya etc.”