Nigeria’s anti-gay Bill: remembering human rights

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
3 Oct 2011

Some Nigerian politicians are again trying to push through legislation to further criminalise lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people and their friends.

Sex between people of the same gender is already a crime, and in some parts of the country, men who have sex with each other can be put to death – but certain people seem to believe this is not harsh enough.

The Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2011 is a scaled-down version of earlier anti-LGBT bills. These were dropped after strong protests by human rights advocates at home and abroad., “We as a country need to act very fast for this trend not to find its way into our country,” the Bill’s main sponsor, Senator Domingo Obende, reportedly said. “Same sex marriage cannot be allowed on moral and religious grounds. The Muslim religion forbids it. Christianity forbids it and the African traditional religion forbids it. It should not be allowed because it will lead to a breakdown of the society.”

Apparently he warned that the results would be catastrophic if action was not taken to prohibit same-sex marriage: “With the legalisation of same sex marriage, every school in Nigeria would be required to teach that this perversion is the moral equivalent of traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Textbooks would have to depict man/man and woman/woman relationship and stories written for children as young as kindergarten would have to give equal space to homosexuals.

“The younger generations and those yet unborn would be deprived of the good news as already occurred in some countries of the world. Instead of providing for father and mother, the advent of same sex marriage will create millions of motherless and fatherless children and this is morally wrong.”

This is blatant scaremongering. There is obviously no possibility that marriage law in Nigeria will be altered in the foreseeable future to include same sex partnership – if any politician were bold enough to put forward such a proposal it would be roundly defeated. Even attempting to decriminalise gay sex would be an uphill battle. And, in those countries where both opposite-sex and same-sex couples can now be legally married, the majority of people remain heterosexual; indeed society continues much as it did before.

But, as a closer look at the Bill shows, it is actually about giving the state power to punish anyone suspected of entering into, or celebrating and supporting, a sexual relationship or loving partnership between two men or two women. The wording explains that “’Same Gender Marriage’ means the coming together of persons of the same sex with the purpose of leaving [sic] together as husband and wife or for other purposes of same sexual relationship”. Partners face up to three years in prison, while any person or group that “witnesses, abet[s] and aids the solemnisation of a same gender marriage contract” may be imprisoned for five years.

This will not stamp out same-sex desire and love. People do not stop being lesbian or gay as a result of legal repression, though their feelings may be driven underground, with sometimes damaging effects. For instance, family relationships may be shattered if someone who hates lesbians turns out to have a daughter or granddaughter who is lesbian. And a man whose orientation is gay may be pressured into marrying a woman and then puts her and himself at risk through unsafe sex. But such a law will make many people’s lives a misery, and open the door to false accusations against business or political rivals.

Nigerian human rights activists have condemned the Bill. As the Coalition for the Defense of Sexual Rights pointed out, “We as human rights defenders are aware that not a single gay group has asked for the right to marry. Our advocacy is not directed at that. We are advocating for tolerance and respect for everyone irrespective of his or her sex, gender, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and gender identity, etc. These rights are not illusionary. They are rights that Nigeria’s same-sex loving people derive from Chapter IV of the Nigerian constitution…

“Furthermore, we feel deeply threatened by the proposed paragraph 4(2) of the bill, which provides greater criminal liability to anyone who abets and aids same-sex marriage…

“The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, in its Article 7, specifically provides that ‘everyone has the right, individually and in association with others to develop and discuss new human rights ideas and principles and to advocate their acceptance.’”

It is to be hoped that supporters of human rights across the world, and overseas governments, join in putting pressure on Nigeria’s political leaders in the government and main opposition parties to reject this Bill, which will inflict further misery on Nigerians who are (or are thought to be) LGBT and their families, as well as opening the door to extortion and other rackets. This is not because the West, and other parts of the world, are morally superior – quite the opposite.

Across the world, history has shown that it is all too easy, when countries face insecurity and political turmoil, for anger and hatred to be turned against vulnerable minorities, and in time for human rights in general to be eroded.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up with the involvement of people of many faiths and none, and diverse cultural backgrounds, and signed in 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War, at the end of which the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany were publicly exposed. The regime had tapped into citizens’ fears and insecurities, claimed to be defending the nation and obeying God’s will as expressed in the Bible, to carry out mass murder of Jewish and disabled people and throw many others into concentration camps – socialists, gays and lesbians, gypsies and others. Torture, rape and terrible atrocities were committed under the guise of righteousness and defence of public morality.

It is all too easy for people, however civilised and rational they may think themselves to be, to be swept away by hostility towards scapegoats. Afterwards they may be ashamed of and horrified at what they have done, or find it difficult to acknowledge what they did. Some may even, like Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament, look back and feel that the violence they condoned – far from being justified – was directed at the Divine.

It is all the more important for those not caught up in a surge of mass hostility, including overseas well-wishers, to try to ensure that human rights are protected, and the dignity of all respected.

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© Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. A widely-published commentator on social and religious affairs, she is an Ekklesia associate.

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