Spin, truth-telling and human rights in Nigeria

By Savi Hensman
January 22, 2014

A special adviser on media and publicity to Nigeria’s president is trying to justify a brutally oppressive new law by claiming that it reflects national and religious values. Meanwhile signatures are being gathered for a petition asking the archbishops of Canterbury and York to speak out against this law. Overseas faith leaders may need to choose their words carefully if they are to be most effective.

The deceptively-named Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act further criminalises lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, who already risk imprisonment and violence, as well as sympathetic heterosexuals and health professionals trying to combat HIV.

Anyone who enters into, or is present at, a same-sex marriage or civil union ceremony, directly or indirectly makes a public show of a same-sex “amorous relationship” or supports gay clubs, organisations, or meetings can be jailed. This violates the Nigerian constitution as well as internationally-recognised human rights principles and the ethical requirements of justice and compassion.

“This is a law that is in line with the people's cultural and religious inclination,” stated president Goodluck Jonathan’s spin-doctor Reuben Abati. “More than 90 percent of us oppose same-sex marriage, so it is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of Nigerian people.”

Throughout the world, the scapegoating of minorities can be a welcome distraction for governments which have failed to deliver sustainable development benefiting poor and middle-income households. Other politicians too may play to the gallery, tapping into myths and stereotypes to attack one vulnerable group or another. Sadly religious leaders can act similarly, passing off cruelty as piety to the extent that they may fool even themselves.

On Abati’s website, he features an article attacking overseas critics of the Act, ‘Let the Western world grant Nigerian homosexuals their citizenships’, by Akin Babajide. If criticism can be neutralised, even turned to the advantage of the government by making it appear heroic, people in Nigeria are less likely to question the official line.

“The world is indeed in perilous times! I watched with utter consternation, bewilderment and total disappointment the arguments advanced by the European Union Chief of Mission in Nigeria, Mr. Westcott, who briefed the press a few days ago on human rights and the feelings of Western nations that gays, lesbians and homosexuals be allowed to carry on their nefarious and condemnable activities in Nigeria. One is glad that the envoy admitted that our culture, norms, values and beliefs are markedly different from those of the advanced countries where man can marry a man and woman can marry a woman,” the article begins.

Resentment that representatives of other countries might dare to criticise Nigeria is one of the themes, along with the claim that homosexuality is a specifically western practice that will lead to an end to childbearing. “Let us reason together. How long will it take the Western world and other societies that have embraced homosexuality and bestiality to go into extinction since it is impracticable for those engaged in the shameful practice to procreate?” the author asks rhetorically. Supposedly the “advanced nations” will “naturally eventual go into extinction through the practice of homosexuality.”

A reality check would reveal that bestiality remains illegal in many societies that have decriminalised same-sex relationships and indeed legally recognised partnerships. More importantly, most people remain heterosexual and babies continue to be born, a few through donor insemination but usually through male-female sex. The argument that harming a minority protects the majority is utterly false.

The article also attacks the notion of universal human rights. “The fact that Nigeria subscribes to some treaties, including the United Nations Convention of Human Rights is not an enough reason for few certain misguided elements to circumvent our country’s rules and regulations,” it states. “Human rights cannot be absolute and must, therefore, conform to the regulations of a given society.” By this skewed logic, a racist society should be free to mistreat people of African descent, and persecution of Christians if in a minority is acceptable.

The article also praises archbishop Peter Akinola, the former Anglican primate (most senior cleric) of Nigeria who sought to stir up hostility to lesbian and gay people internationally, and quotes him at length, including his claim that ““Homosexuality is flagrant disobedience to God” which “contradicts the very light and law of nature.”

In this context, some overseas religious leaders may fear that anything they say may be twisted to try to show that local defenders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights are following a western agenda, hence making matters worse. However silence allows untruths to take hold, including the notion that God is on the side of those who hurt and vilify those made in the Divine image.

Truth is of vital importance in the New Testament (e.g. John 8). No human can be confident that he or she knows the whole truth. But sharing what one knows or believes to be true on important matters, and listening to others’ responses in order to adjust or build on this, can help to create a world where destructive forms of untruth are exposed.

Church leaders could perhaps point out that human rights are by no means a purely western concept – indeed the United Nations and international human rights organisations criticise European and North American as well as other governments when they act in cruel and unjust ways. In this interconnected world, not challenging injustice in another country may result in bolstering the power and prestige of those mistreating others. This is not about ‘the West’ standing in judgement but Christians everywhere being ready to come to the aid of the needy and oppressed.

In fact, the UK has its own history of cruelly mistreating LGBT people in ways that did damage to the fabric of society, including hounding some of the brightest and best to an early grave. Church of England leaders, seeing the harm done and seeking to follow Christ’s call to do to others as you would have them do to you and to love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 7.12, 22.34-40), worked for decriminalisation.

It may also be worth pointing out that international Anglican gatherings have spoken out for universal human rights since 1948, including – since 1978 – for people of homosexual orientation. Despite different views on sexual ethics, no-one has convincingly argued at such events that persecuting LGBT people is justifiable for Christians.

Nigerians are less gullible than some politicians seem to think, and increasing numbers will come to recognise the falsity of the arguments for this harmful law. However in the meantime many people will get hurt, and families and communities will be damaged as sons and daughters, friends and workmates are victimised.

In any society in the grip of a surge of hostility – whether directed against ethnic or religious minorities, LGBT or disabled people – seeing through the illusions fostered by spin-doctors and other allies of the powerful can be hard. Those overseas can sometimes assist by speaking out for justice and mercy and pointing out that whatever is done to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is done to Christ (Matthew 25.31-46).

The petition, started by Nigerian exile Davis Mac-Iyalla, can be found on http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/to-the-archbishops-of-canterbury-a....


© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.