Nigerian archbishop attacks human rights, putting government before God

By Savi Hensman
January 29, 2014

Archbishop Nicholas Okoh has praised Nigeria’s president for signing an anti-gay bill into law and criticised its opponents, according to a Channels Television news report. The new law, misleadingly called the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, goes far further in undermining human rights, contrary to Nigeria’s constitution and Christian values.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Nigerians are already criminalised. Under the new law, two people of the same sex can be locked up for 14 years for living together as if in a marriage or civil union or 10 years for aiding such a relationship. They can also be jailed for 10 years for direct or indirect public show of a same-sex amorous relationship or participating in or supporting gay organisations or meetings.

This gives the state huge power over people’s private lives. A woman who lets a friend share her room, along with her parents, could be arrested if a hostile neighbour claims she is lesbian, or a doctor or nurse jailed for trying to stop the spread of HIV by educating gays on prevention. The law is so wide-ranging that a lecturer on literature could presumably risk imprisonment for teaching about Shakespeare’s sonnets, or a Bible scholar for discussing different interpretations of David’s love for Jonathan.

Such laws are an invitation to extortion. In England the law criminalising gay sex (introduced to Nigeria in colonial times) was nicknamed 'the blackmailer’s charter' until it was repealed, in part due to the efforts of Church of England leaders. Even if they did not approve of same-sex relationships, they could see the cruelty and injustice of such laws: after all, heterosexuals do not get jailed for having affairs.

Laws such as that enacted in Nigeria mean that not only an individual’s life but also those of others in his or her family can be shattered if that person lets down his or her guard for even a moment. They are also a handy tool for getting political opponents out of the way, whether or not they are gay, as well as diverting the public’s mind from economic and social problems.

International Anglican gatherings have repeatedly called for human rights for all, including those of homosexual orientation. But Okoh, Nigeria’s primate (top Anglican cleric), seems to care little for mainstream Anglicanism, or indeed some of the basic tenets of Christianity.

Depriving others of their freedom, livelihood and reputation and opening the door to repression, corruption and the spread of deadly disease are far removed from Jesus’ call in the Gospels to love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22.39), treat others as you would wish to be treated (Matthew 7.12) and love one another as Christ has loved you (John 13.34). However the archbishop gives the impression of confusing the interests of those wielding worldly power with those of God.

According to him, Channels Television reported, those not in support of the bill are like Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3), who questioned God for asking them not to eat the fruits from the Garden of Eden. Reportedly he claimed that “Many people do not realise that what is referred to as the homosexual trouble is not the homosexual or lesbian trouble but people’s refusal to accept the scripture for what it is, authority for life and practice following God.”

Actually, theologians have different views on what the Bible teaches on sexual ethics, which is by no means clear. But in any case, the new law is not primarily about this but rather making life even more unpleasant for a vulnerable minority and their families, undermining basic freedoms and diverting resources from tackling grave social ills including poverty and violent crime.

The archbishop’s enthusiasm for President Goodluck Jonathan and his policies may seem excessive. “Nigeria is on pilgrimage to an appointed destination in Africa and the world. God cannot make a mistake of creating a large number of people and place them in a place called Nigeria without a purpose,” he reportedly said at a recent event where Jonathan was present. “Mr President, when it becomes tough, keep going. You should persevere, please don’t give up. You must get to the top. You must ensure that you lead the people to the destination God has planned for them.”

In contrast, the Gospels tell of Jesus’ mother praising God for putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the lowly, his care for the poor and marginalised of his day, the accusation by religious leaders that he did not obey Scripture, how they colluded with the political authorities to have him put to death, and his rising to life again. Perhaps Okoh should re-read his Bible.


© 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.