Nigerian lawmakers debating bill that would outlaw any social
gatherings between gays
LAGOS, Nigeria Lawmakers in Nigeria are debating a bill that would ban same-sex marriage and any form of association among gays, even sharing a meal at a restaurant.
Few in Nigeria’s deeply closeted gay community have publicly opposed the legislation, which proposes penalties of up to five years in prison and is widely expected to pass.
Engaging in homosexual acts is already illegal in Nigeria, with those convicted facing jail terms in the mainly Christian south and execution in the mainly Muslim north.
“This meeting, right here, would be illegal,” said activist Bisi Alimi, stabbing the air with a French fry for emphasis as he sat at a table with three gay friends and a reporter.
Other activities prohibited under the proposed law include belonging to gay clubs or reading books, watching films or accessing Internet sites that “promote” homosexuality.
Alimi has been trying to drum up opposition to the legislation, but says Nigeria’s gay community is too far underground and the subject too taboo.
The 27-year-old activist is one of few openly gay Nigerians, having been “outed” by a university newspaper three years ago. None of his companions have told their families of their sexual orientation. They asked to be identified only by their first names, citing the risk of arrest, beatings or even death.
“A few of my best friends know, but I don’t have the courage to tell my parents,” said Ipadeola, a 23-year-old medical student.
“I don’t tell people because it is none of their business,” said Mukajuloa, a 21-year-old beautician. “Do heterosexual men go around telling the world they are attracted to women?”
Haruna Yerima, a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, said he supported the proposed ban. Social contact between gays should be limited, he said, because it might encourage behavior that was “against our culture … against our religion.”
Attitudes toward gays in Nigeria are typical of those across the continent. In neighboring Cameroon, Amnesty International says accusations of homosexuality and anti-gay laws have been used as a weapon against political opponents.
South Africa legalized gay marriages last month in fiercely debated legislation, making it the only country on the continent to do so. But the impetus was more a desire to stamp out all forms of discrimination in a reaction to apartheid than tolerance of gays, who are subject to prejudice and violence in South Africa.
The hostility in Nigeria means that there are very few gay or lesbian organizations. Oludare “Erelu” Odumuye the nickname means “queen mother” in Yoruba heads one, Alliance Rights.
“That bill would criminalize me if it was passed into law. It would criminalize my organization, it would criminalize my friends,” he said.
Thousands of people use Alliance Rights for health services, to gather information or to meet, Odumuye says. To avoid harassment, the group has no membership list and its buildings are not in town centers or identified by signs.
Visitors find them through word-of-mouth, Odumuye said. To give an idea of their size, he says the group received more than 1,500 responses to a recent health survey among gay Nigerians.
Odumuye said the bill is aimed at pleasing the ruling party’s political base which includes powerful religious groups ahead of April elections.
Akin Marinho, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, argued the bill’s prohibitions are illegal under Nigeria’s constitution and international treaty obligations. Not only does the legislation affect freedoms of speech and expression, but foreign companies could face lawsuits if gay or lesbian staff are unable to take up positions in Nigeria, he said.
Even some conservative religious leaders say the bill goes too far. Though Bishop Joseph Ojo, who presides over the congregation at the evangelical Calvary Kingdom Church, contends gay relationships are “foreign to Africans” and should be outlawed, he adds that gays should “have freedom of speech and expression.”
Nigerians have been publicly flogged or beaten severely in prison after being charged with homosexuality.
“There is a lot of ignorance, and that is why people are afraid,” Alimi said. “We are not willing to come out and say, “Yes, I am gay. Here I am. I am human, too.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 15, 2006