Last month, my country inched closer to the outright criminalization of homosexual relations. The latest unanimous vote by the House of Representatives is only the culmination of recent legislation pertaining to homosexual acts. In 2006, under the leadership of President Olesugun Obasanjo, the national assembly proposed a bill prohibiting same-sex marriage. In many ways, it served as a template for the current pending legislation. The 2006 bill not only prohibited same-sex marriage but also banned the adoption of children by same-sex couples, religious recognition of same-sex marriage, institutional recognition of homosexuality including bans on gay clubs, and even public displays of affection in public and private.
The current bill being put forward for President Goodluck Jonathan to sign contains all the aforementioned restrictions outlined in the earlier bill. The only difference between both bills lies in the severity of punishments for guilty offenders. In the 2006 bill, a person found guilty (either by being directly involved, or aiding and abetting) of violating these prohibitions was liable to 5 years in prison. The current bill has extended the sentence duration to 14 years for entering a marriage contract, and 10 years for violating any of the other prohibitions.
What has driven this recent spate of legislation on homosexuality? It seems to have coincided with the first Nigerian to openly come out before the nation. Bisi Alimi gained notoriety as a gay man at the University of Lagos where he majored in theater arts, prompting an appearance in October of 2004 on the popular New Dawn talk show where he bravely acknowledged his homosexuality, and in tandem, asked for acceptance from the nation. It seems plausible that the recent legislation push is rooted in a visceral response to the contents of that interview. This prompts the question, should laws be created from disgust?
The efforts of the Nigerian national assembly are not only flawed in logic; they are also unconstitutional. The current bill being put forward violates religious freedom. The Nigerian constitution (Section 38 (1)) clearly states that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and that includes the “freedom to change his religion or belief” as well as the “freedom to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching practice and observance”. A mandate that forces churches and mosques not to recognize homosexual relationships clearly goes against this constitutional statute. While it is unlikely that the majority of churches and mosques would currently recognize homosexuality, it cannot be underestimated what the impact would be if a few broke the mould. The constitution guarantees a freedom of expression which would be violated by the bill’s prohibition of public affection between homosexuals. The constitution also protects the freedoms of persons to “freely assemble and associate with other persons” which would be in direct conflict with the bill’s prohibition on gay clubs and institutions.
All Nigerians will feel the impact of this law as it awaits President Jonathan’s signature. Britain and the United States have aligned foreign aid with gay rights and have threatened to cut aid to Nigeria if this bill is passed. The UK spent about £141 million in 2012 to help improve education facilities, as well as family planning and immunization services. The UK had committed to increasing aid by 116% to £305 million for 2014/15. The US, on the other hand, funded $630 million in foreign aid in 2012 to Nigeria, 80% of which was used to help with the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. The rest of the money went to fund malaria treatment and eradication. Malaria and HIV/AIDS cause 515, 000 deaths annually with malaria accounting for roughly 60% of those deaths. It is no exaggeration to say that cuts to foreign aid would provide a monumental obstacle to those who currently benefit from these programmes.
The aggressive intolerance of homosexuals has been propagated under the banner of “protecting the integrity of our culture”. Perhaps the greatest concern is the level of fear among homosexuals in Nigeria that this law will induce. Harassment without investigation or trial has already driven them underground. By criminalizing homosexuality, the government has now institutionalized disgust.