By Steve Williams
Nigeria’s President has just secretly signed a bill into law that will jail gay people for up to 14 years if they attempt or actually marry. The bill has drawn heavy criticism from the US and Europe, but what can the world do and what’s next for gay rights in Nigeria?
The legislation, which was passed by the country’s lawmakers last May and was actually singed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan on January 7 but without announcement, says:
“A marriage contract or civil union entered into between persons of same sex: (a) is prohibited in Nigeria; and (b) shall not be recognized as entitled to the benefits of a valid marriage. Persons who enter into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union commit an offence and are each liable on conviction to a term of 14 years in prison.”
The “civil unions” provision and associated language is actually so broad it could cover simple cohabitation, so men or women living together would become suspect for a breech of this law. To give an idea of how truly overreaching and paranoid the legislation is, the language in the bill is also so badly put together that it could even criminalize “caring relationships” — essentially good friendships — between persons of the same sex.
The legislation also makes it a criminal offence for gay people to hold meetings and for anyone to witness the formation of or facilitate said meetings:
“Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organizations or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years in prison.”
The legislation also reserves and makes clear the right of the government to conduct raids on any so-called suspect premises or, potentially, dwellings.
The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, as it is known, is largely thought to have been inspired by Uganda’s still pending Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The legislation, however, has a particular spin in that, while like most Sub-Saharan African nations Nigeria has long criminalized homosexuality, Nigeria’s constitution technically had no provision to ban same-sex marriage and this bill attempts to answer that.
“Beyond even prohibiting same sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians. Moreover, it is inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the democratic reforms and human rights protections enshrined in its 1999 Constitution.
“People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality. No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love,” Kerry added.
Canada and several other nations have also spoken out. Unfortunately, and unlike with Uganda, threats to cut international funding are less likely to have a meaningful impact as Nigeria’s primary source of income is its oil output and none of the Western powers are likely to forgo that in a hurry.
That said, there are ways in which Nigeria can be made to feel uncomfortable about this law. Its place in the Commonwealth and all the powers and benefits that come with that membership could be threatened, and similarly with its UN Security Council seat, which it won in October of last year.
Whether Nigeria will reconsider its position on this issue, however, looks doubtful. The question then becomes whether Western countries will take appropriate steps to offer asylum to Nigeria’s beleaguered LGBT community as this bill certainly qualifies as an active attempt at further criminalizing an already at risk population.
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