LAGOS, Nigeria – A draconian law that would criminalize all things gay was approved today by Nigeria’s Senate, paving the way for a vote by the House, where it is expected to pass.
President Goodluck Jonathan would likely sign the bill if it arrives on his desk, despite substantial international pressure to protect human rights in Nigeria.
The United Kingdom, for one, has threatened to cut aid to countries that violate the rights of LGBT citizens. The United States, under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has declared support for gay rights on a global scale.
The new bill makes it a crime for gays to show public displays of affection, get married or even belong to a gay-rights group.
Consensual same-sex acts have been banned in Nigeria since British colonial rule.
Nigeria is a deeply religious nation of 160 million people, divided by Christians and Muslims, and is considered highly homophobic. In the north, where Islamic Shariah law is enforced, LGBT Nigerians can be stoned to death.
The new bill only compounds the woes of the persecuted LGBT Nigerians, who face widespread discrimination and anti-gay violence. Other details of the bill:
• LGBT couples who marry face up to 14 years in prison. Witnesses or participants in a same-sex wedding could get 10 years in prison.
• Those who join gay groups or kiss or hold hands in public face up to 10 years in prison.
The Senate bill ended up being harsher than the initial one proposed, observers said, and the penalties were more substantial. One senator tried to invoke an even stiffer sentence of 40 years for gay marriage, the Associated Press reported, but Senate President David Mark laughed off the proposal, saying that “Forty years, that is just too much. He won’t come out alive now.”
Another senator advocated death to gays, AP reported.
“Such elements in society should be killed,” said Sen. Baba-Ahmed Yusuf Datti of the opposition party Congress for Progressive Change.
Human rights activists from around the world criticized today’s vote, and worried about the impact of the proposed law on health care and HIV prevention and treatment efforts.
“The bill will expand Nigeria’s already draconian punishments for consensual same-sex conduct and set a precedent that would threaten all Nigerians’ rights to privacy, equality, free expression, association and to be free from discrimination,” said Erwin van der Borght, the director of Amnesty International’s Africa program.
Draconian laws such as this tend to force LGBT people into the closet and make it less likely that the oppressed people seek medical attention.
Nigeria has the third-largest population in the world of people who have HIV or AIDS.
In October, a Nigerian activist told attendees at the Compass to Compassion consultation at Union Theological Seminary in New York City about the struggles of the LGBT community in that African nation.
Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, executive director of ICARH (International Centre for Advocacy on Rights to Health) in Nigeria, spoke about his grassroots efforts to support the LGBT community.
Orazulike said ICARH has helped 9,000 Nigerians in preventative care despite having to operate out of the view of the government. He appealed for financial support to help ICARH in its lifesaving work. “The challenges are funding, space, the same-sex bill and blackmail,” he said.
The proposed bill will only complicate the efforts of ICARH to help the Nigerian LGBT community.