- Human rights and gay activists until now have kept a low profile regarding the attempt by Nigerian lawmakers to promote Africa's most draconic bill limiting the rights of sexual minorities. They did not want to give the promoters publicity. But now, as lawmakers are getting serious on the bill, a wave of protests is reaching Nigeria.
The controversial bill, entitled the "Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act", would imprison anyone who speaks out or forms a group supporting lesbian and gay people's rights, and would silence virtually any public discussion or visibility around lesbian and gay lives in Nigeria.
In its last published version, the draconian bill would impose a five-year prison sentence on anyone who "goes through the ceremony of marriage with a person of the same sex." Anyone, including a priest or cleric, who "performs, witnesses, aids or abets the ceremony of same sex marriage," would face the same sentence.
But the bill goes even beyond that to punish any positive representation of or advocacy for the rights of Nigeria's lesbians and gays. Anyone "involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private," would be subject to the same sentence.
The legislation was first introduced in January 2006 by Nigeria's Minister of Justice, Bayo Ojo. But it has been lying dormant for months in the National Assembly as Nigerian politicians are gearing up for nationwide elections in April this year.
Human rights and gay activists in Nigeria during last year kept a remarkable low profile on the bill, although knowing it could seriously change the climate in the country. Their strategy proved to be wise. Without loud protest action from the gay community, the bill would get little attention in global and national media, making politicians lose their interest as personal conflicts were bound to surface ahead of this year's elections.
But in January this year, the silence was broken. The prominent British gay activist Peter Tatchell and his group OutRage! suddenly launched an international appeal to human rights groups worldwide "to take urgent action to press the Nigerian government to uphold international human rights law and to drop this draconian legislation." The silence was broken.
And the dead-believed bill suddenly resurfaced from Nigerian lawmakers' drawers. African gay rights groups were furious. "Stay out of African Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex (LGBTI) issues," several prominent activists wrote to Mr Tatchell. "You have proven that you have no respect for conveying the truth with regards to Africa or consulting African LGBTI leaders before carrying out campaigns that have severe consequences in our countries. You have betrayed our trust over and over again," the letter went on.
The case was given much attention in the British press as a reaction to "neo-colonial" behaviour by UK groups and Mr Tatchell shortly thereafter withdrew his appeal. But Pandora's box had already been opened. Also, the gay activists' hitherto successful strategy of silence was made known through the press, reaching Nigerian lawmakers.
On 14 February, the Women Affairs and Youth Committee of Nigeria's House of Representatives held a hearing on the "Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act" - the first real development in the bill's tabling for one year. Most observers in Nigeria hold that the parliament is likely to pass the bill in a speedy process before the April elections.
Therefore, human rights and gay activists rapidly have had to change their strategy to prevent the extremely homophobic bill to be accepted. Since this week, loud protests are called for from all organisations and lobbyists are trying to make foreign governments put pressure on the Nigerian parliament.
Yesterday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a strong-worded protest against the "sweepingly homophobic bill". According to HRW's Scott Long, "this law strikes a blow not just at the rights of lesbian and gay people, but at the civil and political freedoms of all Nigerians. If the National Assembly can strip one group of its freedoms, then the liberties of all Nigerians are at risk."
At the same time, a group of more than 250 US Christian leaders issued a statement headed "persecution and hatred are not Christian values." The message was clear: "Whether in Nigeria or in the United States, the Christian value of human dignity for all is paramount. We call upon the government of Nigeria to respect basic human dignity and reject the persecution of lesbians and gays by withdrawing the proposed law."
Last week, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) issued a report documenting how Nigerian homosexuals reacted to the bill. The report provided personal accounts of homophobic attacks, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and increased levels of homophobia that "have already begun as a result of the introduction" of the bill. IGLHRC called on Nigerian authorities to remember their commitments to global human rights standards.
The UN is confirming that the activists have a good case when saying Nigerian lawmakers would counter their country's international commitments if approving the bill. A panel of UN human rights experts issued a statement last week, expressing "deep concern" about the draft. "Provisions of the draft bill discriminate against a section of society, are an absolutely unjustified intrusion of an individual's right to privacy and contravene Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," the assessment said.
"We note with concern that same-sex relationships are already prohibited and criminalised in Nigeria and carry the death penalty," the UN experts said, holding that even existing legislation was violating global human rights standards. In addition to discrimination and persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, the new bill "contains provisions that infringe freedoms of assembly and association and imply serious consequences for the exercise of the freedom of expression and opinion."
As the wide-ranging consequences of the bill are becoming known, more and more protests are being formulated. Today, even the Toronto-based press freedom watchdog International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) voiced its concern about the bill, noting it "will imprison those who speak out, show, or organise support for lesbian and gay rights" if approved. This again would generally undermine freedom of expression.
There is only very limited hope that activists will be able to prevent the bill from being approved. But even if successful, gay activists must note that another big battle is already lost - that of Nigerian homosexuals' acceptance in society. According to the IGLHRC report, many Nigerians are acting like the bill has already been passed. It cites recent attacks on gay men in Abuja and the expulsion of cadets from a national military academy.
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