Dozens of gay men have been arrested in northern Nigeria under a draconian anti-gay law that makes same-sex marriage a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail, human rights activists say.
The law was signed in secret by members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives in Abuja on December 17 and by the president on January 7, although there was no public announcement.
The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act criminalizes same-sex marriage and provides for up to 14 years in jail. Membership or support of gay organizations, associations or clubs carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
The new law reflects a highly religious and conservative society that largely considers homosexuality a deviation. In areas of northern Nigeria law is enforced by Islamic Shariah courts and homosexuals can be stoned to death.
Dorothy Aken’Ova of Nigeria’s International Center for Reproductive Health and intimate Rights said that police in Bauchi state have drawn up a list of 168 allegedly gay men, 38 of whom have been taken into custody so far.
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Activists have suggested that some Nigerian homosexuals may have already fled the country.
The law has drawn widespread international condemnation from countries including the United States, Canada and Britain, Nigeria’s former colonial power, as well as by a host of non-governmental organizations such as AIDS-Free World, which in an open letter appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for “guidance and leadership” to ensure that “the global response to HIV is neither paralyzed at this critical time, nor set on a disastrous reverse course”.
Dr Heather Collister of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) said in a statement that the law “was manifestly incompatible with international human rights standards and must be repealed”.
“In addition to targeting same-sex relations, the law targets the work of human rights defenders, effectively criminalising their work,” she added.
The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER), a Nigeria-based LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) organization, tweeted that “government should think about development and not sex between two consensual adults. Stop chasing shadow people”.
In December, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Assocation (ILGA) said that Nigeria’s law “will not only incite increased violence against LGBT people, but it will also justify and legalize that violence”.
Some observers have suggested the anti-gay law is being used to draw attention away from Nigeria’s multiple armed conflicts, religious tensions, corruption and under-development, as well as to curry public favour ahead of Jonathan’s expected 2015 re-election bid.
The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER), a Nigeria-based LGBT organisation, tweeted that “government should think about development and not sex between two consensual adults. Stop chasing shadow people”.
A study of 39 nations around the world by the U.S. Pew Research Center found that 98 percent of Nigerians believe society should not accept homosexuality, making the country the world’s least tolerant when it comes to LGBT issues.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati said that “this is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of the Nigerian people”.
Nigeria is one of 38 African countries – about 70 percent of the continent – that have adopted anti-gay legislation, and several African leaders have publicly warned that they would not let foreign powers dictate to them on the matter.
Among the countries still considering similar legislation is Uganda, where in December the national parliament passed a bill which would punish “aggravated” homosexual acts with life sentences, as well as penalize those who do not report gay activity. The law currently awaits the signature of the country’s long-serving president, Yoweri Museveni.
Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel at the Washington-based Human Rights First, said that “government leaders around the world, including President Musaveni…will be watching to see how the international community responds to legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community”.