In 2013, an iconic picture of two ladies kissing before anti-gay marriage protesters in Marseille, France, went viral. That act of defiance before an assembly of mostly old ladies was to demonstrate an inviolable right to private life and choice. It was largely the fear of this sort of freedom that spurred the Nigerian Senate to embark on pushing a bill to criminalise activities relating to homosexuality with draconian measures.
The climax of the saga occurred on Monday, January 13 when the Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, announced that the President had signed the bill into law.
It was a well-calculated move from a politician who wants to win popular support for 2015 elections, and he chose a good time to espouse conservative values. Just the previous week, his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, and the All Progressives Congress engaged in the usual catfight, this time over religion. Having whipped up some Islamophobia, he artfully topped it all by riding on the waves of subsisting moral panic the gay debate generated. For a man who routinely closes his eyes to corruption and every other imaginable human vice in his administration, Jonathan’s signing of this bill is illuminative of his moral values and priority. (By the way, where was his voice when the debate on child marriage was going on?) This time, he chose to be Pontius Pilate who delivered a poor prisoner to a raging mob.
That is not the stuff morally strong folk are made of.
The seeming interference by the West –specifically the United States — over the issue of same-sex relationship and its cultural acceptance in this part of the world have given some relativists a new punch-bag. What people saw as Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama’s meddlesomeness quickly gave rise to a congress of emergency patriots who arrogated upon themselves the power to erect a perimeter fence around values they alone can decide are either “African” or not.
These afro-jingoists position Africa as the bastion of moral values (which, incidentally, always begins and ends with sex) and insist we maintain a rigid stand against cultural erosion; that we are a sovereign nation and the white man cannot dictate to us. Rather than focus on their countrymen who will be affected by the law, they expend energy yelling at the white man who will not lose anything in the long run.
This sort of resistance is to be expected, of course. History teaches us that the people of Calabar had a similar pushback against Mary Slessor when she began to campaign against the killing of twins. Today, Nigerians venerate her for her foresight. When a white District Officer stopped the Elesin Oba culture in colonial Oyo town, people protested saying a white man had no right to stop a legitimate cultural practice.
The point is, culture does not mean people should be stuck in a time warp. Societies advance and that is why even the most vociferous campaigners for “African values” will not forsake their European/Arabia-gifted religion for Amadioha or Sango; will not give up their cellphones (and other forms of western technology) and return to the villages to communicate with drums and smoke signals. They will not request a law that forces women to marry as virgins like it used to be, once upon a time, in Africa. There is no culture in the world that is immutable. What people call “African culture” today, cultural scholars have analysed, are largely practices that are consequences of colonialism.
Nigerians can talk about sovereignty all day but countries interfere in local affairs as moral conscience of other countries. For both the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, taking the stand of “sovereignty” was as immoral. Either as individuals or as a nation, “The West” has intervened in Africa frequently: in wars, in education, during famines and till now they still dish us billions of dollars in aid and relief. Bill Gates, on his blog, posts pictures and notes of his philanthropic activities in Africa’s poor places and not one African leader has ever kicked him out in the name of sovereignty.
To be an independent nation goes beyond yelling against the white man’s intrusive ways. It comes with obligations and one of them is protecting the minority from the repressive might of the majority.
That is the sort of moral responsibility that President Jonathan should have displayed rather than take the populist route of offering up gays as scapegoats to be slaughtered to one of the gods we worship in Nigeria –hypocrisy. In a country where freedom and human rights are barely guaranteed most people, why expose minorities to hate and its consequences?
Prior to the time the likes of Senators Oluremi Tinubu, Domingo Obende and about 24 others proposed the bill in 2011 to stem the cultural tide rising from the West, gays in Nigeria were not agitating to be married. They were not requesting that the law defining marriages as heterosexual relationships in Nigeria be amended. No, the move was mimicry; since Oyinbo lawmakers were debating homosexuality, Nigerians lawmakers must do so too.
That copycat attitude was an annoying form of reactivism to an issue they obviously barely understood beyond its aesthetics. Most of the debaters had neither profound arguments nor made historical analyses to tender beyond throwing out their religious definition of morality everywhere. In Nigeria, when people bring out their holy books during an argument, good luck to reason. It was not surprising the debate did not go far.
I had hoped Jonathan would at least refrain from touching the bill and concentrate on the corruption crippling his government; he would have focused on providing electricity. He should also stop giving recycled speeches every time his hand grasps a microphone. But no, he had to capitulate. One day, he will look back and realise he fell on the wrong side of history.
Finally, at whatever personal risk under this obnoxious law, I reiterate my unflinching support for sexual minorities in Nigeria –lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. I believe nobody should suffer discrimination based on their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, race and whatever identity with which they are labelled. I believe in equality and I wish to state that unequivocally.
And for those who are about to wonder, yes, this is my religion.