March 8, 2007
Denying Rights in Nigeria
A poisonous piece of legislation is quickly making its way through the Nigerian National Assembly. Billed as an anti-gay-marriage act, it is a far-reaching assault on basic rights of association, assembly and expression. Chillingly, the legislation — proposed last year by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo — has the full and enthusiastic support of the leader of Nigeria’s powerful Anglican church. Unless the international community speaks out quickly and forcefully against the bill, it is almost certain to become law.
Homosexual acts between consenting adults are already illegal in Nigeria under a penal code that dates to the colonial period. This new legislation would impose five-year sentences on same-sex couples who have wedding ceremonies — as well as on those who perform such services and on all who attend. The bill’s vague and dangerous prohibition on any public or private show of a “same sex amorous relationship” — which could be construed to cover having dinner with someone of the same sex — would open any known or suspected gay man or lesbian to the threat of arrest at almost any time.
The bill also criminalizes all political organizing on behalf of gay rights. And in a country with a dauntingly high rate of H.I.V. and AIDS, the ban on holding any meetings related to gay rights could make it impossible for medical workers to counsel homosexuals on safe sex practices.
Efforts to pass the bill last year stalled in part because of strong condemnation from the United States and the European Union. Now its backers are again trying to rush it through, and Washington and Brussels need to speak out against it. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and one of the most politically influential. If it passes a law that says human rights are not for every citizen, it will set a treacherous example for the region and the world.