New bill in Nigeria will make life even worse for same-sex couples

Katharine Houreld

Katharine Houreld

LAGOS - In the Muslim north of Nigeria, Bisi Alimi could be stoned to death for being gay. In the south, he could face three years in prison. Now a proposed law would make it illegal just to share a meal at a cafe with gay friends.

The proposal under debate in Nigeria's house of representatives would outlaw not just gay marriages, but any form of association between gay people, social or otherwise, and publication of any materials deemed to promote a "same-sex amorous relationship".

Anyone attending a meeting between gay people, even two friends in a private house, could receive a sentence of five years under the act. Engaging in homosexual acts is already illegal in Nigeria, with those convicted facing jail terms in the south and execution in the north.

Few in Nigeria's deeply closeted gay community are publicly opposing the bill.

"This meeting, right here, would be illegal," says activist Alimi. "We could be arrested for talking about this. You could be arrested for writing about us."

Other activities, specifically prohibited under the proposed law, include participating in gay clubs, or reading books, watching films or accessing Internet sites that "promote" homosexuality.

Alimi has been trying to drum up united opposition to the legislation, but Nigeria's homosexual community is far underground and the subject is taboo.

The 27-year-old activist is one of few openly gay Nigerians, having been "outed" by a university newspaper three years ago.

None of his companions have told their families they are attracted to men.

The risk of arrest, beatings or even death is why they requested that only first names be used for this article.

"A few of my best friends know, but I don't have the courage to tell my parents," says 23-year-old medical student Ipadeola.

"I don't tell people because it is none of their business," says Mukajuloa, a 21-year-old beautician. "Do heterosexual men go around telling the world they are attracted to women?"

Haruna Yerima, a member of Nigeria's house of representatives, portrays the legislation as aimed at stamping out something already well under control.

Yerima says he approved of the limitations on films and books because they could be used to "make such practices popular".

Alimi's friends say the bill will make a difficult life even more dangerous. Families already often cast out gay children and neighbours turn against gay friends.

Civil rights organisations and human rights lawyers say that the bill could also be used to deny legal representation to gay people who have been arrested.

Attitudes towards gays in Nigeria are typical of those across the continent. In neighbouring Cameroon, Amnesty International says homosexual accusations and anti-gay laws have been used as a weapon against political opponents.

South Africa legalised gay marriages recently, making it the only country in Africa to do so.

The hostility in Nigeria means that very few gay or lesbian organisations exist.

Oludare "Erelu" Odumuye - the nickname means "queen mother" in Yoruba - heads one, Alliance Rights. Odumuye says he has been harassed in the street and detained by police.

"That bill would criminalise me if it was passed into law. It would criminalise my organisation, it would criminalise my friends," he says.

Thousands of people use Alliance Rights for health services to gather information or to meet, Odumuye says. To avoid harassment, they have no set membership list and their buildings are not in town centres or identified by signs.

Visitors find them through word-of-mouth. To give an idea of their size, he says the group received more than 1500 responses to a recent health survey among homosexuals.

Odumuye argues that the bill is aimed at pleasing the ruling party's political base - which includes powerful religious groups - ahead of April elections.

Nigerian Anglicans split with the American Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop and many in the country say they want to prevent anything similar to the South African legislation.

But Akin Marinho, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says that the bill's prohibitions are illegal under the constitution and international treaty obligations. Not only does the bill affect freedoms of speech and expression, but foreign companies could face lawsuits if gay or lesbian staff are unable to take up positions in Nigeria, he says.

"It's a civil liberties issue as well as a gay rights issue," Marinho says. "Under this bill, anyone watching Brokeback Mountain or even Will and Grace could be prosecuted. It could also infringe on lawyer-client relations," he says.

Even some conservative religious leaders say the bill goes too far.

Bishop Joseph Ojo, of the evangelical Calvary Kingdom Church, says gay relationships are "foreign to Africans" and should be outlawed. But he says homosexuals should "have freedom of speech and expression".

Nigerians have been publicly flogged, exhibited before the press naked, or beaten severely in prison after being charged with homosexuality.

"There is a lot of ignorance, and that is why people are afraid," Alimi says. "But we are not willing to come out and say, yes, I am gay. Here I am. I am human too." - Sapa-AP