Nigeria’s lively civil society is not known for consensus. So it is striking that every organization, interviewed by Human Rights Watch seems to agree on this: Outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act into law in January 2014 to boost his election prospects and distract his country from its security woes.
All groups agree on this, whether they work on human rights, women’s rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, or on health, electoral, or judicial reform. Representatives of Nigerian-based foreign ministries and donor agencies concur.
Few could have been surprised when in the run-up to the highly contested election, Jonathan brought up the specter of gay marriage. In the face of serious security threats from Boko Haram, corruption scandals, and a party divided over his aspirations for a second term, Jonathan turned his attention to a small and largely invisible minority.
To put this in perspective, based on witness accounts and an analysis of media reports, Human Rights Watch believes Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first three months of 2015. Corruption scandals, particularly in the oil sector, are rife. There is impunity for abuses by the security forces. Nigeria, in other words, faces some formidable challenges – but homosexuality is not one of them.
Nigeria’s existing penal code already punished same-sex acts with up to 14 years in prison. The new law goes much further, criminalizing public displays of affection between people of the same sex and penalizing the work of organizations supporting the rights of LGBT people. The vague wording of the law means that almost any individual or organization can be accused of “supporting gay rights” or “displaying affection” and brought to book.
When Jonathan approved the law in January 2014, he joined a fraternity of leaders around the world who have attempted to shore up their flagging political fortunes by appealing to popular prejudice.
In Zimbabwe, for example, the level of anti-LGBT rhetoric emanating from the State House is a sure sign that elections are looming. In Uganda, politics have been shaped by homophobia since 2009, when the notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first introduced.
Russian President Vladimir Putin passed the anti-LGBT “propaganda” law in the months leading up to the Sochi Olympics while clamping down on independent organizations and quashing political opposition.
The Malaysian government has used the country’s colonial-era sodomy laws as pretext to imprison the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. And Egyptian authorities under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi use moral policing, whether against atheists or homosexuals, as part of the harshest political crackdown in decades, and as a way of reclaiming el-Sisi’s version of the moral high ground from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Based on these and other examples, the formula is clear: When faced with real problems such as corruption and insecurity, and when civil society is robust and political opposition too threatening, stoking anti-gay fears provides a useful distraction and the moral justification for curtailing basic human rights.
The law that Jonathan signed is so broad that Nigerian activists joke that conversations about LGBT rights could land them all in jail. They joke because it is absurd. But it is no joke. Under the law, supporting an LGBT group in any way carries a 10-year sentence, as do public displays of same-sex amorous affection. The law is wide open to abuse. And that is the point.
Groups speak about the chilling effect of the law. HIV and AIDS organizations are afraid to run programs aimed at men who have sex with men, human rights groups are cautious about speaking out on LGBT rights, and LGBT groups operate in the shadow of fear.
The law also makes the closet a mandatory place for LGBT people. As one activist said, she had so internalized the law that she found herself automatically lowering her voice and huddling in a corner when, during a trip to London, she was asked about gay rights in Nigeria.
Just two weeks ahead of the March 28, 2015 election, Jonathan’s spokesperson, Femi Fani-Kayode, accused the presidential opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, of entering into a Faustian pact with four unspecified Western nations to introduce same-sex marriage in Nigeria in exchange for supporting his candidacy. It is a far-fetched claim. No LGBT group in Nigeria has ever campaigned for gay marriage, and LGBT groups did not enjoy support from any contender in this election.
The real Faustian pact is the one Jonathan entered into when he signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, should rescind this law, which poses a fundamental threat to all Nigerians who want to be able to exercise their rights.