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As the Flames of Homophobia Burn Around the World, Understanding Nigeria's Anti-Gay Bill

Nigeria's deceptively named "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill" declares that the "public show of same sex amorous relationshipdirectly or indirectly is hereby prohibited." It would punish same-sex affection -- yes, even a simple hug or kiss -- with 10 years in prison.
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While we watch the flames of homophobia in Uganda with horror, the same fires are burning in countries around the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nigeria. The latest version of the deceptively named "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill" declares that the "public show of same sex amorous relationship [sic] directly or indirectly is hereby prohibited." Incredibly, it would punish same-sex affection -- yes, even a simple hug or kiss -- with 10 years in prison.

The Nigerian anti-gay bill recently resurfaced in Nigeria's lower parliament after a long silence from legislators. On Nov. 13, 2012, the House of Representative unanimously referred the "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill" to a committee to scrutinize every section of the bill. This was after the Nigerian Senate unanimously passed the bill a year ago. The committee is also expected to call for a public hearing before the bill is put to a vote.

Nobody doubts the final outcome of this process. The bill is effectively a done deal if past events are anything to go by. Previously, public hearings to consider the bill were organized in such a way that left no doubt about the final outcome. Supporters of the bill were given ample time to organize and mobilize their supporters, while LGBT activists and civil society organizations opposed to the bill were refused permission to attend the public hearing. Those who managed to scale the security barriers to attend the hearing were constantly jeered at and booed by religious fundamentalists while being intimidated by legislators.

The Nigerian anti-gay bill should be understood within the context of the sociopolitical crises within the country and the rise of Christian fundamentalism in Nigeria. Since the return of civilian rule in Nigeria in 1999, the much-awaited "dividends of democracy," including improved health care, education and infrastructural development, have been largely unmet. This, coupled with an unprecedented level of corruption and mismanagement of the common wealth, leaves many Nigerians asking questions.

The last 10 years in Nigeria have seen frightening levels of terrorism and religious and ethnic violence. At no time in the history of Nigeria is the unity of the country more threatened than in the present. Calls for "regional autonomy," "true federalism" and "sovereign national conference" are becoming more strident. Such agitation represents the deep-seated mistrust Nigerian elites and ethnic leaders. For now, it seems that the only thing these leaders can agree on -- and ditto for most Nigerians -- is their love of football and their hatred of homosexuality.

It is within this context that the anti-gay bill can be situated. This bill must be understood for what it is: a diversionary tactic by politicians to confuse the public and distract attention from pressing socioeconomic realities. Any attempt to join issues with politicians, as some organizations are currently doing, will only play into the hands of the architects of the bill.

Responding to the challenge by ensuring that the bill does not become a reality will require a thorough understanding not only of these realities but of the state of LGBT activism in Nigeria. LGBT activists in Nigeria, like most of their colleagues in Africa, operate within an extremely hostile and challenging environment. They remain under-resourced and severely isolated. These young men and women have previously exhibited commendable bravery and resilience when they fought the bill on two occasions in 2007 and 2011, even with very limited resources at their disposal.

What they need is support and encouragement. The truth is that the battle cannot be won primarily in the streets and conference halls in New York or Geneva but here in Lagos and Abuja. This is not to say that support from international NGOs, activists and diplomats is not important -- far from that. The point being canvassed here is that local activists need to be empowered to drive the process. They need offices, computers and, more importantly, the training and skills to drive the process. They must be allowed to take the lead.

Circumventing this process will only exacerbate the problem, as has been shown in several African countries. Like with the case of Uganda, pressure from the West only emboldens the religious fundamentalists and their political allies. It also exposes local activists to increased anti-gay attacks and provides fundamentalist with the weapon to argue, "We told you so: It was planned and delivered from the West."

As for most Nigerians, what they need is to be told the truth. They will understand this best, when their fellow compatriots, their brothers, sisters, uncles and nieces, tell it. And this truth is that Nigerians are being taken for a long ride by legislators and their religious allies, just to make them forget, even if temporarily, their present socioeconomic predicaments.