By Rommy Mom, esq
In 2009, when Nigeria’s External Affairs Minister, Chief Ojo Madueke, stated before the Human Rights Council, HRC, of the United Nations during the country periodic review that there were no gays in Nigeria, even Nigerians back home were amused. The statement was inaccurate at best. At the 2013 review, Nigeria took a slightly different position. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Bello Adoke, stated that Nigeria’s Government would not accede to same sex marriage because it is anti cultural.
This statement presupposes that gays do exist in Nigeria.
Nigerians know gays do exist in the country, have been with us and that we indeed have local and cultural appellations to describe homosexuality. In fairness to the then Honourable Minister as per the 2009 position, he was battling to justify the ever present Same Sex Bill in the Nigeria parliament, which seeks to criminalize Same Sex Conduct. The Minister did not avert his mind as to why Nigeria was preparing legislation for a nonexistent community.
As earlier stated, we have always had gays in Nigeria, so the question now is, why the furor about gays and criminalization of same sex conduct?
This question is however itself inaccurate. Homosexuality is and has always been an offence or crime in Nigeria. Our existing laws refer to it as Sodomy. Section 284 of the Penal Code for Northern criminalizes homosexuality. These are laws inherited form Britain, Nigeria’s colonial masters.
It is wrong therefore, to say Nigeria is on the verge of criminalizing same sex conduct. This has always been the position. Over the years however, Nigerians have lived more in total neglect of the law than in its compliance. Nobody before now cared whether these laws existed. Gays lived their lives amongst fellow Nigerians, could be identified but nobody cared. It was an attitude of “do your thing so long as you do not involve me.” Of course there is and there has always been social stigma but it was a situation of see no evil, hear no evil. Essentially, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Yes we had gays, they lived among us, their lifestyle came with some social stigma, as is the case even in other parts of the world, but that was it. Everybody went about their businesses.
To the question again, what changed? Why the attention now on homosexuality and the gay community? Why the reinvention of the wheel now to re criminalize same sex acts?
There are two schools of thought regarding this issue.
The 1st school of thought posits that when Nigeria hosted the 2005 International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa, ICASA, (an umbrella organization of societies for AIDS in Africa), gays were included in the deliberations with particular emphasis on preventing the spread of the virus. State officials, for whatever reason, stated at the time that Nigeria does not have homosexuals in existence and a group of those present disagreed. It was the silent gay minority now trying to poke a finger in the eye of authority. Persons of this school of thought say that this was the genesis of government’s resolve to crush this cluster of “social misfits” and do away with them.
A second school of thought has it that, failed politicians losing relevance, owing perhaps to their poor performance or other factors, decided to throw religion and dead sentiments into the equation of governance so as to maintain relevance. This, they claim, started with the introduction of Sharia and Christian fundamentalism into Nigerian politics which led to the demonization of homosexuality.
Arising from either of the two, or both, Nigerians were “sensitized” to the growing dangers of being gay and what it portends for our society, culture, and our chances of going to heaven. Of course being the cultural/passionate people we are, the religious people (not spiritual) we are, we started to fall over each other in a bid to decide whose voice could be heard the loudest in condemnation of homosexuality. Note, even before independence and from independence, our laws criminalized homosexuality.
Why was it so easy to whip Nigerians into a frenzy, so quickly into an anti gay disposition, if Nigerians had all along lived quietly with it and accepted gays, choosing only to ignore them?
The answer lies in the title of the proposed law and what the Nigerian on the street understands it to be. The Authorities cleverly styled the Bill “Same Sex Marriage Bill”. The word “marriage” is the catch. Nigerians imagined gays are now asking and demanding for the right to marry, have civil unions and so on. Nigerians cannot accept nor live with gay marriages. Not now and not in the foreseeable future.
The shame of the rather misleading title of the Bill is that, neither individual Gay Nigerians nor the gay community in Nigeria have demanded nor stepped forward with any demand for civil unions or marriage for homosexuals in today’s Nigeria. This is why the Same Sex Marriage Bill is said to be a farce and meant merely to divert the attention of Nigerians from issues revolving around poor governance and plundering of state resources by politicians and others in positions of authority. In truth, all the noise about same sex marriages is a non-issue in Nigeria!
Yes, the Same Sex Marriage Bill defines “marriage” as any form of same sex conduct, but in truth less than 0.1% of Nigerians have seen the Bill or read it. The word marriage is the key to putting Nigerians up in arms against gays. Nigerians are protesting and will not allow gay marriages. This is not peculiar to Nigeria. Many countries including several states in the US are also yet to accept the concept of same sex marriage. Eliminate the word “marriage” from the Bill and we head back to the old laws that Nigerians ignored.
The proposed Same Sex Marriage Bill, has however pushed the anti same sex conduct prohibition to fresh frontiers. Human Rights seem to be the least of its worries and advocacy for the rights of gays is now also proposed to be treated as a criminal act. Owing to the surge of negative attention, citizens are gradually resorting to hate crimes against known homosexuals.
The judiciary is also suddenly on the alert. Based on the old laws, about 22 convictions have taken place in Nigerian Courts in Delta, Kaduna, Zamfara, and Nassarawa states in the last 6 years, as against 2 convictions in over 44 years before now. The Federal Capital Territory, FCT, is no exception.
The question of same sex marriage strictu sensu, it is argued, is at best an academic exercise in Nigeria. Gays in Nigeria are neither demanding nor advocating for same sex marriage. Their demands are simple: recognize our rights as humans in whatever position the government intends to take. Respect the human rights of all whether homosexual or heterosexual. It is the writer’s opinion that this is a fair argument and a very reasonable one at that too.
In fairness to the government, it has also opened up channels of communication and kept free the space for debate and argument on the Bill. Activists and Advocates even if within a hostile parliament, have been allowed to state their position.
This is hoping that whatever position is finally arrived at, human rights, particularly the rights to self-expression will continue to be respected and upheld. We all have the right to be different. Being in the minority is no reason or basis to have the majority take away minority rights where such exist.