Can religion and LGBTQ+ rights coexist in Nigeria?

Over the past decade, the conflict between the LGBTQ+ community—including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer activists—and religious groups has escalated significantly worldwide. Despite Nigeria’s official status as a secular state, its actions, such as permitting the use of Sharia law and its rulings, particularly on issues related to homosexuality, reflect a more religious approach to the question about LGBTQ+ rights.

How has Nigeria established its stance anti-LGBTQ+ rights?

Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act

The Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, passed in 2014, criminalises same-sex marriage and any form of same-sex union. This law was influenced by religious opinions and moral values, particularly from Christian and Islamic perspectives.

Government Statements and Policies

Some government officials have made statements that promote religious views over secular principles. For example, the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, once said that any call on Muslims to abandon religious law in the name of secularism would fail.

Recognition of Sharia Law

Although the Nigerian Constitution does not explicitly recognise Sharia law, some states have implemented Shariah courts and laws. For instance, the 12 northern states in Nigeria have introduced Islamic criminal law, which has led to the application of Sharia law in some cases. The consequence of homosexuality under this law could be death by stoning if guilty.

Christian Resistance to Gay-Proselytism

Christian leaders have been vocal in their opposition to gay proselytism, viewing it as a threat to their religious beliefs and cultural values. This resistance has been seen as a critical factor in the criminalisation of homosexuality in Nigeria, with some arguing that it is an expression of the religious character of the country’s social and cultural spheres.

While not necessarily making Nigeria a non-secular state, these actions demonstrate a trend towards incorporating religious principles into governance and law enforcement, which can be seen as a departure from the country’s secular status.

Religion in Nigeria serves as a foundation of personal belief and a crucial element of community existence, shaping social standards, administrative frameworks, and even political interactions. This is due to the frequent interactions—church services, fellowships, mosque jumats and schools— among individuals within the same group, encouraging adherence to the group’s norms and principles.

According to recent estimates, 45.5% of the population is Christian, with 27% Protestant and 13% Catholic. The largest Christian ethnic groups are the Igbo (98% Christian) and Ijaw in the south. Islam is the largest religion at 50.5%, comprising 95% Sunni and 5% Shia. The Hausa ethnic group in the north is 95% Muslim. Traditional African religions are practised by 6% of the population. The Middle Belt region has the most significant minority ethnic groups, primarily practising traditional religions and Christianity.

Effects of Religion on Homosexuality in Nigeria

Nigeria is a country with more than 250 ethnic groups, over 500 indigenous languages, and a population of over 218.5 million people, divided along religion with Christianity and Islam, constituting over 90%. These two religions remain potent institutions that shape opinions on issues in the country.

They condemn homosexuality as a “sin” and “evil” in the community, and this condemnation is rooted in the teachings of the Bible and the Qur’an, the two Holy Books used in the two religions. As such, the stigmatisation of queer people is accepted and considered as part of the religious duties of their followers.

To better understand how these teachings are interpreted and enforced, here are some examples of how both Christians and Muslims interpret homosexuality:

The conservative Christian view

1. Scriptural Interpretation:

 Conservative Christians often interpret biblical passages like Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and Romans 1:26-27 as condemning same-sex sexual activities, using more literal interpretations. For instance, a famous Bible verse for reference is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, where it says, “Do not be deceived; men who have sex with men will not inherit the kingdom of God.” They emphasise the importance of adhering to traditional interpretations of these passages and the perceived moral and spiritual implications of engaging in such behaviours.

2. Religious Freedom:

Conservative Christians, particularly evangelicals, have been vocal about the importance of religious freedom and the need to protect it. However, some have needed help applying this concept to other faiths, including Islam, given the perceived differences in religious beliefs and practices.

The conservative Islamic view

1. Scriptural Interpretation:

Conservative Muslims often interpret Quranic verses like 7:80-84 and 11:77-83, as well as hadiths, to condemn same-sex sexual activities. They emphasise the importance of adhering to traditional interpretations of these passages and the perceived moral and religious implications of engaging in such behaviours.

2. Sharia Law:

Conservative Muslims often support the enforcement of Sharia law, which is based on the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. They believe that Sharia law should guide all aspects of life, including politics, education, and personal relationships.

3. Perceived Threats:

 Conservative Muslims often view the Western world, particularly the United States, as a threat to their faith and way of life. They may see the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights and same-sex marriage as part of a broader effort to undermine Islamic values and culture.

In Nigeria, a diverse religious landscape dominated by Islam and Christianity significantly impacts the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. The intersection of conservative religious interpretations with cultural norms creates a challenging environment for LGBTQ+ individuals. Both Islam and Christianity, which are prominent in the country, often adhere to traditional views on sexuality and gender roles, leading to the stigmatisation and discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community. This reflects a broader societal struggle for acceptance.

Religious leaders and the SSMA Act

Furthermore, the conflict between same-sex attraction and religiosity is a common issue, particularly among adolescents and young adults. Three out of four LGBTQ+ individuals grew up in religious homes, where traditional religious beliefs often directly conflict with homosexual behaviour or even mere attraction to the same sex, leading to internalised conflict.

For example, we previously wrote a story about queer love featuring a protagonist named Ngozi, who is a lesbian. Due to her sexuality, Ngozi lives in fear of her parents, who are deeply rooted in traditional views and struggle to accept her. Her family oscillates between denial and reluctance to accept her sexual orientation, viewing it as a temporary “phase” that spiritual deliverance could resolve.

Any person or group that associates with, advocates, or supports queer people is rejected in totality by religious leaders. This partly explains why religious leaders strongly supported the idea of criminalising same-sex marriage in Nigeria.

For instance, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pst. Enoch Adeboye, once called gay marriage an “evil” in 2013 and claimed it could wipe out humanity within 20 years if allowed. Senator Domingo Obende, the sponsor of the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, has also expressively stated that “same-sex marriage cannot be allowed on moral and religious grounds. The Muslim religion forbids it. Christianity forbids it, and the African traditional religion forbids it.”

Even before the Nigerian government signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibitions Act (SSMA), the northern region had adopted the Shari’a Law. The Sharia law was introduced and adopted on October 27, 1999, by the then-governor of Nigeria’s Zamfara State, Ahmed Sani Yerima, over a decade before the first bill for the SSMA was introduced in 2011.

The Bill makes same-sex marriage illegal in Nigeria and attracts a l4-year prison sentence as punishment. In addition, organisations or individuals who advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ people can, under this law, be sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

Violence against queer people

In 2014, a mob of men attacked over a dozen gay men in Abuja. The anti-gay mob nearly beat one man to death and dragged four severely injured victims to a nearby police station, where police further beat and insulted them, reports the New York Times.

 In 2016, Bamanga Rabiu (also known as Rabina), a transgender woman, was murdered in cold blood in Abuja. Until her death, she worked as a Peer Educator with the International Center for Advocacy on Right to Health ICARH. She later joined TIP for Human Rights in Nigeria, based in Abuja.

The perpetrators killed and buried the deceased in a shallow grave with some body parts exposed as they covered her with her mattress, and little or nothing was done by the authorities to bring her killers to justice.

 In July 2016, a tremor rocked parts of Kaduna state in Nigeria. Members of one community attributed the incident to “activities of prostitutes and homosexuals.” One Mallam Mustapha, a Muslim, also said, “The incident is a warning to those who have made homosexuality their trade.”

In 2022, three men—including a 70-year-old man— were sentenced to death by stoning under the Sharia court for homosexual acts after they all pleaded guilty. The men were not represented in court by a lawyer before pleading guilty to the charges against them, which is a gross disregard for their fundamental human rights as stated by the law.

The ruling sparked criticism from LGBTQ and human rights activists who could not reach the men and help them appeal the case.

According to William Rashidi, director of LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Triangle,  “This sentencing opens the door for more draconian judgments against LGBTQ persons. With this judgment, the times have been rolled back. It affects the very essence of freedom of expression and association. People have been given some sort of rights to attack, maim, and violate LGBTQ+ persons.”

Empathy for queer people

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights urged the Nigerian government to review the “Same-Sex Marriage Act,” but such pressure from the international community to reverse the law did not succeed. This is partly because the majority of the legislators who passed the bill and the president who signed it into law believed that the two major religions in Nigeria see homosexuality as taboo.

Until the government and its people can precisely separate religious bias from fundamental human rights, it is feared that the basic human rights of queer people will continually be breached to the point where their right to life is threatened and violated. Whether a person belongs to or supports the LGBTQ community, the government is expected to uphold the fundamental human rights of its citizens. Otherwise, people live in fear.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of the United Nations, which Nigerian belongs to, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms outlined in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

In conclusion, the situation in Nigeria highlights the urgent need for a more inclusive and accepting society. The government must take concrete steps to protect the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This can only be achieved by addressing the religious and cultural norms perpetuating discrimination and promoting tolerance and acceptance.


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