What Goodluck Jonathan’s Anti-LGBTQ law did to queer people

In 2014, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan consented to a bill now called the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA). The content of this bill outlawed gay relationships and same-sex marriage after it was passed by the two arms of the National Assembly, and it was a long journey up to its passing.

How the anti-LGBTQI law came to be

Two earlier versions of the Bill—the 2006 and 2008 versions—had respectively failed to pass in both houses in 2007 and 2009 due to its condemnation by international organizations, mostly on the back of violation of human rights and the disheartening mistreatment of HIV/AIDS patients due to stigmatization.

Then, a similar draft bill was proposed in 2013, and the eventual passing of this bill was mostly a result of the domestic reactions to the act, which was favourable, with many Nigerians giving the opinion that the legislation is in no way an infringement of human rights as they believe that homosexuality is against their culture. 

The Bill was enacted after the National Assembly’s controversial review in 2013. The examination of the bill was notably transparent, allowing relevant interest groups to express their opinions and advocate for their positions. Proponents of the legislation cited their Christian or Muslim faith and culture to support the law. 

Critics contended that local cultures did not explicitly forbid same-sex marriages and relations and that there is deep queerness in African culture. For instance, “Ìyá Ṣàngó,” a female priestess of Sango, the deity of thunder and lightning in the Yoruba religion, who, during trance possession, is no longer viewed as a woman, is seen to marry Sango at the metaphysical level, becoming a man. In Hausa culture, some men exhibit feminine traits and are sexually attracted or intimate with other men, known as “‘yan Saudi.”

However, 2013 PewGlobal research suggests 98% of Nigerians believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society, and a 2017 survey by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), a Nigerian-based human rights organization, showed 90% of Nigerians support the continued enforcement of Nigeria’s anti-gay laws.

As soon as the law was passed, scores of people suspected of engaging in same-sex relationships were rounded up by the Nigerian police and the hisbah (Sharia police) on the streets, arrested at their homes and taken into custody. Their neighbours even reported some of them. However, Nigerian police spokesman Frank Mba suggested no one had been arrested due to the new law and further challenged activists to provide the names of the people allegedly arrested.

The Act and its Meaning  

A page of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act

The Act prohibits any shape or form of same-sex marriage and equivalent civil unions in the country. It also goes further to state that if a couple of the same sex has an awarded marriage certificate from another country, that certificate is null and void. The Act only recognizes marriages between heterosexual couples.

The Act furthermore prohibits the establishment of same-sex fostering gatherings and establishments. It dictates that the punishment for same-sex couples is fourteen years of imprisonment. Anyone who aids and abets a same-sex couple or their allies will receive ten years imprisonment; likewise, anyone who registers such an establishment or shows same-sex amorous affection in public is also punishable with ten years imprisonment.

Problematically, the definition of types of relationships regulated by the SSMPA is also broader than mere marriage and could capture any type of committed, caring and emotional partnership of same-sex people who happen to be living together.

Thus, ‘same-sex marriage’ is defined to mean ‘the coming together of persons of the same sex to live together as partners or for other purposes of the same sexual relationship, while ‘civil union’ is defined even more broadly to mean in general, ‘any arrangement between persons of the same sex to live together as sex partners.’ 

The ambiguity of terms such as “carnal knowledge,”  “gross indecency,” and “order of nature” also results in the vagueness of the Bill.

Criticisms of the Act

The Act, which aligns with the existing Sharia law in some northern Nigerian states that previously punished gay practices with the death penalty, was praised by many Nigerians, especially those of faith and tradition. However, the law faced criticism from most civil rights activists and secular thinkers and activists. Western countries and international organizations kick against it, saying that the step taken infringes on the rights of gay people.

The European Union outright condemned the Act. Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative, stated that the EU is opposed to the discrimination of any human on the grounds of sexuality and is also firmly committed to upholding the fundamental human rights of every person.

The United States also expressed disappointment over the passing of the Act. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “deeply concerned” by a law that “dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association, and expression for all Nigerians.”

Some argue that this law contradicts the Nigerian Constitution (1999), which guarantees freedom of association, privacy, and related freedoms. This is because it appears to restrict the rights of gay individuals regarding their freedom of association, privacy, and lawful assembly. It has been noted that this law violates rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination, both protected by the Nigerian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Nigeria has endorsed.

Implications of the Act

A gay man in Bariga, Lagos, via Glenna Gordon and The New York Times

Under existing Nigerian federal law, sodomy was already punishable by jail. The Anti-LGBTQ law not only targets sodomy; it also aims to significantly intensify persecution of the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters, who already lead hidden lives due to the existing legal restrictions.

The Human Rights Watch report, “Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe’: The Impact of Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” reveals how certain police officers and members of the public are misusing the law that came into effect in January 2014 to justify mistreatment of LGBT individuals. This misuse includes extortion, mob violence, arbitrary arrest, torture, and physical and sexual violence. The law has provided a platform for individuals to perpetrate homophobic violence without the fear of facing legal consequences, thus significantly contributing to a climate of impunity for crimes against the LGBT community.

Nigerian activist Bisi Alimi told the BBC that the law would also affect those trying to assist gay people. He said;

“You’re not allowed to provide services to anyone who is perceived to be homosexual…When you say that services will not be provided, what you’re saying is that HIV services that are catering to men who have sex with men will have to stop.” 

When Nigeria passed some of the toughest anti-gay laws in Africa, the internet became a place for the LGBT community to connect with others more safely—until criminal gangs went digital to the point of having a popularised term, “Kito.” Kito is used to describe when a gay person has been deceived and lured by someone who pretended to be gay for either outing, beating, extortion or even murder. BBC News Africa released a documentary on Kito in which they captured the inhumane treatment of homosexuals. BBC Africa Eye also did an investigation on how blackmailers pose as potential dates on popular dating apps, only to extort, beat and even kidnap people. 

Queer rights are HUMAN rights

The crime of abuse or death isn’t any less barbaric because its victim is queer. Every citizen of Nigeria has the right to enjoy the protection of its government as provided by the 1999 constitution, irrespective of sexual preferences. Nigeria is a secular state and must act as such for the preservation of the lives of its citizens.

The PewGlobal research, one of the strongest arguments for passing the Bill, was retaken in 2019, and the results show an increase in support for the LGBTQ community. This increase further proves that there is a slow but steady change in the assumed societal norms, which is grounds for an amendment of the Bill. 

Foundations such as the Bisi Alimi Foundation, The Initiative for Equal Rights, and the Rainbow Alliance Nigeria are some forerunners clamouring for an amendment to the bill, even to the point of complete dissolution. These foundations hope and fight for a Nigeria where everyone is equal, irrespective of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity. They use their platforms to fight for the recognition and respect of queer people and continuously call on more people to join their communities because they believe the strength in numbers would go a long way toward furthering their agendas.

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