Last month the writer Chinua Achebe declined the Nigerian government’s attempt to name him a Commander of the Federal Republic. He had rejected the same award in 2004. Achebe’s main objection then was widespread state corruption. He noted that “the reasons for rejecting the offer [of the award] when it was first made [in 2004] have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me.” Achebe could not have planned the next move of some key members of Nigeria’s political class. Fresh from that rejection, the members of Nigeria’s Senate decided to pass a new Prohibition of Same-Sex Marriage Bill which advocates jail time–up to 14 years–for same-sex couples who decide to marry or live together. The BBC reports that “…those ‘witnessing’ or ‘abetting’ such relationships would also face custodial sentences, and groups that advocate for gay and lesbian rights could also be penalized … Before it becomes law, the bill must be passed by the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, and then signed by the president.”
The bill could not come at a worse time for gays in Nigeria, already subjected to harassment, hate crimes and death. (See also this video we posted earlier.) Activists point out that they have never agitated for gay marriage on Nigeria’s law books.
Why is going after a small minority a priority for Nigeria’s political class? Here are some choice quotes from one of the senators, Ahmed Lawan:
This is to be pro-active so no-one catches us unaware … We are protecting humanity and family values, in fact, we are protecting civilization in its entirety … Should we allow for indiscriminate same-sex marriage, very soon the population of this world would diminish.
As the BBC reported this week, Lawal’s views are “moderate compared with some of his peers” in the Senate.
And a quick read of comments to recent posts defending gay rights–whether Richard Branson or Nigerian blogger Linda Ikeji–points to how deep-seated and widespread homophobia is in Nigeria. As journalist Chude Jideonwo wrote on CNN’s African Voices blog:
Barely 10 days ago, the influential Nigerian blogger Linda Ikeji, shared what was supposed to be a touching story about a young man, Rashidi Williams, who had faced physical abuse for his sexuality. The comments that followed made my heart sink — more threats of violence and death. And it wasn’t a fringe minority; this is a thriving majority.
Not all Nigerians are like this though. A few gay rights activists here in New York City (I know it is safer to do so from a distance) took to the streets–well, to the sidewalk–in front of the Nigerian Mission to the United Nations to protest the new law. In the video–below, shot by one of my students, Travis Ferland–I especially enjoyed the comments of a man that wandered into the frame around the 1:27 mark.
BTW, this all becomes a useful pretext for what a friend aptly describes as ‘human rights imperialism.’