AIDS could rebound as Nigeria gets harsh anti-gay law

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan has signed the harsh “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill,” which might have little effect on same-sex couples, but could devastate organizations fighting for gay rights and against AIDS in LGBT communities.

Jonathan’s spokesman said today that the president signed the bill earlier this month.

The new law calls for prison sentences of up to 14 years for any Nigerian who enters into a same-sex marriage and up to 10 years to anyone who attends or assists in a same-sex wedding in Nigeria.  Those provisions are extreme, but their actual effect will be limited, because the idea of same-sex marriage has attracted little attention in Nigeria except from the people who fear it.

The greatest impact will likely come from these sections:

A person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organizations directly or indirectly …  commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years’ imprisonment.

“A person or group of persons who …  supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.”

That seems to threaten 10-year prison terms for anyone who organizes or takes part in a meeting of gay men in order to inform them about how to avoid HIV infection, as well as anyone who belongs to any organization that could be classified as a “gay organization,” whether it is seeking recognition of human rights for LGBT people, meeting the spiritual needs of LGBT people, or providing health care for LGBT people.

The new law creates huge barriers to anyone seeking to reach out to LGBT communities as part of an anti-AIDS campaign.  According to recent surveys, an estimated 13.5 percent of men who have sex with men in Nigeria are HIV-positive.  For the overall population, the HIV infection rate is 3.6 percent overall — a total of 3.3 million people by some estimates.

The overall population of Nigeria will be a loser if AIDS continues to expand in LGBT communities, because gay and straight communities interact and spread HIV infections back and forth.

Stephen Chukwumah, executive director of the Improved Youth Health Initiative, which combats AIDS in Nigeria, described the bill’s likely effects in an open letter opposing it.

Stephen Chukwumah
Stephen Chukwumah

Young people in Nigeria are dying of HIV/AIDS almost every day, because they have no access to sex education and they can’t be open about what and who they are to the people who can proffer solutions.

They are dying, in Lagos, Abuja, Awka, Enugu and heavily in your state Benue, including all places in Nigeria. This disease is spreading; it is killing them and it is killing everyone.

Gay people are going underground and, because of this, some of us who work in the field of sex and health education will not be able to reach out to them. They might think we are spies sent by the government to arrest and jail them.

Open your heart, sir. This bill cannot change people’s sexuality; rather it would create an opportunity for double lives and lies and the effect of this is obnoxiously dangerous.

The new law expands on a harsh existing Nigerian law that already provides for a 14-year prison sentence for homosexual acts involving either men or women.  The old law apparently applied to same-sex intercourse; the new law prohibits a simple “public show of same-sex amorous relationship” and would impose a 10-year prison sentence for those convicted.

In 12 Nigerian states in the north, sharia law applies. For homosexual activity, that law provides for capital punishment for men, at least on paper, and lashing or imprisonment for women.

Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati told Agence France-Presse that Jonathan signed the bill because it was consistent with Nigerian citizens’ overall attitude to homosexuality:

“More than 90 percent of Nigerians are opposed to same sex marriage. So, the law is in line with our cultural and religious beliefs as a people,” he added.

“And I think that this law is made for a people and what (the) government has done is consistent with the preference of its environment.”

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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