One can't help feeling impotent when railing about civil rights violations in another country. Even in my own country, the United States, any effort I make to change the Administration's policy on extraordinary rendition or their tendency to alienate rather than embrace moderates in Muslim countries will be utterly without effect. Bush doesn't read my blog. Neither do civil rights violators in Africa.
As actual readers of this blog know, this January saw the introduction to the Nigerian Federal Assembly of a bill that is designed to strip basic speech, press, and assembly rights, not to mention freedom of religion, from gay and lesbian citizens of Nigeria. While called the "Same-sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2006" (pdf) -- and thus ostensibly targeted at ensuring that same-sex civil marriages are not recognized by the Nigerian government -- no one was fooled. The bill (available here as a PDF, and originally made available to me by Sokari at Black Looks) contains provisions that make it illegal, and punishable with a 5 year jail sentence, to form clubs that defend homosexuality, or worse to speak out individually. If the bill passed, and you were a witness of a gay marriage in Nigeria (even though the marriage is not recognized by the state), you would be subject to a similar penalty, as you would be if you engaged in public procession or printed stories in the press that defended homosexuality.
What has always made this bill peculiar, though, was not its draconian character, but the timing of its presentation only a few weeks after a new Anglican gay and lesbian organization began meeting in Nigeria's capital city, Abuja, and the coastal Lagos. While involvement by the Anglican Church of Nigeria in the writing or presentation of the bill has not been confirmed, the endorsement of the bill by the Church's leader, Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, strongly suggests that the appearance of a gay Anglican group in their midst prompted the Federal Government to quickly draft and present legislation that would explicitly ban such organizations. A cursory history of the legislation can be found here.
Even more troubling than the Anglican Church of Nigeria endorsing the legislation -- which would imprison the church's declared theological enemies -- is the acquiescence of Archbishop Akinola's allies in the United States. As I said above, there is little I can do about anything in Nigeria, but it is certainly a worthwhile activity to point out to the conservative factions within the Anglican Church -- which are currently undergoing a significant realignment out of the Episcopal Church and into other branches of the global Anglican Communion -- that their compacency is suicidally short-sighted.
Perhaps the theologically orthodox Anglican Communion Network (ACN), which is the closest Church ally of Akinola in North America, feels that the lay people and clergy they represent have no objection to imprisoning homosexuals for their beliefs (let alone for their actions -- "sodomy" is already illegal in Nigeria and subject to a far greater sentence). As far as I can tell, most in the ACN are unaware that the the Nigerian bill would do more than just ban gay marriage. (A bill to ban gay marriage, when no State in Nigeria currently allows it, is a pointless effort, anyway.) They don't realize that the greatest effect of the bill would be to strip gay and lesbian Nigerians of civil rights that we in the US reserve for even the most odious (for example, the right to a free and fair trial is granted to all -- ahem -- regardless of how evil they might be).
The Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, now the Anglican Church of Nigeria's bishop in residence in the United States, provided a defense of the legislation that never mentioned the concrete prohibitions contained in the legislation, focusing instead on his belief that critics of Akinola were attacking him ad hominem. While Minns says that he "does NOT believe that criminalization is an appropriate response to those who understand themselves to be homosexuals", his statement would have had much more force if he were to have stated clearly that endorsing legislation that would put "those who understand themselves to be homosexuals" in jail for their speech is no way for a Church to behave. It reflects badly on Minns, it reflects badly on the Anglican Communion Network, and it refects badly on its supporters.
The Nigerian bill (pdf), though it has not yet passed, is most certainly not dead. The greatest danger posed by the bill is not so much that people would be put in jail (my guess is that actual prosecutions and convictions of Nigerians who violate the new law would be rare), but that it institutionalizes discrimination. Police harassment will become even more intense than it already is, and with its endorsement the Church of Nigeria will have signalled to its people both that gay and lesbian Nigerians are not be tolerated -- thus eliminating any remaining credibility in their stated position that they welcome all to the Church -- and that they are overt partners with the State in enacting laws with explicitly religious underpinnings.
As I have made very clear elsewhere, I believe the Church to have every right to define its beliefs as it wishes. But it is instructive to read how the subject is really discussed in the Nigerian press (from This Day, Lagos, September 7). Note the stereotyping, and the fact that the article focuses entirely on the "gay marriage" part of the bill, ignoring entirely the part that would commit massive civil rights violations [emphasis mine]:
Read it all.
In the past, around the central market in Kaduna they could be easily seen as they wait for customers. Quite a spectacle: painted lips, ear rings, neck laces complete with all sorts of rings on their fingers. They have imbibed the feminine mannerisms completely in their ways of life. They are homosexuals, now called men having sex with men.
Loathed and scorned by many in the Nigerian society, a combination of factors have driven underground the unrepentant army of homosexuals in the country. Within the central market, Kaduna where they used to practice their unusual past time openly, they are no longer seen, just as elsewhere in Nigeria. Within the secular and religious authorities, no sector has spared this group of individuals, who are treated as outcasts in the society.
In January this year, in a major pre-emptive move that has continued to receive public applause, the Federal Executive Council approved a Bill on the nefarious practice. If passed by the National Assembly, the bill would have the effect of banning the same-sex marriage in Nigeria. The new law, according to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Bayo Ojo, will provide for outright prohibition of two men entering into what they wrongly perceive as marriage or two women entering into what they wrongly perceive as marriage. The bill prescribes a five-year jail sentence without an option of fine for offenders. Also, any persons or institutions, which expressly or implicitly, aid or abet such an aberration, would equally receive the same jail sentence of five years.
While explaining the position of the government on the issue, Mr. Frank Nweke, Information Minister, stated: "It is an offence for anybody to contract a marriage or have a relationship with a person of the same sex. If you do, it carries a sentence of five years imprisonment without the option of fine, and if you aid or support in any way, anybody of the same sex to contract a relationship or marriage, it will also attract five years imprisonment." [Remember, there is no state in Nigeria that currently issues marriage licenses to gay couples -- this part of the bill is moot. -- MVT]
Home to the world's largest Anglican province, Nigeria is leading the resistance against accepting gays in the Anglican Communion.
Among the clergy in Nigeria, they have never been equivocal in condemning the practice, which they regard as sinful. But, particularly, among the Anglicans, the controversy raised a notch ever since the ordination of an openly gay New Hampshire bishop in 2004. It exposed a deepening fault line between conservative Christianity flourishing in many developing countries and more liberal doctrines preached elsewhere. It also underscores a long-standing intolerance of homosexuality in Africa, which carries very secular implications.
Homosexuals are certainly not welcome in Nigeria's 17 million-member Anglican Church [!!!!! -- MVT], whose primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, condemned the consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as an openly gay bishop as a "satanic attack on the Church of God."
Akinola severed relations both with Robinson's New Hampshire diocese and with a Canadian one last year for accepting homosexuals. Should the church formally split over homosexuality, Akinola -- who has a large membership -is considered the likely leader of a conservative spinoff.
"Homosexuality is a deviation from the Scriptures," Dr. Adebola Ademowo, Archbishop of Lagos [Anglican], declared in the wake of the controversy, which has put the Nigerian clergy in the forefront of the campaign against same sex marriage. "And we are not alone in this belief. All the other denominations here are just enthused with our stance. They are praying with us", Ademowo added.
Sure, the ACN is in the midst of a political battle with the Episcopal Church that makes it difficult for them to express any criticism of Akinola, but they (and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams) are unwise to think that their unexamined allegiance to everything Akinola has said and done will yield positive fruit in the end.
PS: It's not just Nigeria that is teetering on this cliff of massive discrimination. Assuming at the very least 1% of Nigerians are homosexual, the Nigerian bill would put civil rights limitations on well over 1 million people. In Uganda, where the press has already taken on the responsibility of publicly outing its gay citizens, we would be talking about 200,000. Are conservative Anglicans in the US, who also have significant ties with the Ugandan Church, willing to take on this responsibility?
UPDATE: I should note that the US Government has already made clear its objections to the proposed law.