Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"There is a lot of ignorance"

That notorious "same-sex marriage" bill is again up for debate in the Nigerian Federal Assembly. Davis Mac-Iyalla, of Changing Attitude Nigeria, tells me that it is under review by the House of Representatives' Human Rights Committee, and is expected to pass prior to the April 2007 presidential elections. While Nigerian politics are nearly inscrutable to me, I am willing to bet that not voting for the legislation's passage would be a difficult vote to explain to one's constituents, and it definitely wouldn't help to curry favor with various Nigerian religious organizations (especially the Anglicans), which, as far as I can tell, support this legislation unanimously.

When reading the "same-sex marriage" legislation -- which can be found as an appendix to Ephraim Radner's and Andrew Goddard's recent article in Fulcrum -- one is immediately aware that the legislation goes far beyond a statement by the Nigerian Federal Government that it will not recognize same-sex marriages; the legislation effectively abridges speech, press, assembly, and free exercise of religion rights for all homosexual advocacy, public, private, or in the media. Given the rather sorry state of Nigeria's judicial system, the vague wording of the legislation, and the potential for egregious abuse, the ramifications of such abridgement would be well beyond anything we here in the US could possible understand.

Katharine Houreld of the Associated Press recently published a surprisingly in depth outline of what those ramifications might be [my emphasis]:
Anyone attending a meeting between gay people, even two friends in a private house, could receive a sentence of five years under the act.

... "This meeting, right here, would be illegal," says activist Alimi, stabbing the air with a French fry for emphasis as he sits at a table with three gay friends and a reporter. "We could be arrested for talking about this. You could be arrested for writing about us."

... Haruna Yerima, a member of Nigeria's House of Representatives, portrays the legislation as aimed at stamping out something already well under control.

"It's not really such a big problem in Nigeria, we just want to prevent such occurrences (gay marriages) from happening here," he says.

Yerima said he approved of the limitations on films and books because they could be used to "make such practices popular." Even social contact between gays should be limited, he said, because it might encourage behavior that was "against our culture...against our religion."

Civil rights organizations and human rights lawyers have said that the bill could also be used to deny legal representation to gay people who have been arrested.

... Nigerian Anglicans split with the American Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop and many in the country say they want to prevent anything similar to the South African legislation.

But Akin Marinho, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says that bill's prohibitions are illegal under Nigeria's constitution and intenational treaty obligations. Not only does the bill affect freedoms of speech and expression, but foreign companies could face lawsuits if gay or lesbian staff are unable to take up positions in Nigeria, he says.

"It's a civil liberties issue as well as a gay rights issue," Marinho says. "Under this bill, anyone watching 'Brokeback Mountain' or even 'Will and Grace' could be prosecuted ... it could also infringe on lawyer-client relations," he says, pointing out that the vague wording of the bill could interpret a meeting between a gay client and a lawyer as a meeting designed to promote same-sex relationships.

Even some conservative religious leaders say the bill goes too far. Though Bishop Joseph Ojo, who presides over the congregation at the evangelical Calvary Kingdom Church, says gay relationships are "foreign to Africans" and should be outlawed, he adds that homosexuals should "have freedom of speech and expression."

Nigerians have been publicly flogged, exhibited before the press naked, or beaten severely in prison after being charged with homosexuality. Alimi's companions say they're wary of voicing too much opposition to the new law out of fear of arrest. Death sentences have been meted out in the north, though no one has yet been executed.

"There is a lot of ignorance, and that is why people are afraid," Alimi says. "But we are not willing to come out and say, yes, I am gay. Here I am. I am human too."
[An abridged version of this article was published by the Houston Chronicle.]

Many Nigerians believe that there are, in fact, no "real" homosexuals among them. It is difficult for those of us outside of Nigeria to understand this, and it is in part because of this lack of understanding that so few in the United States, especially those with affiliations to religious groups in Nigeria that have endorsed the legislation (like many readers of Titus One Nine or Stand Firm in Faith), can grasp the magnitude of the situation. Yet regardless of our ignorance, Nigerians themselves understand quite well that this legislation is intended to stamp out speech, prevent gay and lesbian organizations from organizing, and make second-class citizens of "suspected" homosexuals.

This is not academic. It's not the same debate as is commonly heard in the US and Europe about granting the same rights, priveleges and responsibilities to same-sex couples as to opposite-sex couples. It's a real threat to the lives of what could amount to millions of Nigerians. Those complicit in this legislation's passage, both within Nigeria and without, will have a lot to answer for.

For more on the American and Anglican angles on this story, read here, here and here.


Robert said...

Matt: Thanks for your work on this post. It is not surprising that ++Akinola's allies in this country are starting to get some bad press in their own right. See tomorrow's editorial in the Falls Church News-Press at:

Matt said...

Hi Robert, thanks for the link to the Falls Church editorial. I'm not sure it's my style, nor does it at all capture the tone of what I'm concerned about with the Nigerian legislation, but if other readers would like to check it out, I'm making the editorial a hyperlink here.

Anonymous said...

Stand Firm does not endorse any legislation anywhere that criminalizes homosexual behavior. I respectfully request that you retract that assertion in your main post.

Thank you,

- Greg Griffith

Matt said...

Greg, I make it quite clear in my post that many of the readers of Stand Firm and TitusOneNine, as evidenced by their many comments over the last several months, endorse the legislation. You would have a legitimate beef with what I had written if I had said that you or Matt Kennedy or Sarah Hey had endorsed the legislation, but I made no such stipulation. Of course, much confusion would be eliminated if you would simply come out and condemn the legislation instead of simply saying that you do not endorse it ... but perhaps that's too high a political hurdle to clear.

Readers of my blog are directed in those links to comments regarding the legislation on both sites -- they can make up their own minds.