New Law Targets Gay People In Nigeria

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 11:56 am
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I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, during his life he was revered as a towering figure in the world of letters and reviled as an anti-Semite and misogynist. And the division around his legacy continues after his death last week at the age of 79. So we wanted to take a closer look at the work and legacy of the late playwright Amiri Baraka. That's coming up later.

But first, we go to Nigeria to learn more about a new law that seems to be already changing life for homosexuals in that country, which is Africa's most populous. The bill was passed by Parliament last month and quietly signed by President Goodluck Jonathan last week. It's called the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. And here's a clip of the sponsor of the bill, Senator Domingo Obende, speaking to South Africa's eNCA News.


SENATOR DOMINGO OBENDE: There can't be two guys living together in same roof, and everybody knows that they are gay. No, this country's not for them. They better go to another place.

MARTIN: As we said, the law is now in effect. And we're told that arrests have reportedly started across the country already. We wanted to learn more but this so we've called the BBC's correspondent in Lagos, Tomi Oladipo. And he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TOMI OLADIPO: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: So we understand, though, that same-sex acts, homosexual sex was already illegal in Nigeria. So what does this law do?

OLADIPO: Well, this law is a bit more specific now. Before, homosexual acts were already illegal in all parts of the country. In fact, many states in northern Nigeria have Islamic law in place. And so even under that, homosexuality is illegal. But this law now sort of breaks things down and talks about, you know, banning same-sex marriage, banning same-sex associations - so clubs, unions, activism, all of that, even displays of affection. All of that is now illegal in the country.

MARTIN: So how do the police plan to enforce the law? And is there some standard of proof that they need to arrest someone?

OLADIPO: It's not clear exactly how that's going to be implemented. The way this is going to work is anybody can report anybody. So if you see someone who displays a homosexual act, then you can report them to the police. And then the police arrest them. Knowing the way the Nigerian criminal and justice system works, you can't be too sure exactly how they'll implement this. But it just shows that for the people affected by this law, they will have to sort of go further underground.

MARTIN: You were telling us that, in fact, the law is quite popular. Can you tell us more about that?

OLADIPO: Yeah. Nigerian society sees homosexuality as taboo, so - because this is a very conservative culture, very religious as well. And a lot of people say this is a Western import, and it's come in with the influence of Hollywood. And other people say that it's unnatural. And so, generally, if you talk to people on the streets, even among the educated people, even among a lot of the exposed people - if you go on Twitter, for example, - just earlier this week, actually, one of the top-trending topics in Nigeria was no to same-sex marriage. So, you know, that just shows you the way the general thought is. And so it's very difficult, you know, compared to other African countries where you'll see these communities, LGBTI communities, you know, coming out. And it's not that way in Nigeria. They're very much underground.

MARTIN: Well, last year, for example, in a Pew Research Center study on the global divide on homosexuality, 98 percent of Nigerians said the society should not accept homosexuality. And yet, there have been, to this point, secret gay clubs, right, in Lagos. I understand that you reported on one of them. Can you just describe, you know, the atmosphere? What was it like?

OLADIPO: Yes, this, in particular, is not the kind of gay bar you'd find anywhere in the world, you know, in London or New York or wherever. This was actually a kind of community center. And they would have these meetings every so often, every couple of weeks. And, you know, it looked - they were very open in what they were doing. There were - everybody having fun, you know, there was, you know, cross-dressing, whatever. At the same time, they were very cautious. And everybody was warned not to take photographs with their mobile phones. And the people we interviewed, we had to sort of blacken their faces out sort of disguise them and hide their identity. So it shows that even as much as they want to have fun, they're still very cautious...

MARTIN: You...

OLADIPO: ...About being identified.

MARTIN: There are some out activists. And you interviewed one of them, a man named Rashidi Williams. I'm curious about how he's been able to function as an out activist, you know, given this atmosphere. But he raised a concern to you that - I just want to play a clip from it - your interview with him. And here it is.


RASHIDI WILLIAMS: All we are asking for is repeal, repressing on discrimination laws in the country so that people, you know, are free. So that people are able to access sexual health services, HIV-prevention services. And if you're HIV-positive, you're able to access treatment services in the totality of who they are without the stigma and discrimination.

MARTIN: Well, clearly, that point of view did not prevail. But was there any discussion of that that a law like this actually makes it harder for people to access health services and really could become a public health concern?

OLADIPO: I think that's been one of the major issues that these activists have been calling for, saying that, first of all, they did not even call for gay marriage or same-sex marriage, rather, in the first place. So they wonder why it's being banned when nobody was calling for it. Secondly, they're saying, you know, a lot of people who need treatment, for example, HIV, will now step back because they fear they might identified as being homosexual, probably, even if they're not. So people are looking at the wider implications of this. Another thing is, for example, in terms of association now, one thing this bill mentions or this law mentions is even if you're trying to help someone, to even the doctors involved, even activists involved or lawyers involved, you know, trying to help these people will also get implicated.

MARTIN: What sense do you have about how much of a priority this particular issue is for the national leadership? Like, for example, we mentioned that the president signed it, but did he issue a signing statement? Did he give a speech? Any sense of how he really feels about it?

OLADIPO: No, the president has not spoken about this. But this is one of the issues his critics are talking about. Saying, you know, there's so much more going on in the country, of course the security, there's, you know, corruption and poverty and all of that. You know, a lot of people are asking questions about priorities in the country. So there are people who say that they don't necessarily support same-sex marriage, but the same time, they disagree with the way this particular bill has been carried through. It sailed through. Yet, there are so many other bills that have been there in the Senate and House of Reps, which have not been touched, which have been delayed for years. And those are more - probably more important or more, you know, of more - of higher priority that should have been tackled first.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, you expect that there would be reaction elsewhere in the world, including among Nigeria's trading partners, where they have a different point of view. So how is the national leadership in the country likely to react to that criticism?

OLADIPO: I think that's the one issue that Nigeria doesn't seem to budge about when it comes to this gay rights in Africa, of gay rights in Nigeria. You know, a lot of African countries have come under heavy criticism for the way they've handled this issue. And when they come under criticism from international organizations or from Western governments, in particular, they say it's the West trying to impose moral values on them. And so this is one of the issues where Nigeria's very firm on. And they say that as much as you can talk about trying to advise us on economy or advise us on corruption, this is the one issue where they sort of say they're not going to listen to what the rest of the world has to say. And they'll stand firm on this.

MARTIN: Tomi Oladipo is the BBC's correspondent in Lagos, Nigeria. And he was kind enough to join us from the studios there. Tomi, thank you so much for speaking with us.

OLADIPO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.