Nigeria’s new “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act,” signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan without announcement last week, not only bans gay marriage but also criminalizes homosexual clubs, associations, and organisations. The penalties are up to 14 years in jail.
The law has clearly upset many Western observers. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned” by a law that “dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association, and expression for all Nigerians.” The U.K. and some other governments in Western Europe have previously threatened to pull aid to countries that pass laws persecuting homosexuals, something that has scared other African countries, such as Uganda, into stalling their own legislation.
In the face of this pressure, why would Nigeria’s government enact such an anti-gay law? Sodomy was already outlawed in the country, and it’s unlikely that many homosexuals were publicly calling for same-sex marriage, so why bother?
The answer is depressingly simple: It’s an incredibly popular opinion, and oil-rich Nigeria doesn’t need Western aid in the same way other African nations do.
Last year, polls released by Nigerian polling group NOI found 92% of Nigerians supported the proposed Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. Just 1% of those polled strongly opposed the law. Another survey from Pew Research last year found 98% of Nigerians didn’t think homosexuality should be accepted by society — the highest percentage of any country surveyed. These numbers are truly exceptional. Even in Russia, a country that became notorious for its anti-gay laws last year, approval ratings above 90% would be extraordinary.
That incredible support helps explain the political motivations at work here. President Jonathan is expected to seek re-election in 2015, and while Western condemnation may sting, threats of retribution aren’t as scary as they are for aid-reliant countries such as Uganda. Nigeria is one of the top crude suppliers to the U.S.
Nigeria had a rocky 2o13, with terrorist organisation Boko Haram killing more than a thousand people between May and December in a violent bid to create a separate Islamist state in the country’s Muslim-majority North. Jonathan’s support of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act can not only act as a distraction from this, but also allow Jonathan to act — much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin — as a stalwart opponent of decadent Western moral values. Frankly, he’s not alone; the leaders of other African countries like Uganda, Senegal, and Gambia are among those who have spoken out about homosexuality, and India recently re-joined the long list of countries where homosexuality was a crime.
If Jonathan is the winner here, then it’s clear who the losers are — Nigeria’s gays. Even though the atmosphere for homosexuals was probably already toxic, these new laws are only likely to drive them further underground. Dozens of men have already been arrested under the law in the country’s north, according to the Associated Press.
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