by Rex Wockner
The Women Affairs and Youth Committee of Nigeria’s House of Representatives held a hearing Feb. 14 on an extreme antigay bill that some activists had believed was not going to see any action.
The measure, which bans same-sex marriage and gay relationships, also seems to outlaw such things as belonging to a gay group, visiting a gay Internet site and socializing between gay people.
The bill states, in part: “Publicity, procession and public show of same-sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise are prohibited in Nigeria. … Any person who is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a term of 5 years imprisonment.”
The National Assembly is now expected to pass the bill, in some form, before April’s general election.
According to Scott Long from Human Rights Watch’s LGBT program: “The most useful form of outside pressure is from governments, in the form of statements by foreign embassies in Abuja or demarches at the ministerial level. Support to get those governments to take a stand would be vital.”
As recently as late January, leading activist Dorothy Aken’Ova of the Nigerian organization INCRESE, or International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, had considered the bill dead and had strongly urged reporters not to write anything about it for fear news items could rekindle legislators’ interest in the measure.
“[T]he bill is more or less dead because there is pandemonium [in advance of] the elections coming up in March/April and the swearing-in for a new government — we hope — in May,” she said in an e-mail interview. “Now they have found enemies within themselves and are not looking for gays, etc., to lead to the slaughter. If this remains the situation … then the bill is dead in all practical terms.
“[P]ress attention to the bill, even if it is as mild as reporting that it is presumed dead as a result of political tension … will be dangerous. Right now, we want silence,” Aken’Ova said.
Some other local activists had a different take in late January, just prior to the bill’s resurrection.
“Silence does not equate the death of the bill,” Alimi Adebisi Ademola, executive director of the gay youth group The Independent Project, said in an interview. “We believe strongly that the bill is still alive only going through a process that no one knows.”
Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of the gay Christian organization Changing Attitude Nigeria, concurred: “Just because the House has been silent about the bill does not make it dead.”
Leo Igwe, executive secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, had urged that international activism against the bill not stop “even though the ‘general feeling’ now is that any call for public action might be counterproductive unless there are indications that the legislation might be passed in weeks.”
Aken’Ova, the Nigerian gay group Alliance Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and others have suggested that British activist Peter Tatchell of the gay-rights group OutRage! may be to blame for the bill’s resurrection.
They say OutRage! launched a new international action against the bill in January without seeking input from leading Nigerian activists who were calling for a “be silent” approach.
“Launching a global call to action without consulting the range of activists in Nigeria is irresponsible and insulting,” said HRW’s Long.
“Anybody who is proposing mass public action needs to check their stuff,” said IGLHRC’s senior specialist for Africa, Cary Alan Johnson. “[OutRage!’s] not taking responsibility for not having checked in with folks both in the U.S. and Nigeria bugged me — and I’ve witnessed similar kinds of disregard for local activists in Uganda and elsewhere.”
In a Jan. 31 “Public Statement of Warning,” Aken’Ova and 19 other African activists declared: “Until OutRage!’s action was issued, the bill was dead. By calling on people to begin a campaign at this stage, interest could be awakened in the bill. OutRage! is acting irresponsibly and in direct contradiction to the advice of leaders of the Nigerian LGBTI movement.”
In an interview, Tatchell responded that his group “acted in good faith” and noted that he suspended the action four days later, after learning that some Nigerian activists were counseling silence on the matter.
He also said some African gay groups disparage OutRage! because they “resent the fact that we also work with other groups that they see as rivals. They want exclusive control.”
“This vendetta is an attempt by certain groups to maintain their dominance and exclude other gay campaigners,” Tatchell said.
OutRage! members also said the Public Statement of Warning against OutRage!, rather than OutRage!’s call for action against the bill, could have been the catalyst for the House of Representatives’ renewed activity on the measure.
The public statement denouncing Tatchell for speaking out generated several media reports in the United Kingdom.