By Toyin Ajao:
On 7th January 2014, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed an anti-gay bill into law, with punishments including 14 years imprisonment for anyone that enters into same-sex marriage, 10 years for any organization or people that support gay rights as well as any individual who displays same-sex affection in public. This invasive law made Nigeria the 36th country in Africa to prosecute gays. Following suit, Uganda passed its own anti-gay law on the 24th of February 2014. This development is perturbing as it empowered the population and provided a common ground on which to unite and persecute sexual minority. What the law has validated is the homophobic stances of religious and cultural beliefs that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, ‘unAfrican’ and ‘immoral’, without a critical engagement with its human rights and human security implications.
It is very germane to reflect on the Nigerian anti-gay law in the context of peace and conflict, particularly through the lens of human security. This is because the current discourse has largely captured the human rights paradigm, rather than its human security element.
The emerging paradigm of human security was promulgated in the ‘Human Rights Report’ by the UNDP in 1994.[i] The imperative components of Human Security as encapsulated by Abass are: freedom from fear and want, and the guaranteed fulfilment of individuals. ‘Human security’ has similar components to the human rights concepts, but human security has more far-reaching practical implications from the perspective of peace and conflict. The difference however is in the approaches of these two concepts. This is a shift in the traditional state-based approach to security where the rights of one group can be placed above the other to protect their political interest at the expense of the other group. Human security focuses on human crises that need practical interventions without which there will continue to be obstacles to human development. The practical components of human security include the individual protection from internal and external threats, access to food security, health care, education, environmental security, personal safety, human rights, effective governance and absence of violent conflicts.[ii] This makes it pertinent to look at the anti-gay law in the contemporary discourse from the human security perspective.
The case of homosexuality in Africa
Many scholars have squashed claims that homosexuality is ‘unAfrican’. As Tamale argues, colonization came with draconian rules and laws that categorized many practices including homosexuality in Africa as horrendous and ‘barbaric’.[iii] Tamale further challenged the claim that homosexuality is not part of African culture with ‘culture’ in contemporary Africa being an interpretation and construction of the colonialists and patriarchs.[iv] This dilemma within African communities essentially states the white ‘other’ construction of their reality. Ilesanmi also debunks the myths of the ‘UnAfricanness’ outcry in her reflection that homosexuality existed in African society before the advent of imperialism and colonialism.[v] She argues that the multi-cultural nature of African society embraced diversity and tolerance in its practices before the importation of foreign religions, which has subsequently dominated the discourse and rhetoric of African identity and society.[vi] Furthermore, in the Amnesty International report on criminalization of same-sex conduct in sub-Saharan Africa, it was highlighted that African colonizers brought the laws that criminalize homosexual practices in Africa with a determination to expunge what is considered ‘unnatural’. [vii]
Dlamini also argues the ‘compatibility of homosexuality with African culture, cosmology and spirituality’ by reviewing selected critical texts of ‘homosexuality in Africa’.[viii] Dlamini states that western colonization imported homophobia, and not homosexuality, to Africa.[ix] This he justified by citing homosexual practices in Africa before the spread of ‘civilization’ by the West. Some of the examples are: Sango the effeminate Yoruba deity in the pre-modern history of Africa revered and worshiped with his affinity for cross dressing and ‘feminine’ hairdo; the Azande warriors in Congo, known to marry other warriors and serve as temporary wives; and lastly, the Hausa ‘Yan Daudu’ men in Northern Nigeria recognized as individuals whose gender expressions are very effeminate and displayed strong affinity for cross-dressing. These aforementioned practices were not frowned upon or criticized until Africa’s colonization.
The new waves of western missionaries have built on the homophobic rhetoric and strengthened it. This is due to the proselytization of Africans during and after colonization: a classic enabling factor for the promotion of the anti-gay agenda in Africa. With the contemporary understanding of ‘culture’ and the less well-understood pre-colonial history of Africa, many Africans’ believed that homosexuality was a ‘Western invention’. The international community, witnessing the impediment of gay rights in Africa, has been making attempts to prove that homosexuality is not their invention but a human reality. Nevertheless, Western evangelicals are influencing anti-gay campaigns in Africa as homophobic funding trickles in from Western Christian Organizations.[x]
Furthermore, the religious fundamentalist’s alignment with state power has intensified homophobia in Africa.[xi] Nigeria is a case in point. Apart from losing the rich historical culture on sexual diversity, the incessant conflict of interests between the African leadership and the West is a key area of interest influencing decisions on gay rights. Syed argues that, ‘pressure from the West only emboldens the religious fundamentalists and their political allies’[xii] to victimize the already marginalized group. Another very central reason is the leadership of patronage and the institutionalization of religious belief in Nigeria.[xiii] Consequently, the growth of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria has a strong impact in the criminalization of the Nigerian sexual minorities.
What then are the threats to this human security?
By passing the anti-gay law in Nigeria, the Nigerian government has strengthened the penal codes that exist in Northern Nigeria to execute, jail or punish anyone considered homosexual. This has helped widen the scourge of discrimination that Nigerian sexual minorities already endure.
There has been a known culture of open antagonism, discrimination and hatred for sexual minorities in Nigeria, with the government legitimizing this discrimination and hatred. As a result, there are continuous incidents of gays, or people perceived to be gay, being evicted illegally from their homes, stripped naked, tortured, or beaten. A recent example was the five alleged gays stripped, beaten and paraded naked in Warri in March 2014.[xiv]
Furthermore,the Nigerian police force that is notorious for abuse and exploitation of their citizens has now gained more legal status to continue this act as a result of the passing of anti-gay bill into law. Arbitrary arrests and detention of real and perceived homosexuals have continued to take place. This law has exponentially compromised the personal safety of Nigerian sexual minority, or those perceived or accused of being gay.
Some NGOs that render support to sexual minority are under threats because of the clause in the anti-gay law that spells out 10 years for any organisations caught supporting this group. In the wake of the anti-gay laws, a few organizations working for the defence of LGBT rights fear recriminations and have to be extremely careful about their interventions as not to risk jail terms imposed by the law. Many organizations that have done incredible work in advocacy, lobbying and service provision for the protections of sexual minorities are been forced into silence by this law. This is a breach of the constitutional and democratic freedoms of non-governmental organizations in Nigeria. With most organizations clamped down upon by this law, exploitation and illegal prosecution of perceived and real homosexuals can only rise.
Another significant threat is access to quality health care. Available statistics revealed that there are about 3.7 million Nigerians living with HIV.[xv] With this new law, homosexuals living with HIV/AIDS are likely to go underground for fear of prosecution. The likelihood of spreading HIV/AIDS with those forced underground will increase thereby leading to a greater health hazard. NGOs working on issues of sexual minorities and providing health services will have trouble delivering adequate services as well. Unfortunately, the anti-gay discrimination may fuel the African HIV/AIDS epidemic in Nigeria. Part of the ongoing efforts with the World Health Organization, ‘to eliminate health disparities across board, notably including those impacting the LGBT community’ will be hampered.[xvi]
Fuelling more threats both internally and externally is the media.As the mainstream media highlights awareness on gay rights, so also is the platform used for promoting hate and discrimination. The effect of media ‘sensationalist tabloids’ on gay rights has been negative.[xvii] Through some media outlets the categorization of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’, ‘ungodly’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘unAfrican’, as gained high profile debate and prominent visibility.[xviii] Some Nigerian TV stations and online newspapers are culprit. Also, traditional media in so many ways have contributed to ‘witch-hunting’ of gays by ‘linking same-sex attraction with incest, paedophilia, bestiality, and adultery’.[xix] Negative reporting can only further endanger the lives of sexual minorities who are already marginalized.
Finally, there is growth in the number of asylum seekers from Nigeria. Ilesanmi in her interview on ThisDay newspaper explained that many homosexuals have been forced to seek asylum outside their country, leading to more ‘brain drain’.[xx] This has increased rapidly since the bill became law. Sadly, many skilled individuals who were contributors to Nigeria’s economic development and growth are fleeing persecution by their government.
It is unpalatable that sexual minorities in Africa are used as collateral damage in the global war of power and self-determination. We live in a global village, with opposition and support for homosexuality, which is not totally strange in human relations. However, the Nigerian government has not shown objectivity or understanding of the threats to human security in the position taken against its sexual minorities. The atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance has dimmed significantly. Both the political and religious leaders have been part of the crusade of homosexual persecution and prosecution. Nigeria needs conversations that are open to change and that demonstrate respect for human rights and diversity.
Whilst it would help for political leaders to repeal the laws that criminalized sexual minorities, a move towards evidence-based research on sexuality issues is crucial. This is an important step that will be useful in educating the Nigerian society. Until such moves are made human rights and human security will continue to suffer imminent threats and Nigeria will continue to be seen as a retrogressive nation.
Toyin Ajao is a Peace and Conflict doctoral fellow and an assistant lecturer at the University of Pretoria. She is also an alumnus of the Africa Leadership Centre at King’s College, London and Obafemi Awolowo University. Her research focus includes: human security, conflict transformation, citizen journalism and gender and sexual rights.
[i] See Abass, A. (2010) An Introduction to Protecting Human Security in Africa. In Protecting Human Security in Africa. 1-20.
[iii] See Tamale, S. (2009) A Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Public Dialogue. Kampala: 1-6.
[v] See Ilesanmi, Y. (2013) Freedom to Love for All; Homosexuality is not UnAfrican!
[vii] See Amnesty International (2013). Making Love a crime: Criminalization of Same-sex conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa.
[viii] See Dlamini, B. (2011) Homosexuality in the African context. Agenda: Empowering women for gender equity : 128-136.
[xi] See Ossome, L. (2013) Postcolonial Discourses of Queer Activism and Class in Africa. In Queer Africa Reader. 32-47.
[xiii] See Sampson, T. I. (2012) Religious violence in Nigeria: Causal diagnoses an strategic recommendations to the state and religious communities. AJCR Volume 12 No. 1: 103-134.
[xv] See http://www.avert.org/hiv-aids-nigeria.htm
[xvi] See Daulaire, N. (2013) The Importance of LGBT Health on a Global Scale. LGBT Health 24 July: 1-2.
[xvii] See Johnson, C. A. (2007) Off the Map: How HIV/AIDS Programming is failing Same-sex Practicing People in Africa.