Earlier this month, Nigeria joined a host of other African nations in passing a law to ban gay marriage. President Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill into law without any announcement, six months after it passed through Parliament. This law is one of the most expansive anti-gay laws in Africa—not only does it prohibit same sex marriages but it also forbids anyone from forming gay rights groups and any same-sex couple from showing public affection.
Under this law, gay marriage can be punished with up to fourteen years in prison. Already, police officials have handed out twenty lashings with a cane to a Nigerian because of his membership in a gay club. The police made several arrests the day after the law was passed.
A presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, defended the law, stating that it is an accurate reflection of Nigerian culture and society. In fact, 98 percent of Nigerians oppose gay marriage. Meanwhile, various Western countries have reacted with varying levels of disdain, condemning any law that curbs free expression.
The original reasons for implementing the law remain unclear. Parts of Nigeria, particularly in the north, follow Islamic Sharia law, which states that gays and lesbians can be stoned to death. There was also a law in place that criminalized homosexual sex. As a consequence, same-sex marriage is not a priority for gays and lesbians in Nigeria.
The most recent law may represent an attempt by the Nigerian government to push back against pressure from Western nations to decriminalize homosexuality. This policy reflects a broader feeling, shared with many other African governments, that giving into Western demands could evoke old memories of imperialism.
In the past, Western nations punished countries that criminalized homosexuality by stopping the flow of aid money. Three years ago, Germany reduced aid to Malawi by fifty percent after the passage of a law that criminalized homosexuality and reduced the freedom of the press.
Nigeria, however, is an oil-rich state that is less dependent on foreign aid than countries like Malawi. It is unlikely that any threats from the United States or other nations to cut off aid would significantly impact the administration’s plans to continue enforcing the law.
This attitude has enabled Jonathan and the Nigerian legislature to continue their attempts to deny basic rights to homosexuals. Because this law appears to be popular with the Nigerian public, and because Jonathan is likely to run for reelection in 2015, many observers believe that this action reflects an attempt to increase his own popularity.
The blanket approval from the public spans cultural and socioeconomic lines within Nigeria. In fact, many view this law as a reaffirmation of Nigeria’s core values and a renewed definition of what it truly means to be Nigerian.
Despite the public’s generally positive reaction to the law, the Nigerian government faces unrest for its other policies. It is still mired in corruption scandals, and while the economy continues to grow at astonishing rates, many Nigerians remain in abject poverty and lack access to basic necessities. As these pressures grow, they cast a shadow across the government’s most recent anti-gay legislation, as well as on the support it initially commanded.
A recent Twitter post summed up this sentiment reading, “I cannot believe GEJ took time to sign a bill into law jailing people for being gay. I don't have any electricity, dude!”