‘Just Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe’—Life for LGBT Nigerians In the Shadow of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 🇳🇬 🏳️‍🌈

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On January 7, 2014, Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA) into law. The notional purpose of the SSMPA is to prohibit marriage between persons of the same sex. In reality, its scope is much wider. The law forbids any cohabitation between same-sex sexual partners and bans any “public show of same sex amorous relationship.” The SSMPA imposes a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organization” or “supports” the activities of such organizations. Punishments are severe, ranging from 10 to 14 years in prison. Such provisions build on existing legislation in Nigeria, but go much further: while the colonial-era criminal and penal codes outlawed sexual acts between members of the same sex, the SSMPA effectively criminalizes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – JANUARY 19: A protest to an Anti-Gay Marrage Law recently passed in Nigeria during the 2014 African Nations Championship match between South Africa and Nigeria at Cape Town Stadium on January 19, 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Shaun Roy/Gallo Images)

Basically, because of this law [SSMPA] the police treat people in any way that they please. They torture, force people to confess, and when they hear about a gathering of men, they just head over to make arrests.

Google maps and detailed facts of Nigeria (NG) and location map of Nigeria 

Vigilante groups have added homosexuality to their “terms of reference.”

These groups are organized by community members, given authorization by the community to maintain some sort of order and “security” against the “LGBT.”

While existing legislation already criminalize consensual same-sex conduct in Nigeria, the report found that the SSMPA, in many ways, officially authorizes abuses against LGBT people, effectively making a bad situation worse. The passage of the SSMPA was immediately followed by extensive media reports of high levels of violence, including mob attacks and extortion against LGBT people. Human rights groups and United Nations officials expressed grave concern about the scope the law, its vague provisions, and the severity of punishments. On February 5, 2014, following the passage of the SSMPA, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa noted with concern in a press release, “the increase in cases of physical violence, aggression, arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders working on sexual minority issues.

Law Against Same Sex Marriage Not New In Nigeria – Part 1

Above: Chris Agiriga, 23, one of the Nigerian men arrested on charges of public display of affection with members of the same sex, sits in a minibus with a friend in Lagos, Nigeria, February 14, 2020. Agiriga now lives in a safe house for men in Lagos. He says he lost his job as a community outreach worker with an HIV charity after his arrest. “I called my director. He saw what happened on TV. He said he couldn’t employ me because it brings shame,” Agiriga said. Before the raid, Agiriga wanted to pursue a career as a fashion designer. But he dropped out of his fashion course after losing the job that funded his studies. Agiriga now works as an HIV counsellor for a nonprofit group. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaj.

Lesbians and gay men interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the law has had an insidious effect on individual self-expression. Since January 2014, several said that they had adopted self-censoring behavior by significantly and consciously altering their gender presentation to avoid detection or suspicion by members of the public and to avoid arrest and extortion. They told Human Rights Watch that this was not necessarily a major concern prior to the passage of the SSMPA. Lesbian and bisexual women in particular reported that fear of being perceived as “guilty by association” led them to avoid associating with other LGBT community members, increasing their isolation and, in some cases, eventually compelling them to marry an opposite-sex partner, have children, and conform to socially proscribed gender norms.

 

Above: A gay couple pose for a picture at a club in Lagos, Nigeria.October 27, 2019 REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja.

The SSMPA contributes significantly to a climate of impunity for crimes committed against LGBT people, including physical and sexual violence. LGBT victims of crime said the law inhibited them from reporting to authorities due to fear of exposure and arrest. “No way would we file a complaint,” Henry, a victim of mob violence in Lagos, said. “When it’s an LGBT issue, you can’t file a complaint.” Henry told Human Rights that the mob attack in June 2014 in Lagos was the first time that he had been a victim of violence because of his sexual orientation, and that prior to the SSMPA, he had no reason to file complaints with the police.

FILE PHOTO: Chris Agiriga (L), 23, one of the Nigerian men arrested on charges of public display of affection with members of the same sex, spends time with a friend at a local bar in Lagos, Nigeria, February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

The SSMPA contributes significantly to a climate of impunity for crimes committed against LGBT people, including physical and sexual violence. LGBT victims of crime said the law inhibited them from reporting to authorities due to fear of exposure and arrest. “No way would we file a complaint,” Henry, a victim of mob violence in Lagos, said. “When it’s an LGBT issue, you can’t file a complaint.” Henry told Human Rights that the mob attack in June 2014 in Lagos was the first time that he had been a victim of violence because of his sexual orientation, and that prior to the SSMPA, he had no reason to file complaints with the police.

 

Above: Nigeria’s 196 million population is divided among numerous ethno-linguistic groups. The Hausa-Fulani people, based in the north are mostly Muslims. The Yorubas of the south-west are split between Muslims and Christians and the Igbos of the south-east and neighbouring groups are mostly Christian or follow traditional religions.

Interviewees, including representatives of mainstream human rights organizations, said the SSMPA has created opportunities for people to act out their homophobia with brutality and without fear of legal consequences. Under the auspices of the SSMPA, police have raided the offices of NGOs that provide legal and HIV services to LGBT communities. For example, shortly after the SSMPA passed in January 2014, police raided an HIV awareness meeting in Abuja and arrested 12 participants on suspicion of “promoting homosexuality.” They were detained in police custody, without charge, for three weeks, before paying a bribe of 100,000 Naira (approximately $318) to secure their release.

The Nigerian Gays Facebook group has become a de facto refuge and lightning rod for controversy. @nigerianGay

Punitive legal environments, stigma, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, together with high levels of physical, psychological, or sexual violence against gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), impedes sustainable national responses to HIV. When acts of violence are committed or condoned by officials or national authorities, including law enforcement officials, this leads to a climate of fear that fuels human rights violations and deters gay men and other MSM from seeking and adhering to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services.

Above: “What it’s like being a gay porn star in Nigeria” from Dazed magazine, February 2020. Photography Chuchu Ojekwe.

The SSMPA contravenes basic tenets of the Nigerian Constitution, including respect for dignity and prohibition of torture. It also goes against several regional and international human rights treaties which Nigeria has ratified, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Human rights treaties impose legal obligations on Nigeria to prohibit discrimination; ensure equal protection of the law; respect and protect rights to freedom of association, expression, privacy, and the highest attainable standard of health; prevent arbitrary arrests and torture or cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment; and exercise due diligence in protecting persons, including LGBT individuals, from all forms of violence, whether perpetrated by state or non-state actors.

In November 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights urged the Nigerian government to review the SSMPA in order to prohibit violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and ensure access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services for LGBT individuals.

Nigerian authorities should act swiftly to protect LGBT people from violence, whether committed by state or non-state actors. Law enforcement officials should stop all forms of abuse and violence against LGBT people, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in custody, and extortion, and without delay ensure that they are able to file criminal complaints against perpetrators.

The government of Nigeria, including the Ministry of Health and the National Agency for the Control of AIDS, should:

  • Advocate for the repeal of the specific provisions of the SSMPA that criminalize the formation of and support to LGBT organizations;
  • Promote effective measures to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in health care settings; and
  • Ensure that key populations, including gay men, MSM, and transgender individuals have access to HIV services, care, and treatment.

Written by Rahman Moore. Moore is a Nigerian based copy writer and a content creator who specializes in news writing/blogging.