Nigerians by and large are against homosexuality—that much can be said for sure. So when the government passed a sweeping, deeply punitive law against homosexuality, “homosexual acts” and knowingly fraternizing with homosexuals( last week, it made sense in purely democratic terms. It is the codification of the people’s will—it’s reflective of the real sentiment of 98 percent of Nigerians who say same-sex relationships are wrong.
But on a continent where there are long traditions of same-sex relationships in different forms, in a country with its own storied (and only recently marginalized) group of yan daudu, or “men who act like women,” there’s got to be something more.
Could it be the naming of a thing elsewhere and the requisite agitation for rights that’s forcing this issue? Is it the being asked to pick a side—pressure to accept and welcome or be found wanting—that’s making non-Western countries, one after the other, speak out and legislate against same-sex relationships?
Though most Nigerians don’t support homosexuality, still many are lamenting the law and calling the issue both a shameful distraction and a waste of time.
“The truth is that there are pressing issues that require legislative attention, and anti-gay marriage legislation is not on top of that list,” Valentine Chukwuma, a young Nigerian based in Washington, DC, says. “If we want to talk about human rights, how about we start with ‘domestic helps’ that are modern-day slaves? Or proper women’s rights for that matter.”
And in the uproar that’s arisen in the international community—which calls the Nigerian legislation “the most significant setback to gay rights in Africa”—since the bill was signed into law, commenters have offered up varying reasons why such a law was even proposed.
Is it a part of a religious revival, the further Islamization of the North with the accompanying spread of that same religious zeal into the South? Is it purely political, a calculated distraction from some nefarious legislation the government wants to pass under cover of darkness? Is it just another periodic fit of morality, seeking to temper the behavior of a country whose leadership is in the very early days of a pivot from a period of conspicuous, hedonistic, no-fault consumption of public resources and funds to a more restrained plundering of national coffers? Or are Nigerians just a closed-minded, uneducated, unexposed lot, determined to excise that which is different?
As Western countries pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, there exists the unspoken pressure to decide. The international conversation surrounding gay rights has gotten louder and louder in recent years. And Africans, who are overwhelmingly against homosexuality, are overhearing the conversation and, naturally, joining in.
Historically, as long as traditional familial bonds and setups were maintained, room was left for same-sex relationships in Africa, especially between men. But as the Western world loudly codifies legal protections for these relationships and presses the rest of the world to do the same, African countries are being pressured to choose a side, for or against. And they’re choosing against.
“As Nigerians, while this law is unnecessary and a waste of time, I would argue that almost 90 percent or more of us in this forum would probably have problems with our parents if we took home a same sex partner,” Valentine Chukwuma said at NaijaDC, a forum for young Nigerians based in the Washington, DC area. “Our society has not evolved on this issue… Presidents Jammeh of Gambia and Sall of Senegal have said that Africa is not ready for this. I would extend this by saying we might not even be ready to start having the conversation. We have a long way to go,” Chukwuma concluded.
Indeed, the conversation about homosexuality in Nigerian society is ambling out of its infancy and into a cautious youth, and experiencing the requisite growing pains. Prominent bloggers and figures are creating spaces for an open, constructive dialogue, but it’s early days yet.
In cross-examining witnesses, lawyers are encouraged to avoid asking questions they don’t know the answers to. I’d posit that in seeking to influence the rest of the world to follow their lead on social issues as contentious and controversial as same sex relationships, the west should seek to educate and influence, not to declare and demand.
Instead of talking about how “disheartening” it’s been to watch the rollout of anti-gay measures by non-Western countries, just keep “leading” by example and supporting gay communities abroad. Because while Western condemnation and marginalization works for more aid-dependent countries, Nigeria exports $200 million in oil each day and can afford to be a little more defiant. And it’s the bigger, richer countries like Nigeria that influence legislative trends in Africa.
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.