When then president Olusegun Obasanjo declared in 2004 that there were no homosexuals in Nigeria, Bisi Alimi—a 29 year old gay man—decided to prove him wrong. So, he went on New Dawn, the most popular show in the country, and became the first Nigerian to out himself on national television.
“I wanted to put a face to homosexuality in Nigeria,” Alimi says. “I found that I had the platform to do it, and I chose to make a difference and start a conversation around the issue.”
Two years later, a same-sex marriage prohibition bill was introduced and passed, but was eventually dropped in 2007—the year Alimi was beaten nearly to death, robbed and ultimately driven from Nigeria. The Senate reintroduced and adopted the bill in 2011.
Last week, Nigeria’s House of Representatives finally passed the bill. If approved and signed into law, gay marriage, same-sex “amorous relationships,” membership in gay rights groups and even knowing someone is gay and not reporting them could leave offending Nigerians facing up to 14 years in prison.
“No one is agitating for the right to marry or placing demands on the Nigerian government, so this is a shock,” says Ifeanyi K. Orazulike, executive director of the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health based in Lagos.
In spite of what the abundance of laws against it implies, “homosexuality is a non-issue as far as the people are concerned,” according to Ayo Sogunro, a corporate lawyer and outspoken Nigerian with an eponymous blog. “It’s never been a social issue, it’s never really been a part of the national discussion. But the novelty has certainly drawn attention, which is exactly what certain legislators want.”
In a brilliant analysis of “Why You Should Be Worried About Nigeria’s Anti-Gay Law,” Sogunro argues that the bill is a diversionary tactic, the work of ineffectual politicians looking to distract the public from their purposeful impotence. He says:
Like the Greek gift, the goal of the legislature is to secure the affections of the unthinking Nigerians through a diversionary illusion while plundering us through other orifices. The threat of Boko Haram—and now Hezbollah, the devaluation of the currency, the escalating corruption in the public service, the rising price of goods, the unavailability of electric power—and several more—are far more real and dangerous threats to the welfare of the average Nigerian than the marital issues of homosexuals.
‘Homosexuality is a non-issue as far as the people are concerned,’ according to Ayo Sogunro, a corporate lawyer. ‘But the novelty has certainly drawn attention, which is exactly what certain legislators want.’
Indeed, the bill was initially viewed by Nigerians in 2007 as an attempt by former president Obasanjo to distract the public, since it was being pushed at the same time as a bill meant to change the constitutional limit on the number of presidential terms (so he could serve a third term).
Advocates are particularly concerned about the part of the bill that would punish people who provide services to gays.
“It will be a bad situation, not only for the gay community, but for the organizations providing assistance to them,” says Ifeanyi Orazulike. “It’s a deliberate act to target them and make things tougher for homosexuals, and it could be devastating for people.”
According to him, an inside source has said the government is going to speed up the process and compel the president to sign the bill into law within the next 20 days.
“We’re not sure that it will happen, but we’re worried,” says Orazulike.
And while the bill itself is bad enough, there’s concern over ramifications for the entire region.
“This will have a spillover effect on many African countries,” Bisi Alimi says from his new home in London. “The original bill already inspired copies in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia. So if Nigeria can get away with this, criminalizing same-sex marriage will become fashionable in Africa.”
Now, Alimi longs for Nigeria, but knows there’s no going back.
“I wish I was there to help fight,” he says. “I would say that I’m getting by, learning to make my way, but I haven’t set my eyes on my family in six years and I miss them. I know if I go back, I’ll mess up the opportunity for asylum for other gay men suffering around the world, so I won’t go,” he says. “I just want to be sure we’re not quiet. I urge everyone around the world to pressure the national assembly to make sure [the bill] doesn’t pass.”
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.