ABUJA, Nigeria — In a country contentiously split among Muslims and Christians, leaders of Nigeria’s mosques and churches are united in their condemnation of same-sex relationships.
So, too, are lawmakers, who’ve criminalized sodomy, civil unions and gay marriages, with a 14-year prison sentence as punishment. In some northern regions, flogging and the death penalty come into play.
The Same-Sex Prohibition Act, signed into law on Jan. 7 by President Goodluck Jonathan, criminalizes public displays of affection between same-sex couples and restricts the work of organizations defending gay people and their rights.
“This law criminalizes the lives of gay and lesbian people, but the damage it would cause extends to every single Nigerian,” LGBT activists said. “It undermines basic universal freedoms that Nigerians have long fought to defend and is a throwback to past decades under military rule when civil rights were treated with contempt.”
This new legislation could lead to imprisonment solely for a person’s actual or imputed sexual orientation.
People could face charges for consensual sexual relations in private; advocacy of LGBT rights, or public expression of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And the terms “same-sex marriage” and “civil union” are so broadly defined in the law that they include virtually any form of same-sex cohabitation.
Some activists worry the law is so vague that it "is likely to lead to the arbitrary arrest of gay people, while facilitating extortion and blackmail of vulnerable groups by members of Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt security services.”
Arrests have already been made in several Nigerian states, like Anambra, Enugu, Imo and Oyo. But gay rights activists are becoming more vocal—there are now even churches formed by the LGBT community.
In November, the European Union’s top court ruled that gays and lesbians in countries that outlaw homosexual relations are eligible for asylum. Days later, the Malta Refugees Appeals Board granted asylum to an 18-year-old Nigerian teen.
“The dominant role of religion is widely seen as the root of the country’s homophobic culture,” the board said, quoting from a border agency report. “Punishing gays is one of the few common themes that politicians can promote with equal zest in the mainly Christian south and the largely Muslim north.”
So what is life like for Nigerians who are attracted to people of the same gender? Can they practice their faith in a country where religion and culture overwhelmingly condemn their sexual identities?
As in all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBT people continue to find ways to express and to live out their authentic selves.
They are part of Nigerian society at all levels. Some hold prominent jobs in government, businesses, the military and even as religious leaders.
But it’s not a leap to suggest that the majority keep their sexuality a secret for fear of losing their families, friends, jobs, freedom or even their lives.
To better understand, I interviewed a range of Nigerians from across the country who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.
In Ikoyia, an upscale suburb of Lagos in southwest Nigeria, I caught up with a gay man who works in finance. He took me to party, where I observed gay men socializing.
“We informally gather for dinner parties, at restaurants and beaches,” the man said.
Wealthy gays in his suburb are said to live more openly than anywhere else in Nigeria. I asked: Did he consider himself both gay and Christian?
He, like many of the gay Nigerians I interviewed, said they haven’t abandoned their faith because of their sexual identity.
“I am a saved Christian and proud gay,” the man who described himself as a Pentecostal Christian told me. But he only said so after some time talking. At first, he reflexively retorted: “My faith is a personal matter. Besides, many people won’t understand.”
He’s right. Christians account for nearly half of Nigeria’s population and all major denominations denounce same-sex intimacy as sinful, at least in their doctrines.
Nigeria’s Anglican bishops are especially vocal. They’ve long threatened to break away from the worldwide Anglican Communion over the issue, most recently at an October conference in Nairobi that drew 331 conservative bishops from across the globe.
The bishops want the United States, Canadian and European members of the Anglican Communion to denounce stances on homosexuality contrary to their own. Canada’s Anglican Church began blessing same-sex couples in 2002, a few months before the US Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay bishop.
More recently, the Church of England dropped a ban on gay clergy in civil partnerships from becoming bishops. Nicholas Okoh, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, says the West is ignoring scripture and insisting on imposing its views on other countries.
“They want to push it down everybody’s throat,” he said in March at an ordination service. “And as far as they are concerned, it is a matter of human right. But God’s right is not discussed.”
In Jos, a city in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, a Baptist pastor by the name of Rev. Rumo James told me that homosexuality is affliction and disease for which no compassion should be extended.
"Homosexualism is a virus that degrades the family and its values, corrupts human cohabitation and offends God,” he said. “It eventually leads to social decline.”
Nigeria’s Christian population is Africa’s largest, with 80 million followers, according to the Pew Research Center in the United States. Clergy cite Bible-passages as the God-given reason for their condemnation of same-sex relationships.
Two of the most frequent verses cited are from Leviticus:
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (18:22).
"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (20:13).
But Christians who support same-sex couples say those Old Testament Bible verses are misinterpreted, made obsolete by the New Testament or simply out of touch with modern life.
They also argue that all people, gay and straight, are made in the image of God. Besides, they point out, Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
A country divided
The level of openness found in Lagos wasn’t as evident just 154 miles west in Benin and elsewhere in Nigeria. For much of the country, it seems that religion, profession, family, the laws and class status factor into how openly members of the LGBT community choose to live.
An architect in Kano who is heterosexual and attends a Methodist Church told me that he has friends who are gay. He said he’d come to terms with their sexual orientations.
“I don’t see myself better than they are,” he said. “I believe that they can practice their faith, even though the Bible condemns it.”
But, he said, he doesn’t want them showing public displays of affection. Nor does he believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children.
“I'm not saying being a gay is good,” he said. “I'm a Christian and I also have a culture that condemns it.”
In northern Nigeria, many people said they were aware of LGBT communities in Kano and Kaduna, but rarely gave them a thought. A Muslim told me that he grew up with some of them.
“The only thing I do not like is that as Muslims, we don’t allow them to pray with us,” he said. “Some of them want to, but you know we can’t allow that.”
In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, I heard a slightly different view.
“I don’t care if a gay person comes to a church or mosque,” a man said. “However, for me, everything is wrong with a union between gay people being called a marriage.”
Ash-Shiekh Muhammad Sani Yahaya, the national chairman of Ulama’u Council of JIBWIS, said Islam condemns homosexuality.
“It is an abomination, it is a crime,” he said. Lesbian relationships aren’t mentioned in the Quran, but that’s not true of gay men. He cited the following verses:
“Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”
Despite Nigeria’s strict laws, the debate over LGBT rights and same-sex relationships is nowhere near resolution. Nigeria’s gay culture, though largely silent, isn’t going away.
Might the day come when Nigerians respect the rights of their LGBT community and the LGBT community be respectful to those who uphold heterosexual relationships exclusively?
Prince Charles Dickson is a Nigerian journalist. God’s Laws, Nigeria’s Laws is a reportorial for the ICFJ/Henry Luce Reporting Fellowship