Nigeria About to Pass Bill That Would Put All Gays in Prison

ABUJA, Nigeria—At 167 million people, Nigeria may be Africa's most populous country, but if a bill passed last Tuesday by the Republic's Senate is approved by the House and signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan, a significant portion of its population may find itself in prison simply for being gay, or for aiding and abeting same-sex marriages.

Experts with the United Nations estimate that more than 3 million Nigerians are infected with HIV, though it is not known what percentage of gays are included in that figure. According to statistics gathered by Nigerian public health physician Chikwe Ihekweazu, about 400,000 Nigerians are currently undergoing retroviral therapy for their infections, most of it paid for by donations from, among others, the U.S. and the UK—but if the Prohibition of Same-Sex Marriage Bill becomes law, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has threaten to cut off the $31 million his country provides yearly to Nigeria to fight the epidemic. The U.S., which contributes $308 million annually to groups working for HIV prevention, treatment, and support, has made no statement regarding its possible reaction to passage of the legislation.

Though homosexual acts are illegal in most if not all African countries, the religious mix in Nigeria—approximately half are Christians and half Muslims—bodes poorly for gay rights. Prof. Jerry Gana, a former Minister of Information and National Orientation, has called on the National Assembly to pass the bill quickly, describing same-sex marriage as "ungodly" and "immoral."  However, since 2006, the assembly has considered an anti-gay marriage twice and failed to enact it both times—but this time, the anti-gay rhetoric has become more heated, with Gana claiming that same-sex marriage is "a threat to civil society," and that failure to pass the bill "could make God foresake Nigeria."

"We are protecting humanity and family values. In fact, we are protecting civilization in its entirety," stated Sen. Ahmed Lawan, one of the backers of the new legislation.

While the bill would mandate 10-year prison terms for those who "witness," "aid" or "abet" gay marriage, and is aimed at gay rights groups throughout the country, it also provides a 14-year sentence just for being gay.

"If this bill passes into law, the Nigerian government will be sanctioning even greater discrimination and violence against an already vulnerable group," said Graeme Reid, the LGBT Rights Director of Human Rights Watch.

(Pictured: Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan)