Nigeria's same-sex couples say they feel more threatened than ever after lawmakers passed a bill outlawing such marriages. If approved, any offender and supporter of such activities could face up to 14 years in prison.
The bill passed unanimously by Nigeria's House of Representatives on Thursday also criminalizes public displays of affection between same-gender partners. It also says "any person who registers operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organizations directly or indirectly, makes a public show of a same-sex amorous relationship commits an offence and shall be liable to a term of 10 years imprisonment."
Like in most other sub-Saharan countries, anti-gay sentiment and persecution of homosexuals is rife in Nigeria. Experts say the bill is likely to get popular support.
"It (the bill) takes away the fundamental rights accorded to Nigerians under the constitution," Rashidi Williams, director of Nigeria's Queer Alliance rights group told DW in an interview.
He says he is more concerned by the law because it targets even those outside the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “If one just shows some alliance with persons from the LGBT community then they risk going to jail for 10 years,” Williams lamented.
The bill which is awaiting President Goodluck Jonathan's approval to be made into law, permits for a much broader crackdown on lesbians and gay couples in the country. Nigeria's LGBT community is already harshly discriminated against and most of them lead an underground lifestyle. Efforts by British news agency Reuters to get a comment from the presidency were unsuccessful.
Under the bill anyone who enters into a same-sex marriage or a civil union contract commits a criminal offence. Sodomy is already punishable under existing Nigerian federal law, however the crime referred to as "unnatural offence" which also covers sexual contact with animals and certain heterosexual acts has rarely been prosecuted.
“Why is the government focusing on same-sex marriages when no one in the country is advocating for it?” Gay rights activist Rashidi Williams asked. He says all that the gay community is saying is “please treat us equal as every other citizen of this country.”
According to Williams cases of blackmail and extortion on the part of the gay community are likely to surge because of the bill that has been passed. “People who have jobs would be sacked from their positions once their sexual orientation or gender identity gets known to their employers.”
Jiti Ogunye, a human rights lawyer, told the French news agency AFP, the passing of the bill was nothing more but an unnecessary publicity stunt. "I call it legislative showmanship. This is really, really not a pressing national issue," Ogunye said. He argued that the politicians were likely seeking to defy mounting Western pressure over respect for gay rights.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that his country will consider withholding aid from countries that do not recognize gay rights. The United States has also expressed concerns over the Nigerian legislation.
In 2012, US President Barack Obama ordered all government agencies that play an active foreign policy role to take steps to encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights in foreign countries.
Such moves have previously helped to hold back or do away with anti-gay legislation in aid-dependent nations like Uganda and Malawi. However, this might not be the case with Nigeria, whose budget is funded by its multi-million dollar oil industry.
Nigeria's highly religious society supports tighter anti-gay measures. Africa's most populous nation with its 160 million people is roughly divided in half between Christians and Muslims.