Dozens of gay men are reported to have been arrested across northern Nigeria as police begin to enforce punitive new laws that criminalize same-sex marriages and membership of gay rights organisations.
The legislation, condemned by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and human rights groups in Europe, has come into force shortly after the Ugandan parliament passed an Anti-Homosexuality Act.
Last week Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which provides penalties of up to 14 years in jail for a gay marriage and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for membership or encouragement of gay clubs, societies and organisations.
His spokesman, Reuben Abati, said: “This is a law that is in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination. So it is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of Nigerian people … Nigerians are pleased with it.”
Dorothy Aken’Ova, executive director of the country’s International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, said that the legislation, hailed the “Jail the Gays” law, had led to mass arrests. Police in Bauchi state, she claimed, had a list of 168 purportedly gay men, of whom 38 had been arrested.
The laws, she cautioned, will endanger medical programmes combating HIV-Aids in the gay community. Nigeria has the second-largest HIV epidemic globally with an estimated 3.4 million people living with HIV.
Responding to the spread of anti-gay legislation,Kerry said: “The United States is deeply concerned by Nigeria’s enactment of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. Beyond even prohibiting same-sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians.
“[The law] is inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the democratic reforms and human rights protections enshrined in its 1999 constitution,” he added.
“People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality. No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love.”
The London-based Human Dignity Trust, which supports legal actions around the world aimed at overturning anti-gay legislation, criticised both the Nigerian and Ugandan acts.
Jonathan Cooper, the trust’s chief executive, has described the Ugandan legislation as “a bleak day for human rights. The bill undermines Uganda’s human rights protection, breaches its international treaty obligations and violates Uganda’s own constitution”.
One of the men whose legal challenges the trust supported, Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, 34, died this week after being removed from hospital by his family. He had been jailed in Cameroon for sending a text message to another man saying: “I’m very much in love with you”.