It’s never been legal – or safe – to be gay in Nigeria.
But since President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law against gay marriage and organizations this month, being gay is suddenly more dangerous. The law punishes gay marriage with up to 14 years in prison and has been received here as one of the most popular moves the president has made in his nearly four years in office.
Moreover, in many parts of Nigeria, especially in the Muslim-majority north, prosecutions are taking place in Islamic courts, where homosexuality is at least technically punishable with death by stoning, though no experts so far can name a case of stoning in Nigeria.
On Thursday in the northern city of Bauchi, a young man received 20 lashes with a cane for his membership in a gay club some years ago.
Presiding judge Nuhu Idris said that, “The sentence could have been more severe but [there was] a lack of witnesses,” in his verdict on Mubarak Ibrahim. Mr. Idris added that Mr. Ibrahim was sorry for his crime and said he had joined the club after being tricked into it by schoolmates.
In Bauchi, 11 individuals are awaiting trial in Islamic courts, and one arrested Christian will be tried in a secular or civil court and could face up to 14 years in prison.
Nigeria's new anti-gay law has kicked up a storm of controversy outside Africa but has been widely approved of in Nigeria itself.
“I’m very, very happy with it. In fact it is the first thing that [President] Jonathan did that everybody is happy [about],” says Abubaker, a lawyer on the streets of Bauchi. His comment drew chuckles of approval from locals listening in.
Death or faith?
“Sodomy under Islamic law is a serious offense," says one lawyer in Bauchi, Dahiru Abdulhameed, who is familiar with the local Islamic courts. “Islamic juries are of the view [that] the severity of the punishment for sodomy is even greater than adultery.”
The technical punishment for adultery in the Islamic courts is death-by-stoning, but such a verdict, which requires four witnesses to uphold, is rarely carried out in any part of the world, Mr. Abdulhameed says, since the bar of four witnesses is so high. There has been no death-by-stoning events for any crime in Nigeria to his knowledge.
In Nigeria, which has both Islamic and civil courts, Muslims are often referred to Islamic courts that handle family law, divorce cases, and low-level crimes.
A Muslim defendant however can chose to move to a secular court. But many Muslims do not do so, since the decision can mean that he or she forfeits the official designation of an Islamic follower of Mohammed.
In light of the new anti-gay law, some ask if a Muslim arrested for being gay must choose between a death sentence or being identified with his faith?
Nigerian Islamic scholars contacted by the Monitor said the answer is, "No."
Secular law trumps Islamic law in Nigeria, say Shiekh Khalid Aliyu Abubakar, secretary- general of the national Islamic umbrella organization Jama’atul Nasrul Islam. A person convicted of being gay in an Islamic court can bring his or her case to a secular court for appeal without religious consequences, he says. “The president did not [pass] this law as an aspect of Islamic law,” he says.
In the case of sodomy convictions, Mr. Abdulhameed says that appeals will automatically go to secular courts by law.
Yet this is little comfort for gay Nigerians, according to Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, one of few Nigerians who have been willing to speak out against the anti-gay law. Most gay people in Nigeria hide their sexuality, he says, and the few that don’t are in constant danger.
What activists like Mr. Orazulike warn against is the criminalization of homosexuality, which couldl encourage authorities and vigilantes to hunt down gay people.
The law is likely to be followed by the shuttering of HIV clinics that provide care to gay men. Some openly gay people are seeking asylum in other countries like the United Kingdom, Orazulike says. He expects some activists will, however, stay and fight.
“If we all leave Nigeria – this is our home – what will happen to those that don’t have a voice?” he asks.
Many ordinary Nigerians would be happy to see gay people flee.
“Culprits will be prosecuted whenever they are caught,” says Anthony Chigbo, a political analyst from the mostly Christian south. “It will not be long before the law will rope them.”
The anti-gay law has been widely condemned by Western governments and human rights organizations.
Nigerian authorities have roundly rejected the critique, saying homosexuality goes against African cultures and religions.
“Nigerians should be allowed to live the way they want,” says Mr. Abubakar, the shiekh. “The human rights aspect of it is: I should be allowed to uphold what I want to live with.”
Ardo Hazzad contributed from Bauchi