Legislation proposed by the Nigerian government last year designed to ban and criminalise same sex marriages and those who assist with it, is expected to be enacted by the National Assembly before the April 2007 elections.

The Bill passed its second reading in the Senate when it was debated in February.

The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 2007 in its current form provides that persons of the same sex and those who marry them or is a witness thereto will be committing a crime with a mandatory sentence of five years imprisonment.

But the Bill, which is in plain language and to the point, goes even further by infringing on the Human Rights principles of freedom of assembly and association:

“7.-(1) Registration of Gay Clubs, Societies and organisations by whatever name they are called in institutions from Secondary to the tertiary level or other institutions in particular and, in Nigeria generally, by government agencies is hereby prohibited.

(2) Publicity, procession and public show of same sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise prohibited in Nigeria.

(3) Any person who is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a term of 5 years imprisonment.”

Simply taking part in a gay or lesbian club or support group would be illegal.

Not only would gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals be targeted not for specific acts but for existing, heterosexual people who “promote” their lifestyle, for example by selling them a house, would also be penalised.

Whilst the Bill has been received with mixed reactions from religious groups, the Archbishop Peter Akinola, the head of Nigeria’s Anglican Church, the Christian Association of Nigeria and National Muslim Centre have welcomed the Bill.

But independent United Nations experts have express serious concern over the Bill. In a press release by the UN, it states that “the proposed law will make persons engaging in, or perceived to be engaging in, same sex relationships in Nigeria more susceptible to arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and ill-treatment and expose them even more to violence and attacks on their dignity”.

It further expresses its concerns over the likelihood of HIV/AIDS education and prevention efforts being undermined by driving stigmatised communities underground and posing a threat to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

In addition, the UN fears that “the introduction of criminal penalties of imprisonment in the Bill, if enacted, would in particular have a chilling effect for local human rights defenders who undertake peaceful advocacy on the adverse human rights implications of the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons”.

Nigerian LGBT people opposed the new anti-gay law in the country spoke about their experiences in a report for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

Voices from Nigeria, released last month, details homophobic attacks, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and increased levels of homophobia that have already begun as a result of the introduction of the legislation, referred to as the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.

With elections for the Presidency, Senate and House of Representatives in April, gay rights activists fear that politicians will put populism above human rights.

At a House committee hearing it emerged that over 100 petitions had been received objecting to the proposed new law, which would be one of the most draconian ever considered anywhere in the world.

“Ultimately, it is the lives of LGBT Nigerians that will be affected by this law,” said Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC’s Senior Specialist for Africa.

“The report is meant to turn up the volume of those voices.”

One of those interviewed for the IGLHRC report is an HIV outreach worker named Chuma, who was arrested and detained by the police in Lagos in 2006 while carrying out research for a study on the prevalence and risk factors of HIV/AIDS among men that have sex with men.

According to Chuma: “A team of policemen in Lagos came to my apartment and took me away to an unknown place for two days.

“I was beaten beyond recognition, and I am still receiving treatment for the head injury I received.

“I was dehumanised and paraded naked to the press… My only offence was that I am gay.”

Chuma was eventually released without being charged or tried.

Sarah, a Nigerian sexual rights activist, believes that many Nigerians are acting as if the legislation has already been passed.

She cites attacks on gay men in Abuja, the capital city, and the expulsion of cadets from a national military academy.

During the hearings, officials in the Nigerian president’s office claimed that passage of the bill would help to fight HIV.

Aishat, a gay Nigerian man interviewed for the report argues however that:

“The Bill will force to people having sex in secret rather than stopping gays having sex.

“Condoms will be used less and less often because there will be no time to develop relationships because of fear of being caught.”

In releasing the report, IGLHRC has called on the Nigerian authorities to remember their commitments to International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that guarantees freedom from unfair discrimination and the right to privacy.

Provisions of the Act are also inconsistent with the principle of non- discrimination found in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Nigerian Constitution.

But in a country where five states are governed by Islamic Sharia law where the death by stoning for adultery, including gay sex is mandatory and where the majority of religious groups are against same sex marriages or sex, it would appear the fears of the gay and lesbian community, and the minority groups attempting to protect them, for being persecuted will soon become a reality.