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Proposed law
would outlaw gay friendships in Nigeria

Proposed law
would outlaw gay friendships in Nigeria

In the Muslim north of Nigeria, Bisi Alimi could be stoned to death for having gay sex. In the south, he could face three years in prison. Now, a proposed law would make it illegal even to share a meal at a cafe with gay friends. The proposal under debate in Nigeria's house of representatives would outlaw not just same-sex marriages but any form of association between gay people, social or otherwise, and publication of any materials deemed to promote a ''same-sex amorous relationship.''

Anyone attending a meeting among gay people, even two friends in a private house, could receive a sentence of five years under the act. Engaging in homosexual acts is already illegal in Nigeria, with those convicted facing jail terms in the south and execution in the north. Few in Nigeria's deeply closeted gay community are publicly opposing the bill, and it is widely expected to pass.

''This meeting, right here, would be illegal,'' says activist Alimi, stabbing the air with a french fry for emphasis as he sits at a table with three gay friends and a reporter. ''We could be arrested for talking about this. You could be arrested for writing about us.''

Other activities specifically prohibited under the proposed law include participating in gay clubs or reading books, watching films, or accessing Internet sites that ''promote'' homosexuality.

Alimi's been trying to drum up united opposition to the legislation but says Nigeria's gay community is so far underground and the subject is so taboo that it's been difficult. The 27-year-old activist is one of few openly gay Nigerians, having been ''outed'' by a university newspaper three years ago. None of his companions have told their families they are attracted to men. Because of the risk of arrest, beatings, or even death, they requested that only first names be used for this article.

''A few of my best friends know, but I don't have the courage to tell my parents,'' 23-year-old medical student Ipadeola says.

''I don't tell people because it is none of their business,'' says Mukajuloa, a 21-year-old beautician. ''Do heterosexual men go around telling the world they are attracted to women?''

Haruna Yerima, a member of Nigeria's house of representatives, portrays the legislation as aimed at stamping out something already well under control. ''It's not really such a big problem in Nigeria; we just want to prevent such occurrences [same-sex marriages] from happening here,'' he says.

Yerima said he approved of the bans on films and books because they could be used to ''make such practices popular.'' Even social contact between gays should be limited, he said, because it might encourage behavior that was ''against our culture...against our religion.''

Alimi's friends say the bill will make a difficult life even more dangerous. Families already often cast out gay children, and neighbors turn against gay friends. Civil rights organizations and human rights lawyers have said that the bill could also be used to deny legal representation to gay people who have been arrested.

Attitudes toward gays in Nigeria are typical of those across the continent. In neighboring Cameroon, Amnesty International says accusations of homosexuality and antigay laws have been used as a weapon against political opponents. South Africa legalized same-sex marriages last month in fiercely debated legislation, making it the only country on the continent to do so. But the impetus was more a desire to stamp out all forms of discrimination in reaction to apartheid than tolerance of gays, who are subject to prejudice and violence in South Africa.

The hostility in Nigeria means that there are very few gay or lesbian organizations there. Oludare ''Erelu'' Odumuye--the nickname means ''queen mother'' in Yoruba--heads one, Alliance Rights. Odumuye says he has been harassed in the street and detained by police accusing him of promoting homosexuality and running an unregistered organization. ''That bill would criminalize me if it was passed into law. It would criminalize my organization, it would criminalize my friends,'' he says.

Thousands of people access health services, gather information, or meet through Alliance Rights, Odumuye says. To avoid harassment, they have no set membership list and their buildings are not in town centers or identified by signs. Visitors find them through word-of-mouth, Odumuye says. To give an idea of their size, he says the group received more than 1,500 responses to a recent health survey among gay Nigerians.

Odumuye argues that the bill is aimed at pleasing the ruling party's political base--which includes powerful religious groups--ahead of the April election. Nigerian Anglicans split with the American Episcopal Church over the ordination of a gay bishop, and many in the country say they want to prevent anything similar to the South African legislation.

But Akin Marinho, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says that bill's prohibitions are illegal under Nigeria's constitution and international treaty obligations. Not only does the bill affect freedoms of speech and expression, but foreign companies could face lawsuits if gay or lesbian staff members are unable to take up positions in Nigeria, he says.

''It's a civil liberties issue as well as a gay rights issue,'' Marinho says. ''Under this bill, anyone watching Brokeback Mountain or even Will & Grace could be prosecuted.... It could also infringe on lawyer-client relations,'' he says, pointing out that the vague wording of the bill could interpret a meeting between a gay client and a lawyer as a meeting designed to promote same-sex relationships.

Even some conservative religious leaders say the bill goes too far. Though Bishop Joseph Ojo, who presides over the congregation at the evangelical Calvary Kingdom Church, says gay relationships are ''foreign to Africans'' and should be outlawed, he adds that gays should ''have freedom of speech and expression.''

Nigerians have been publicly flogged, exhibited before the press naked, or beaten severely in prison after being charged with homosexuality. Alimi's companions say they're wary of voicing too much opposition to the new law out of fear of arrest. Death sentences have been meted out in the north, though no one has yet been executed.

''There is a lot of ignorance, and that is why people are afraid,'' Alimi says. ''But we are not willing to come out and say, Yes, I am gay. Here I am. I am human too.'' (AP)

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