When I read a BBC news phone text on the plan by the Obama administration to tie aid and diplomacy in the bid to protect the rights of homosexuals globally, I took a deep breath. Indeed, coming shortly after Nigeria’s legislature passed an anti same-sex marriage bill with a 14-year jail stretch for its infringement, you need not be a rocket scientist to know that while the US threat has global implications, its point is aimed at Nigeria’s heart. If my country’s government soft-pedals on its hard-line posture against the LGBT movement, other so-called underdeveloped, especially African, countries who loathe homosexuality will lose much of the steam in their rampage.
Though the Nigerian government has replied the US administration with defiance, I wonder if push comes to shove, whether they will stand firm. Let the ugly truth be told: Nigeria, for now, is firmly in the Western economic and socio-political orbit. Those guys in the Senate, House of Representatives and Aso Rock are too tied to Uncle Sam and her friends to contemplate a life of Western sanctions. Jonathan is no Abacha who can comfortably turn to the East and the Muslim world for succor. Right now the political and economic complexities troubling the Jonathan government may be aggravated if the US turns off her flow of cash. On the other hand, can the US and the UK do without our oil if matters escalate? Perhaps, in the mysterious world of diplomacy, even as the sabers rattle on both sides, a quiet word will prevail in exchanges on both sides.
But fundamentally what has changed? What will change? On the streets of Nigeria, from Lagos to Sokoto, anti-homosexuality unites the diverse, multilingual and multireligious people of this great land. Gays are viewed as worse than slime; their practice is labeled unprintably and the burgeoning democratic climate in the country is one most Nigerians are unwilling to extend to anyone who exhibits the slightest gay tendencies. Objective discussion of the gay issue is anathema. But then this is not unique to Nigeria. Witness the pro-choice and anti-abortionists feud in USA.
If the bill stands, the growing gay movement in Nigeria will suffer a massive setback but it will not die. It has always been underground but recently, with the restoration of democracy, increased Western influence, the role of Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, and the unconfirmed participation of some of the country’s moguls in the LGBT movement, the gays have become emboldened. They may be in the minority but they have found their voice. If matters degenerate to invasion of privacy or the David Kato scenario in a bid to ‘chase the gays out of town’ then Nigeria would have marched into something she may not finish. I raised the Kato comparison because you only need to read some of the stuff otherwise enlightened Nigerian journalists penned in Nigerian media in the wake of the passage of the anti same-sex marriage bill. I am not a gay and I do not back same-sex marriage but I believe the democratic space in Nigeria, indeed, everywhere, should have enough room for all. It was the Ugandan press that published material that led to the murder of Kato, a Ugandan gay activist.
On the other hand, democracy is not rooted in a vacuum. Nigerians, at least most of them, know what they want on this subject. But the minority-the gays-should have their say. I fear this is a hard bone for the Nigerian government, despite their public boldface. Quite a few zealots occupy seats of power and to buckle to the demands of the ‘decadent’ West, may for them, signal the ignition of an extremist movement. We are still grappling with Boko Haram which declares Western education a sin. But if President Jonathan refuses to assent the bill he risks a backlash. Right now he needs all the support he can get to push forward very painful reforms, especially the removal of fuel subsidy. What better way to do that than to ride the crest of anti-gay pouplarism in Nigeria? But that will be the biggest mistake he will make for Nigerians will see through the smokescreen. As an aside, I ask: why will the Jonathan government enrage its Western friends on this apparently ‘small’ matter while it is ready to please it with reforms that may send both gay and non-gay Nigerians to the trenches?
I subscribe to the tenets of Christianity so I do not back homosexuality. However, the same Christianity does not teach me to seek the heads of the so-called ‘sinner’ in the bid to get them to see the light. This forum does not permit an in-depth examination of the complex issues surrounding gays: whether they are born the way they are or if it is a choice. But I know that the following is a myth: homosexuality is unAfrican. There is evidence that Africans ‘did it’ before the coming of the white man. E.g. Back in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries the Kabakas (rulers) of Buganda in present day Uganda practiced sodomy in the royal court. The refusal of some of the Kabaka’s young pages who converted to Christianity to continue with the practice led to their martyrdom. ‘The Martyrs of Uganda’ are today honoured by the Catholic Church.
So I am seeking for an engagement with the gays in our midst. These laws will do them and us no good. I refuse to be part of any movement to harm anyone ‘different’ from me. Today it is gays. What of tomorrow? Finally, the US and the UK are as ugly as sin: their fake democratic and neo-imperialist credentials are glaring for all to see. If China came up with the type of anti-gay law Nigeria enacted they would grumble and do nothing because they need Chinese investments, technology and finance. Weaklings like Nigeria can be bullied. Can Nigeria get her acts right and break out of the Western orbit? Till that day comes, we should accept democratic tenets if they are what we want to live by.
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a Lagos-based writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org