ABUJA, NIGERIA— Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has signed a law that makes gay marriage in Nigeria punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Activists say the law will have disastrous consequences for the gay community and beyond. Political analysts say the popular law will be a gain for the president, whose ruling party is going through severe internal struggles ahead of the 2015 elections.
On Monday morning, it was illegal to be gay in Nigeria. By Monday night, gay marriage had become illegal, along with being a member of a gay organization - a crime that could mean up to 10 years in prison.
Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike is a rights activist and one of the few people in Nigeria who has spoken out against the law. He said the law may be intended to target gays, but it may harm others as well.
For example, he said, gay men in Nigeria have a high HIV infection rate - 17 percent - and the law will keep some some men from getting treatment out of fear.
For others, no treatment will be available.
“Organizations providing services for them, according to the bill, will have to shut down. And some of them also are married. Some of them have girlfriends. And some of these women will definitely get married and bear children,” said Orazulike.
The new law was quickly criticized by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it "dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians."
In contrast with many Western nations, anti-gay sentiment is common across much of Africa and this new law is popular among Nigerians.
A sampling of public opinion vividly illustrates this prevalent attitude.
“I feel highly delighted and very grateful to God above all because it is a line in the right direction,” said one person in Abuja.
“I support the federal government because this thing is against the two religions. It’s very, very, very bad,” said another.
“Actually it is the right thing. They were supposed to have done it even before. It was supposed to have been even in our constitution,” said still another person.
Nigerian lawmakers have been kicking around a version of this law for years, and last May the bill was passed by the national assembly. Jonathan signed the bill last week, a move that was made public on Monday.
Several Western countries have slammed the law, including Britain, which has threatened to withdraw aid from African countries with anti-gay legislation.
Analysts say the timing of this bill is notable, as 2015 elections approach and the president’s popularity appears to be declining.
Abubakar Kari, a political science lecturer at the University of Abuja, said gay rights are not a pressing issue for most Nigerians - the majority of whom live in abject poverty - although it is one issue upon which most citizens agree.
“Both Muslims and Christians appear to be overwhelmingly opposed to gay rights. And therefore the president also hopes to achieve some political mileage,” said Kari.
Charges of political pandering
He said the president also may have signed the bill to distract the public from the controversy surrounding the ruling party, as high-level members defect, some to a new and formidable opposition party.
On Twitter, angry opponents of the law are calling for protests, while supporters of the law are calling on the West to stop interfering with Nigerian culture.
Activists in Nigeria say they haven’t yet decided how, but say they will fight for the repeal of the law. Orazulike said, in the meantime, anyone who is gay, supports gay rights or provides services like HIV treatment for gay men is in danger.
“What if someone who doesn’t like me on the streets can go and call the police to come and arrest me? And I’ll be jailed,” said Orazulike.
Most gay people in Nigeria hide their sexuality or live in constant fear of attacks or being abandoned by their families and friends.
When asked if he considers leaving Nigeria to protect himself, Orazulike said he can’t go because with the gay population almost entirely in hiding, someone needs to give them a voice.
Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report from Kaduna.