ABUJA — Since President Goodluck Jonathan signed a wildly popular anti-gay bill into law earlier this month, hostility towards gays in Nigeria continues to escalate. Activists say arrests are being made and they are hearing reports of mob violence.
About half of Nigerians are Muslim and half are Christian. Recently, the two religions have come together in support of a new law that criminalizes gay organizations and punishes gay marriage with up to 14 years in prison.
At a shimmering church in the capital city, Pastor Simon A.S. Dolly, the president of the Youth Wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria, says the law will protect Nigeria from the wrath of God.
"Nigeria is a religious country and we are religious people," he said. "We agree with the president on this issue. I think this is one of the best things the president has done this year for us. Because we are a cultured people as Africans and to us, man marrying man, woman marrying woman - it’s uncultured.”
Western governments and rights organizations have widely condemned the law, saying it violates rights guaranteed by Nigerian and international law and has led to “witch hunts.”
Human rights defender Ifeanyi Orazulike says it has always been illegal and dangerous to be gay in Nigeria, but the law has lead to a surge of hostility.
“People are being arrested in different states," he said. "There has also been lots of hate-speeches coming from religious leaders and the general population.”
Eleven men are on trial in northern Nigeria under the law and Amnesty International says arrests have been made in four other states, with police working off long lists of names.
Orazulike says a small network of activists in Nigeria are trying to keep each other safe and gain support through awareness campaigns on Twitter and Facebook.
“We are always on the alert," he said. "We are talking here and there, making phone calls, confirming to be sure that people are okay wherever they are and following up situations.”
Activists say that because the law criminalizes anyone who provides services for gays or supports gay groups, the list of people who could be arrested under the law is long and varied.
In a sprawling slum in central Nigeria, a rights activist who doesn’t want to be named for safety reasons, says he's heard reports of mob violence against gays as religious and political leaders speak publicly in support of the bill.
He also says the law could have other negative consequences for Nigeria, like increasing HIV rates among gay men, and eventually the general population.
“You’re driving them more underground. They are not able to access health services," he said. "And the few, few, very few, few, handful of organizations that are actually even trying to provide this support, like HIV treatment or awareness education to the gay community will also go underground.”
As Nigeria battles insurgency in the north, and militancy in the south, he says, the passing of this law appears to be a political move in advance of elections next year.
Supporters of the law say it reflects the will of the Nigerian people and the will of God.