“All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Last week, the Nigerian senate signed a bill to outlaw homosexual marriage, homosexual association and support for homosexual people: same-sex couples who marry face up to 14 years each in prison; witnesses or anyone who helps a marriage face up to 10 years; “public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly,” 10 years in prison; organising, operating or supporting gay clubs, organisations and meetings will attract a 10-year sentence. Beyond violating the human rights of gay people, these provisions effectively threaten HIV/AIDS care for men that have sex with men. Nigeria is only the next in a list of sub-Saharan African countries that have taken homosexuality seriously, following Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Ghana, all former British colonies. These countries like Nigeria, carry on the anachronistic vestige of colonial anti-gay laws and sentiments, adopted long before Britain and the western world came to terms with homosexuality. There is overwhelming historical evidence of the presence of homosexuality and same sex unions in Africa before contact with Europe and the Arab world. Unlike it is often claimed by anti-gay activists in Africa, it is not homosexuality but homophobia that is un-African.
There may be something good about the recent public interest in homosexuality: it has moved homosexuality from an issue that attracts mere “ridicule” to “violently opposed.” Gay rights has become a subject you can discuss with a taxi driver in Nigeria. But one wonders if this is a right attention at this time, especially with the not so misplaced ire of politicians and policymakers in Africa, drawn by David Cameron’s rather brash threat that there will be a cut in British funding to countries that have laws that ban and punish homosexuality. Britain spends an average of £20m a year on HIV/AIDS programmes in Nigeria. In Nigeria as in many African countries, less than 10% of people living with HIV/AIDS (about 400,000 people) are on anti-retrovirals with 95% of those paid for by foreign donor funds. Thus Mr Cameron’s concerns are legitimate. The Nigerian health ministry has no programmes specifically targeting the homosexual community. Heterosexual sex accounts for 80% of HIV transmissions in Nigeria. However, it would be for the greater benefit of gay people in these countries if Mr. Cameron, instead of making a punitive pronouncement chooses to direct British aid to support human rights dialogues to ensure tolerance and the inclusion of gay and other minority issues into broader social justice debates. These things are best done quietly and surreptitiously.
Mr. Cameron’s loud pronouncement may stand in the way of proper engagement with the people, politicians and policymakers in Africa where majority are adherents of Christianity and Islam, the two big acquired religions, who share, in a rare instance of common agreement, an ecclesiastically informed aversion to homosexuality with the ironic claim that homosexuality is un-African, as if Islam and Christianity are African! The world has been here before, in fact the world is always here: from the civil rights movement in the USA, to women suffrage globally, same with animal rights movements, the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, and more recently the climate change movement. The zeitgeist always shifts; one only wonders if Mr. Cameron helps or hinders gay rights from moving on from being “violently opposed” to being “accepted as self-evident” in sub-Saharan Africa. Prejudices are still deep in places like Nigeria, and like Mr Cameron admits, it will take many years to get people around, maybe another generation.
Who will suffer the public health fallout of the proposed laws and David Cameron’s pronouncement in Nigeria and other African countries, especially as the Global Fund stagnates in the face of the global financial crisis? Who will suffer if the UK government makes true its threat to withhold foreign aid to countries that violate the rights of gay people to fulfil their sexual destiny? The US government too has said gay rights would be criterion for US aid allocations. It is sad enough that African politicians should have more important priorities than opposing gay rights. What the passing of this bill shows is insensitivity and disconnect of the political class from the real concerns of the people, irrespective their of disposition to homosexuality. Nigerian politicians and their family living with HIV are able to afford treatment abroad. They are able to call the bluff of Mr. Cameron, and pass a law that will restrict access to care for gay people with HIV, people they are not willing or able to help. They do this in the name of preserving an imagined African culture and tradition, in the name of the Christian and Muslim god and most of all in the name of ignorance.
Enjoy your reading.
Seye Abimbola is a research fellow at the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Abuja, Nigeria.
This blog has been crossposted on BMJ blogs