Under a colonial-era law, sodomy is punishable by a 14-year jail sentence; and in the country’s mainly Muslim northern states, where a version of Shar’ia law applies, the penalty is death by stoning, although this has never officially been carried out.
The National Assembly began debating the latest version of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill in November. Most high-ranking officials have voiced their approval of the bill, signalling it is likely to pass.
Analysts see the bill, which has been shelved twice in five years, as a potential boost to the popularity of a government whose approval ratings have stalled since elections in April this year. Most Nigerians strongly disapprove of homosexuality, with many seeing it as a foreign import at odds with a deeply religious society.
A 2008 survey by non-profit, Nigeria’s Information for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, of 6,000 Nigerians on their attitudes to homosexuality, found that only 1.4 percent of respondents said they felt “tolerant” towards sexual minorities.
A university student in the northern state of Jigawa was killed in 2002 when classmates set upon him after rumours that he was gay.
In September 2008, several national newspapers published the names, addresses and photographs of the pastor and congregation of a church in the port city of Lagos that ministered to sexual minorities. A few days later a mob that included policemen attacked the church. Members of the congregation lost jobs and homes and had to go into hiding; others are still harassed and threatened with physical harm, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“Homosexual and lesbian practices are considered offensive to public morality in Nigeria. The… bill is crucial to our national development because it seeks to protect the traditional family, which is the fundamental unit of society, especially in our country,” said the influential newspaper, This Day, in its editorial on 10 November. “It will be difficult to import practices and lifestyles which are alien to our country and the majority of our people.”
Homosexual rights are narrowing across Africa. In Uganda, gay rights activist David Kato was killed in January 2011 after opposing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009.
In Malawi a gay couple was imprisoned for “gross indecency”. The United States and British governments have threatened to cut off aid money to African countries seeking to curb gay rights.