Surprising (Absence of) Response to the Nigerian Anti-Gay Bill

Background

Three weeks ago the Nigerian Senate passed, and broadened the scope of, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2011. The motivations, contents and consequences of the bill are discussed elsewhere. In summary though, this legislation, which still requires approval by the lower house and President, will worsen an already bleak situation for gay Nigerians by prescribing imprisonment not only for those found guilty of entering into a same-sex marriage, but so too those accused of same-sex public displays of affection. Friends, families and associates of the accused are also liable to be imprisoned, whilst any groups suspected of having a gay rights agenda will be banned.

It is immediately obvious that oppressed gay Nigerians will not be the only victims of this legislation, but too political opponents from whom the government would prefer national and international audiences do not hear. It seems quite likely that an accusation, or even generated suspicion, of homosexuality would suffice in the swift removal and silencing of individuals and groups who fail to cooperate with those in power.

Action

In response to the Bill’s progression, I decided to write to the elected politicians for whom I am a constituent, asking that they take any diplomatic measures available to halt its ascension into law. Letters went sent to my local Member of Parliament, seven Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and twelve London Assembly Members (AMs). The letters sent varied only in the introduction paragraphs, in which reference was made to the commitments to sexuality equality made by their respective party leaders, where applicable. Below is an example sent to my MP, Theresa Villiers:

Dear Theresa Villiers,

I was dismayed and appalled to learn that Nigeria’s new anti-gay Bill
has just passed its First Reading in the House of Representatives after
being approved by the Senate a week ago. Considering the importance
that David Cameron has placed on tackling sexuality discrimination and
inequality, I hope that you too will take interest and action against
this alarming development in a Commonwealth member state.

Under the legislation same-sex marriage and civil unions are to be
banned, with 14 year prison sentences for participants and 10 years for
helpers and witnesses. Worse still, gay advocacy groups and even
same-sex public affection will banned. Any displays of affection
between members of the same sex could be punished with 10 year prison
sentences. This sweeping criminalisation contravenes both Article 42 of
the Nigerian constitution, which bans discrimination, and the African
Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Articles 2 and 3), which Nigeria
has signed and pledged to uphold.

Such discriminatory, repressive and inhumane legislation cannot be
allowed to enter the Nigerian statute books without unequivocal vocal
condemnation and challenge. I implore that you take whatever action
possible, at the very least by registering your opposition with the
Nigerian High Commissioner, to pressurise the Nigerian government to
halt their journey down this dreadful path. This is now an urgent
matter to which your prompt intervention is desperately needed.

Yours sincerely,

ConfusedApe {Name removed}

Response

It has been just over two weeks since those letters were sent and I would like to briefly share with you the responses I have received thus far. In terms of party allegiance, those contacted breakdown as follows: 8 x Conservative, 4 x Labour, 4 x Liberal Democrat, 3 x Green and 1 x Independent (formally BNP). Ignoring automatic receipt emails, eight politicians responded. Unsurprisingly, three were Green Party politicians who were “extremely concerned”, “fully shared [my] sense of outrage” and who have all now made representations to the Nigerian High Commissioner. One, the Green MEP Jean Lambert, has also written about the issue on her website. Also not too surprising was the lack of response from the formally BNP but now independent London AM, Richard Barnbrook. (That said, I do recall a scandal over a film directed by Mr Barnbrook, which was variously described as “Gay porn” and “Marxist”. Perhaps I should have been more expectant of his support.)

More surprising were the responses from members of the three largest parties. Of the five other respondents, four were Conservatives (although one simply suggested that I refer the matter elsewhere). My local Conservative MP expressed her concern and pledged to contact both the Nigerian High Commissioner and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whilst two Tory MEPs enacted procedures at the European Parliament on the issue. One of the Conservative MEPs also outlined her efforts in overturning the ban on homosexuality in northern Cyprus.

Only one of the four Liberal Democrats responded (although she did co-sign a letter from the European Parliament’s LGBT Intergroup to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and to the Heads of the European Commission delegations to Nigeria (and Cameroon), “asking that they put pressure on the relevant political authorities to stop the Nigerian bill from becoming law (and halt the number of arrests in Cameroon)).” The three LibDem London Assembly members, Mike Tuffrey AM, Dee Doocey AM and Caroline Pidgeon AM, all hid behind claimed limitations of remit, limitations which their Green Party counterparts seemed all too willing and able to ignore.

Most disappointing, as a party, however were Labour. Not a single one of their four politicians (two London Assembly Members and two MEPs) even bothered to acknowledge the letters, never mind pledge support or take any action.

It all seems rather topsy-turvy: the right coming out in support of human rights, liberals remaining rather muted and the (Labour) left struck decidedly dumb. Of course this ignores the commendable responses received from all contacted members of the undoubtedly Leftish Green Party and it is true that the sample size is far too small for us to draw any conclusions without resorting to unjustifiable extrapolation, but the results have been surprising nevertheless and will certainly contribute to my decisions at the ballet box next time around.

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