When Nigeria's Senate passed a law banning same sex marriage on December 1 2011, Britain, USA and Canada got angry, threw diplomatese to the dogs and came out charging. Canada's Foreign Minister, John Baird reportedly said he would continue to oppose Nigeria on the issue at every international forum, unless the legislation was abrogated.
The British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened that his country might cut off its aid to Nigeria because of the legislation. Barack Obama declared that his country would henceforth consider discrimination against homosexuals as an issue in its diplomatic relations with other nations - in a somewhat veiled reference to Nigeria. The argument of the British, Canadian and US authorities was that such a law would discriminate against homosexuals or trample upon their fundamental human rights.
Apart from Canada which introduced same-sex marriage in 2005, same sex marriage remains illegal in both the USA and the UK. The recent public support of queer marriage by Obama and Cameron respectively has turned it into a campaign issue in the USA and is likely to do so in the UK in 2015. How has same-sex politics evolved in these countries? And what are the implications of these for Cameron's and Obama's intervention in what was essentially a domestic conversation on the issue in Nigeria?
In the USA, the campaign to obtain marriage rights and benefits for same sex couple began in the 1970s and took a new turn in 1993 following Baehr v Lewin - a 1993 Supreme Court of Hawaii case in which three same-sex couples complained that the prohibition of same sex marriage by the state of Hawaii contravened the state's constitution.
Following a dismissal of the case by the trial court, the Supreme Court held in 1996 that denial of marriage to same- sex couples amounted to discrimination based on sex contrary to the equal protection guarantee of the state's constitution.
The US Congress, concerned that the ruling might set a dangerous precedence, quickly passed the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 defining marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman. Prior to 1996, the US federal government did not have a definition of marriage as any marriage recognised by any state government was automatically recognised by the federal government. In essence the law passed by Nigeria's Senate on same-sex marriage is the equivalent of U.S.'s DOMA.
On May 15, 2008, the Supreme Court of California ruled that the state's existing opposite-sex definition of marriage violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples.
Irked by the ruling, opponents of same sex marriage, relying mostly on religious arguments and the dictionary definition of marriage, placed a state constitutional amendment known as Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot with the aim of restoring an opposite-sex definition of marriage.
Proposition 8 was passed on Election Day 2008. However on August 4, 2010, in another legal challenge, the U.S. District Court in Perry v. Schwarzenegger ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
Though the decision in that case is currently being appealed, the Obama administration declared that it had determined that DOMA was unconstitutional. The administration said that while it would continue to enforce the law, it would no longer defend it in court. Obama said his own position on same-sex marriage was still "evolving". On May 9 2012 Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage.
Just before Obama became a convert to same sex-marriage, many states had begun moves to re-emphasise a traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. For instance as recent as May 8 2012, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, and also barred civil unions for gays. The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives same day declared that legislation to allow even civil unions for gays "wont' get a vote" at the House.
There have been several suggestions on why Obama reversed himself on an issue as controversial as same sex marriage in an election year. One, is a revelation by the Washington Post that as many as one in six of his campaign 'bundlers' - those who corral the big money donors - are openly gay and that Obama is unwilling to risk their support with his continued 'waffling' on the issue. It is instructive that barely 24 hours after declaring his support for same-sex marriage Obama raised nearly $15m at a Hollywood fundraiser hosted by actor George Clooney.
Two, is a belief that African Americans, his most enthusiastic supporters, will understand that he has to do whatever is necessary to win re-election. African Americans are among the most vehement opponents of same sex marriage in USA. When Obama ran for the Senate of Illinois in 1996, he supported same-sex marriage but later changed his mind. The interesting thing here is that Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney has taken a hard stance against same sex marriage, meaning that this has automatically become a key campaign issue in the USA.
Three, is a belief by some that Obama could merely be keying in to changing attitudes that seem to have become more tolerant of same sex marriage. Some dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, have switched sides in the debate by amending their definition of 'marriage, to include same sex marriage. Opponents of same sex marriage have historically relied on the bible and dictionary definition of 'marriage.'
In the UK, David Cameron's support for 'gay-marriage' is part of his efforts to re-brand the Conservative Party. Though same sex couples have been permitted to enter into civil partnerships in the UK since 2005, same-sex marriage remains illegal there. In September 2011, David Cameron announced his intention to introduce same-sex marriage by the next general election to be held in May 2015. The announcement has provoked a backlash, with several of his party members and religious groups accusing him of planning an "Orwellian" act of "cultural vandalism" against the UK.
A key argument of the same-sex lobby - the need to respect the human rights of gay people - has not been successful in many legal challenges. For instance in a key judgment issued on June 24 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that there was no violation of the human rights of two homosexuals in Austria who were denied the right to marry by the government. Again under the notion of 'protection of morals' the ECHR provides a lawful basis for signatories to the European Convention to restrict particular rights and freedoms contained in the Convention.
With the human rights argument failing in most legal challenges, the proponents of same-sex marriage now frame their campaign as a continuation of the civil rights struggles. In fact gay activists in the USA often regard Lawrence v Texas (2003) - where the US Supreme Court declared that the sodomy laws in Texas were an unconstitutional breach of privacy - as their own version of Brown v Board of Education (1954). The latter was a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court, which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Blacks and Whites unconstitutional. Brown paved the way for the civil rights movement and the integration of Blacks into the American mainstream.
Framing the same-sex marriage discourse in this light often puts many people in these countries in a difficult position. Few people, least of all politicians, want to be labelled as bigots, homophobic or intolerant of minorities, especially as the population of gays in these countries has since become electorally significant. The gay lobby also has powerful influence in the media.
There is a belief by some that the same-sex lobby in the Western world relies on the use of intimidation and blackmail to drive their campaign. For instance in Canada, which legalised same sex marriage in 2005, the Conservative party led by Stephen Harper won a minority government in the federal election of January 23 2006 after campaigning on the promise of holding a conscience vote (i.e. where legislators vote according to their conscience and not party line) on a motion to re-open the debate on same-sex marriage.
The party subsequently backed down because of the blackmail of the gay lobby. This is one of the paradoxes in the politics of same- sex marriage. While the proponents believe that anyone who does not support gay marriage is intolerant, they are themselves intolerant of those who choose to exercise their right to say 'no'.
What are the implications of the above for the way the issue has played out in Nigeria?
As can be seen, same-sex marriage in the USA and UK remains contentious despite the fact that attitude toward gays has become tolerant there for years. In Nigeria, where the attitude to even gay relationships is hostile, to force the country to accept it amounts to disrespect, if not cultural imperialism. And this is what riles most Nigerians.
Attitudes do change. We cannot rule out the possibility that one day Nigerians may become more tolerant or indifferent to same sex marriage. But we have not got there yet. And until we get there, on our own accord, Nigerians will continue see any preaching on the issue by any foreigner as simply arrant nonsense.