This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: Anti-Gay Law Could Endanger HIV-Aids Programme, Warns Counselor

Following the signing into law the Bill Prohibiting Same-sex Marriage and Gay Practices, the police are said to be working on a list of 168 suspects purportedly obtained through torture, after arresting dozens of gay men in Bauchi State, human rights activists alleged Tuesday.

However, the new law has received the firm backing of the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Ndi-Igbo Cultural Society of Nigeria (NCSN), as well as elder statesman and veteran politician, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai, who have commended President Goodluck Jonathan and the nation's lawmakers for resisting the pressure to kill the bill.

But the Executive Director of Nigeria's International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, Dorothy Aken'Ova, feared that the wave of arrests could endanger programmes meant to combat HIV-AIDS in the gay community, reported the Associated Press (AP) Tuesday.

Last Monday, Jonathan signed the Act that criminalises gay marriage, gay organizations and anyone working with or promoting them.

According to AP, the police in Bauchi State entrapped four gay men and tortured them into naming others. Aken'Ova said the police have drawn up a list of 168 wanted gay men, of whom 38 have been arrested in recent weeks.

She said the arrests began during the Christmas holidays and blamed "all the noise that was going on surrounding the (same sex marriage prohibition) bill."

The Chairman of Bauchi State Sharia Commission, Mustapha Baba Ilela, said 11 men have been arrested in the past two weeks and charged with belonging to a gay organisation.

He denied anyone had been tortured and said all 10 to 11 Muslims and a non-Muslim, signed confessions that they belonged to a gay organisation but that some of them retracted the statements when they were charged to court.

An AIDS counsellor confirmed that he helped get bail for the men and also said a total of 38 were arrested. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear he would be arrested. Aken'Ova's organisation is providing legal services for them.

The AIDS counsellor said the arrests were sparked by a rumour that the United States paid $20 million to gay activists to promote same-sex marriage in Nigeria. The United States, Britain and Canada condemned the new law, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying Monday that it "dangerously restricts freedom" of expression and association of all Nigerians.

The U.N. agency to fight AIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria aso expressed "deep concern that access to HIV services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will be severely affected by the new law in Nigeria - further criminalising LGBT people, organisations and activities, as well as people who support them."

The law also criminalises people and groups who support "the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies and organisations, processions or meetings in Nigeria." Those convicted could be jailed for 10 years.

UNAIDS said the law could harm Jonathan's own presidential initiative to fight AIDS, started a year ago.

It said Nigeria has the second largest HIV epidemic globally with an estimated 3.4 million people living with HIV. The disease affects many more gay men than heterosexuals, with 2010 statistics estimating national HIV prevalence at 4 per cent compared to 17 per cent among gay men, according to UNAIDS.

Jonathan has not publicly expressed his views on homosexuality.

The president's spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, told AP on Monday night, "This is a law that is in line with the people's cultural and religious inclination. So it is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of Nigerian people... Nigerians are pleased with it."

One of such Nigerians pleased with the new anti-gay law is Cardinal Onaiyekan, who yesterday in Abuja, commended Jonathan and members of the National Assembly for putting a stop to what he termed the West's attempt to erode the moral fabric of the Nigerian society.

In an exclusive interview with THISDAY, Onaiyekan said both the president and National Assembly members need to be congratulated for having the courage to openly defend not only Nigerian culture but also rescuing moral values from total extinction. He explained that since the debate started, "my position has always been that let Nigerians confirm that there is no such thing as a man-and-man marriage, for us in Nigeria, there is no such marriage."

Onaiyekan, who was speaking against the backdrop of his 70th birthday in a few weeks time, told THISDAY that he is very elated that the president signed the bill into law.

"I congratulate the president and the National Assembly 100 per cent for openly defending the institution of marriage.

"It is not easy to come out and openly defend it, many African countries have succumbed to these impositions by civilised nations of their 'civilised' ideas and telling us that they have changed the rules of marriage," he said.

Cardinal Onaiyekan further pointed out that "if America is great, it is not because they approved abortion, it is not because they approved gay and homosexual marriages, America is great because of other factors."

However, he believed that criminalising homosexuality and gay practices negates the doctrine of compassion, arguing that the affected persons deserve compassion.

"I am worried that the law criminalises homosexuality, that once a man holds another man's hand in the street, they are arrested, prosecuted, tried, convicted and jailed. For me, this is counter-productive," Onaiyekan submitted.

Onaiyekan, like Pope Francis, held the view that the Roman Catholic Church should not ostracise gays, but should bring them closer to Christ.

Also throwing its weight behind the new Act, NCSN hailed Jonathan for taking a strong moral stand by signing the anti-gay bill into law.

In a statement issued in Lagos by the society's President, Mr, Udo Udeogaranya, the group said the act showed that Jonathan was committed to promoting and sustaining African culture, heritage and values.

"We believe in the doctrine that every sovereign nation must rise to determine its destiny, and it is its choice, not chance, that determines its destiny. "In the issue of marriage, relationship and social behaviour, our country, members of National Assembly and President Goodluck Jonathan made the best choice," the group stated.

It also urged the National Assembly and Jonathan to consider censoring certain foreign programmes being broadcast in Nigeria, in order to protect the youths from negative western influence.

Also, Yakasai commended Jonathan for signing the bill into law during an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Kano.

"President Jonathan should be commended for taking a bold step to sign the bill into law. Same-sex marriage is not only alien to Nigeria but to the entire African continent," he said.

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