Right now, I have before me two documents: the Bill proposed to the Nigerian parliament in 2006 to “make provisions for the prohibition of sexual relations between persons of the same sex,” and the act signed into law in January 2014 “to prohibit marriage or civil union entered between persons of same sex.”
But for minor stylistic changes (for example, the word “ceremony” in the bill has been changed to “solemnization” in the act), the two texts are essentially the same in spirit and letter. This may indicate a number of related things: that the bill was not discussed so significantly in all the six years since it was proposed as to alter its contents; that it was not discussed at all; that it was not meant to be discussed.
Were there public hearings? What were the sitting or voting patterns during the presentation and passage of the bill? Who proposed the bill? Who supported it?
These are moot questions, it seems, but it is important to ask them for the simple reason that the context for any law with such easy passage and one calculated to have such far-reaching impact on the life and liberty of citizens of Nigeria needs to be examined thoroughly. Why would those in charge of making laws be so casual about such a consequential procedure—why would procedure matter so little?
After President Jonathan signed the bill and set a global controversy in motion, I collaborated with a number of Nigerians to issue a public statement condemning the law. In the course of deliberations over the statement, especially when we wanted to be sure how the bill became a law, the question of voting pattern came up: who voted ‘Yes’ and who ‘No’? A colleague with a sharp nose for the bizarre retorted that we were assuming that any of the parliamentarians was opposed to the bill!
Indeed, it was too much to assume.
Yet this is what makes the very idea of the law so contentious, and needlessly so. When the bill first made its appearance in the National Assembly in 2006, I recall that most commentators wondered why, of all the problems facing the country and needing urgent solutions, the issue of same-sex marriage was of such singular importance to the legislators. That the bill finally made it into the law books and at such a time as now, says much about how the government of Goodluck Jonathan actually operates: this is an absurdly cynical government, its cynicism so serpentine as to defy thought.
The signing into law of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act might have been calculated to divert attention from certain issues, and it has probably achieved that short-term objective. What the government did not reckon with—and this is as a result of the intellectual resources at the disposal of the government—is the institutional complexity of the issue of sexual orientation on the global level. By making a law against same-sex marriage, the government simply made Nigeria the focus and locus of an important debate. It didn’t bargain for this debate, much less as a debate, but, sure as nightfall, it’s going to happen. Even after this absurd law has been definitively killed and buried, the country will continue to wrestle with the djinns it has let out of the bottle. It is another of the doings of the god of happy accidents.
Who can police desire? Why bother to regulate the way people love each other?
In the first essay, I compared the law against same-sex marriage to the founding of the apartheid state in racist South Africa. I want to return to that comparison by talking briefly about one of the most controversial laws under apartheid, the Immorality Act. Briefly, this law forbade sexual relations between white and black people, and stipulated stiff penalties for anyone found in default. There is a fine play about this law, titled Statements, by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard. It is an instructive story, and functionaries of the Jonathan government should be aware of it.
The question is, why should a state be interested in who loves whom? Or hates whom, as long as the emotion does not interfere with the freedom of another? One of my objectives in this series is to approach the issue of sexual orientation in such a way as to civically engage in conversations with those who defend the law. As I see it, what we need is a focused and enlightened discussion of what is at issue. For starters, it would be interesting for those who disapprove of same-sex relation to ponder this question: knowing the penalties attached to homosexuality under this law, why would anyone in his or her right senses want to risk such danger?