Nigeria anti-gay bill puts Aids cash at risk

2011-12-04 18:46

Lagos - A bill originally designed to outlaw gay marriage in Nigeria likely has consequences far beyond its initial scope - criminalising gay groups and organisations could jeopardise millions of dollars of Western aid geared toward stopping the spread of HIV and Aids in Africa's most populous nation.

Though an oil-rich nation, Nigeria likely cannot afford to scorn foreign aid in the fight against HIV/Aids, experts say. Nigeria has the continent's second highest number of people living with the disease, says the United Nations.

More than 3 million people are infected with the disease and many do not know their status, according to UN estimates.

"There are about 400 000 people on anti-retrovirals in Nigeria at the moment and 95% of those are paid for by donor funds," Nigerian public health physician and health blogger Chikwe Ihekweazu told The Associated Press.

Gay sex has been banned in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people, since colonial rule by the British.

Gays and lesbians face open discrimination and abuse in a country divided by Christians and Muslims who almost uniformly oppose homosexuality.

In the areas in Nigeria's north where Islamic Shariah law has been enforced for about a decade, gays and lesbians can face death by stoning.

Under the proposed law passed by Senate this week, couples who marry could face up to 14 years each in prison.

Witnesses or anyone who helps couples marry could be sentenced to 10 years behind bars. The bill also punishes the "public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly" with ten years in prison.

A newly added portion of the bill, levelling 10 years in prison for those found guilty of organising, operating or supporting gay clubs, organisations and meetings, worries advocates in Nigeria.

They fear the law could be used against groups providing aid for HIV and Aids outreach programs that traditionally consider gay men as an at-risk group.

"We work with them trying to reduce their risk factors, trying to make them more healthy and have safer sex practices," said Meyiwa Ede of the donor-funded public health organisation Society for Family Health.

"If we can't work with them anymore, then they are vulnerable."

But lawmakers playing to the deeply religious nation's dislike of gays and lesbians have said donor nations who threaten to cut aid over the bill can keep their assistance, putting at risk the lives of people reliant on antiretroviral drugs.

Nigerians will suffer

The US and UK governments funnel huge sums of money into Nigeria for Aids and HIV outreach.

The US government, under the United States' President Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, has given an average of $308m a year to groups working in HIV prevention, treatment, and support, according to the US consulate general in Lagos.

The UK government spends an average of $31m a year on HIV/Aids programmess in Nigeria, the Abuja office of the UK's department for international development said.

Through local partners, the funding reaches heterosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians to combat the spread of HIV and Aids.

Heterosexual sex accounts for 80% of HIV transmissions in Nigeria, said the country's National Agency for the Control of Aids in a recent report.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently threatened to cut aid to African countries who discriminate against gays and lesbians. Advocates fear that could include the HIV and Aids funding.

Statements from the US and UK say both governments are watching the bill closely, but declined to comment further on how it may affect their outreach.

President Goodluck Jonathan promised the United Nations General Assembly in June that his administration was "committing to increase national ownership of HIV and Aids responses" and to make those responses inclusive. However, six months later, little has changed in a country that makes no attempt to reach gay and lesbian communities.

Nigeria's Health Minister Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu told AP that the bill outlawing gay groups would not affect state-funded HIV and Aids programmes if it were to become law.

The health ministry has no programmes specifically targeting these communities, said spokesperson Rekia Zubairu.

Rights groups say the lawmakers' resolve to pass the bill reflects widespread homophobia in Nigeria, but it also shows their disconnect from working-class Nigerians, regardless of their sexual orientation.

"They have the resources to go abroad for treatment, with their big salaries, so they don't give a hoot about ordinary people," gay rights organiser Dorothy Akenova said. "The majority of Nigerians are the ones who will suffer for it."

The bill must still be passed by Nigeria's House of Representatives and signed by President Jonathan before becoming law.

  • Ibhubesi - 2011-12-04 19:53

    I would like to understand why an oil rich country would need International Aids assistance? Secondly, if they are stuck in the dark ages of not acknowledging the basic human rights of people, why are they getting any financial aid at all? Lastly. For a country that is the African hub for everything criminal I find it strange that something as harmless as a gay can cause such a storm. I would far rather have our own government ban all Nigerians in our country to save our kids from drugs. They are the drug lords of Africa!

  • Peter - 2011-12-05 03:38

    It is highly unfortunate that US will join the British in associating funding for AIDS/HIV with Africa's policy makers decision to proscribe homosexuality in whatever form it rears its ugly head. Britain has never meant well for Nigeria, they are the architect of Nigeria's problem. They created Nigeria with gross disregard for the fundamental diffrences of background of the diverse entities they glued together as a corporate body. Britain supported Nigeria in 1966 Biafra war against Islamic insurgency because they could not read the writings on the wall. Since the beginning of the nineties, Britain has been waging war against Islamic insurgency that they saw as tribal war in the 1966 Biafra/Nigerian conflict. The British explained their short sightedness on the grounds that Biafra Nigerian War was a tribal rather than a religious war. To day, the British are fighting a war that Biafra fought in the mid sixties. The U.S.should be aware that Britain has a history of supporting the wrong side in any dispute concerning Africa. As such they should respect African culture for being different. Africans seem to hold the position that sexual orientation is not a human right issue rather an issue of Choice. Whether this is right or wrong in the spectacles of the west, why can't the US respect the views of Africans for a change. Africa, as it stands has enough problems, to compound these with issues of homosexuality will not augur well for Africa.

      Colin - 2011-12-07 17:43

      Well said Peter. If Countries or Corporate bodies choose to withhold funding and aid, for whatever reason, then they do need to accept the responsibility for their decisions. Attempting to push one's own agendas on others, be it pro-homosexuality or whatever else, is despicable. Gravely so given the consequences of this particular story.

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