Lagos – A new law in Nigeria, signed by the president without announcement, has made it illegal for gay people to even hold a meeting. The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act also criminalises homosexual clubs, associations and organisations, with penalties of up to 14 years in jail. The act has drawn international condemnation from countries such as the US and Britain. Some gay Nigerians have already fled the country because of intolerance of their sexual persuasion, and more are considering leaving, if the new law is enforced, human rights activist Olumide Makanjuola said recently. Nigeria’s law is not as draconian as a Ugandan bill that was passed by parliament last month, which would punish “aggravated” homosexual acts with life in prison. It awaits the president’s signature. But Nigeria’s law reflects a highly religious and conservative society that considers homosexuality a deviation. Nigeria is one of 38 African countries – about 70% of the continent – that have laws persecuting gay people, according to Amnesty International. The Associated Press yesterday obtained a copy of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which was signed by President Goodluck Jonathan and dated January 7. It was unclear why the law’s passage has been shrouded in secrecy. The copy obtained from the House of Representatives in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, showed it was signed by lawmakers and senators unanimously on December 17, though no announcement was made. US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said the US was “deeply concerned” by a law that “dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians”. Former coloniser Britain said: “The UK opposes any form of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.” A statement from the spokesperson for the British High Commission, traditionally not identified by name, said the law “infringes upon fundamental rights of expression and association that are guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution and by international agreements to which Nigeria is a party”. The British government last year threatened to cut aid to African countries that violate the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. However, British aid remains quite small in oil-rich Nigeria, one of the top crude suppliers to the US. Washington-based Human Rights First urged President Barack Obama to “consider all avenues for response”, saying leaders such as Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, will be watching. “This law threatens the very livelihood of gay people and allies in Nigeria, and sets a dangerous precedent for persecution and violence against minorities throughout the region,” said the organisation’s Shawn Gaylord. The motivation for the Nigerian law is unclear, given that the country already has one making homosexual sex illegal. And gay people were not demanding to be able to marry in a country where being gay can get a person lynched by a mob. In parts of northern Nigeria, where Islamic Shariah law is enforced, gays and lesbians can be legally stoned to death. Some have suggested the new law in Nigeria and the proposed one in Uganda are a backlash to Western pressure to decriminalise homosexuality. Several African leaders have warned that they will not be dictated to on a subject that is anathema to their culture and religion. Yahya Jammeh, the president of Gambia, has said homosexuals should be decapitated.