South Africa plays Nigeria on Sunday in the African Nations Championship. It’s the perfect opportunity for South Africans to express concern about the raft of hateful anti-gay legislation signed into law by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
I am travelling to Nigeria tomorrow, to spend a week in Lagos as part of a media training programme. When I received the news of this opportunity in December, I was thrilled: I have wanted to visit Nigeria, one of the most exciting and intriguing spots on the continent, for a very long time.
But on Monday this week, news emerged to make Nigeria suddenly seem a markedly less attractive destination for gay people like me. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has very quietly signed into law a raft of measures intended to make life very difficult, if not impossible, for Nigerian gays. Homosexual acts in Nigeria were already illegal, as they are in most African countries, but the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act seeks to constrain the life of gay people in Nigeria to the point where the only safe option would seem to be a life of secrecy and fear.
The legislation doesn’t simply threaten to imprison anyone who is in a same-sex relationship for up to 14 years. It also reportedly provides the power to jail those displaying any same-sex affection in public for ten years; jail anyone supporting gay “meetings” for ten years; and potentially to send anyone who does not report “suspected homosexuals” to the authorities to prison for five years. Here’s South Africa’s Navi Pillay, UN human rights chief: “Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights.”
It hasn’t taken long for the effects of the new legislation to be felt. Nigerian health activists claim that police in Bauchi state have already arrested at least 38 gay men, from a list of 168. Eleven Muslim men accused of being homosexuals are reportedly standing trial in an Islamic court, where the maximum penalty is death by stoning.
In South Africa, meanwhile, where we are accorded Constitutionally-protected rights as gay people – even though the gulf between the Constitution and lived experience is too often vast and sometimes fatal – teams from all over the continent are currently contesting the African Nations Championship (CHAN) in soccer. It just so happens that on Sunday, Bafana Bafana will take on Nigeria at the Cape Town Stadium at 7pm.
A group of Cape Town-based journalists and human rights activists proposed the idea that Capetonians planning to attend the game could wear rainbow paraphernalia and carry placards expressing support for Nigerian gays, and condemnation of the country’s discriminatory new laws. It’s a great suggestion. The Nigerian laws have been in the news internationally over the past week, and the game will be televised continent-wide: a good opportunity to send a powerful message.
The suggestion quickly spread on social media, and while the response was generally positive, a number of criticisms popped up repeatedly which may be worth trying to address in a reasonable way.
You should leave politics out of sport.
The use of sports as a means to exert diplomatic pressure has a long and respected pedigree. Fortunately, the best example is also the closest to home: the sporting boycott of South Africa during Apartheid played a critical role in mobilising international opinion against the Apartheid regime.
Nigeria is a sovereign state and we should respect their right to implement their own laws.
By this logic, we shouldn’t attempt to intervene in any situations of gross human rights abuses (like Apartheid), genocide or brutal dictatorship. In terms of international law, many experts believe that state sovereignty must be balanced with the protection of human rights.
We shouldn’t try to impose “Western” norms – gay tolerance – on an African country.
This argument is one of the most pernicious, misleading and damaging when it comes to homosexuality in an African context. The majority of laws on the continent outlawing homosexual acts were introduced by Western colonial powers. There are ample historical examples of long-tolerated, pre-colonial homosexual practice from African culture, such as the yan daudu – “men who act like women” – of northern Nigeria. Equally, there is ample contemporary evidence that at least part of the current push to extend and entrench homophobic legislation in Africa is being funded and influenced by American evangelicals. Lastly, to claim that concern for human rights is a solely “Western” preoccupation is deeply offensive and wildly inaccurate.
I don’t want to protest against Nigeria’s anti-gay laws.
Simple: Then don’t.
For those people living in Cape Town who do wish to make a statement, and can afford a ticket, it’s quite easy. Buy a seat (they start at R45), perhaps in the middle tier. Paint your face, carry a rainbow flag, or bring a placard expressing solidarity with Nigerian gays and telling President Jonathan what you think of his bigoted laws. Then cheer your lungs out for Bafana and enjoy the game. DM
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Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.
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