A bill to outlaw gay marriage in Nigeria could jeopardise millions of dollars of western aid given to help stop the spread of HIV and Aids in Africa’s most populous nation.
Nigeria has the continent’s second highest number of people living with the disease, says the United Nations. More than three million people are infected and many do not know their status.
"There are about 400,000 people on anti-retrovirals in Nigeria at the moment and 95% of those are paid for by donor funds," said public health doctor and health blogger Chikwe Ihekweazu.
Gay sex has been banned in Nigeria since British colonial rule. Gay and lesbian people face open discrimination in a country divided by Christians and Muslims who almost uniformly oppose homosexuality. In parts of the north where sharia law has been enforced for about a decade, they can face death by stoning.
Under the proposed law passed by the Senate, same-sex couples who marry could face up to 14 years each in prison. Witnesses or anyone who helps a marriage could be sentenced to 10 years. The bill also punishes the "public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly" with 10 years in prison.
A newly added power, punishing those found guilty of organising, operating or supporting gay clubs, organisations and meetings with a 10-year sentence, worries advocates in Nigeria. They fear the law could be used against groups providing assistance for HIV and Aids outreach programmes 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 Society for Family Health, which is funded by donations. "If we can’t work with them anymore, then they are vulnerable."
Lawmakers playing to the religious antipathy towards 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 anti-retroviral drugs.
The US and British governments funnel huge sums into Nigeria for Aids and HIV outreach. The US, under the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, has given an average of $308m (£197m) a year to groups working in HIV prevention, treatment, and support, according to the US Consulate in Lagos.
Britain spends an average of £19.9m a year on HIV/Aids programmes in Nigeria, the Abuja office of the Department for International Development, funding which local partners spend on projects for gay and straight people. Heterosexual sex accounts for 80% of HIV transmissions in Nigeria, the National Agency for the Control of Aids reported recently.
David Cameron recently threatened to cut British aid to countries that discriminate against gays and lesbians. Both the US and UK governments say they are watching the Nigerian bill closely, but declined to comment on how it may affect their outreach.
President Goodluck Jonathan promised the UN general assembly in June that his administration was "committing to increase national ownership of HIV and Aids responses" and to make those responses inclusive. Six months later, little has changed.
The health minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, said the bill outlawing gay groups would not affect state-funded HIV and Aids programmes. The health ministry has no programmes specifically targeting these communities, said spokeswoman Rekia Zubairu.
Rights groups say the politicians’ resolve to pass the bill reflects widespread homophobia in Nigeria, but also shows their disconnect from working-class Nigerians, regardless of 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 organizer Dorothy Akenova said. "The majority of Nigerians are the ones who will suffer for it."
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