Campaigner: Religion is behind homophobic persecution in Africa
Originally published in Digital Journal
One of Africa’s best-known human-rights activists says religion is very much behind Nigeria’s recent outlawing of same-sex unions, which could mean a 14-year jail term for anyone convicted of entering into a gay marriage contract.
Also, according to a report in Nigeria’s Vanguard: “Those who abet or aid such unions could receive 10 years, as would ‘any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations’ – a provision that seems to target gay advocacy groups as well.”
The new legislation also nullifies any certificates of same-sex marriage enacted outside Nigeria.
The Nigerian Senate’s bill has brought howls of protest from various parts of the world, including the US government, which this month expressed its concern over the Draconian legislation.
Leo Igwe, who was until recently the representative for Western and Southern Africa for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU),said in an article in Pink Humanist that faith – both Christian and Islamic, which dominates in the north – often trumps human rights.
Speaking today to Digital Journal, Igwe – who formed the Nigerian Humanist Movement in the 1990s – expanded on that view.
“Anybody who doubts it should take a look at the reasons proffered by the senators and other members of the public in support of the bill,” he told me. “The president of the Senate said, ‘My faith as a Christian abhors [same-sex marriage].’ The Anglican Communion, the Catholic and other Christian faith groups have spoken out in support of the bill.
“Under [Islamic] sharia law, homosexuality is an offence punishable by death. So same-sex marriage is haram [forbidden]. And Muslim leaders have openly called for the execution of gays in Nigeria.
“And an islamic scholar said this in support of the bill: ‘Homosexuality and lesbianism are just too dirty in the sight of Allah. Those who engage in them deserve more than capital punishment. When they are killed, their corpse should also be mistreated.’ Just imagine that.”
In Africa as a whole, religion, says Igwe, is to blame for persecution of gay people.
“I would say religion is behind most, not all, of the homophobia coming out of Africa. Religion permeates all aspects of mainstream social, moral and cultural thought. Most homophobes use religion as a basis, as a justification of their hatred and antagonism. I have also encountered non-religious Africans who are homophobic and they base their homophobia on what they claim to be the unnaturality of homosexuality.”
Igwe – a confirmed atheist – said his unbelief was not a result of the homophobia often demonstrated by various religions.
“My atheism has to do with my own idea about God. Religious objection to gays and gay lifestyles does not really harden my resolve as an atheist – someone else could interprete it so – but rather justifies what I call the moral poverty or deficiency of religion. Claims to divinity, dogma and ‘eternal truths and norms’, supposedly revealed centuries ago and codified in conflicting and contradictory holy books, make religion unfit for humanity in this 21st century.”
And he calls for the application of reason.
“Strictly speaking, religion is an improper moral guide for humans in the contemporary world. Reason must be vigorously applied to save the world from religious conflagration.
“Religious fanaticism is the consequence of religion insisting to be relevant and, to service as a moral guide it has lost touch, relevance and credentials to lead and guide humanity.”
Igwe has also campaigned against accusations by Christians of witchcraft, and has put himself in physical danger in so doing.
“Campaigning against homophobia is a dangerous undertaking. But that is not the only dangerous campaign I lead. I also campaign against superstiton-related human-rights violations: against the abuse of women and children in the name of witchcraft.
“And in the course of my campaigns I have been attacked and beaten up by thugs, arrested and detained by corrupt and criminally minded police officers. I have recieved threats, harassment, intimidation and sometimes blackmail from state and non-state agents. My family members have been targeted too.
“But I don’t think that these important campaigns can be prosecuted without risks, without paying a price, without endangering one’s life.
“The Enlightenment that many people often refer to in Europe came at a price, and some people paid it. That of Africa will come at a price, and some people will pay it. And, if what is happening to me today is a price for African Enlightenment, then I am glad to pay it.
“I mean, enough of this darkness!”
Of the Nigerian Senate’s anti-gay-unions legislation, Igwe says he felt anger, disappointment and shame.
“I was angry because I knew that this bill was not what my country needed at this time in its history. The bill was totally unnecessary and uncalled for.
“I could not understand why the Nigerian senators in their ‘wisdom’ thought that a bill against same-sex marriage was a national priority, and not a bill to improve security, tackle [the Islamic group] Boko Haram and islamic terrorism, bring an end to the crisis and cycle of violence in [the city of] Jos, improve the nation’s infrastructure and power supply, alleviate poverty, improve healthcare and the school system, tackle unemployment – in fact make Nigeria ‘work’.
Homophobia as state policy
“I felt disappointed because, unlike in the last two attempts to pass this bill, Nigerian lawmakers betrayed the ideals of democracy and human rights. They missed an opportunity to pitch their tent with civilized values and put the country on the map of social, moral and cultural progress.
“I felt ashamed that Nigerian senators could unanimously vote to make homophobia a state policy, and to legitimize persecution and discrimination against sexual minorities.”
Pink Humanist quotes IHEU’s president, Sonja Eggerickx, as being full of praise for Igwe’s work. When he stepped down as the organization’s representative, Eggerickx said: “Humanists will miss Leo’s work in Africa, and Africa will miss Leo’s work for humanism. He has been a true champion of humanism, even risking his life to save the victims of religious abuse.
“I’ve lost count of the times he has taken a stand for humanism, only to be paid back with arrests and beatings. We have never been able to thank him enough for his inspiring leadership and courage, but perhaps his best reward is to know that his work will continue in the form of dozens of activist humanist groups across Africa who have been inspired by his wonderful work.”
Pink Humanist’s article goes on:
Since he started working for IHEU, Igwe has greatly boosted the presence, visibility, and influence of Humanism in Africa. His work to start new Humanist organisations, and to nurture and strengthen fledgling groups, has helped the growth of organised Humanism in Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Gambia, Senegal, Benin, and Ghana.
His articles and activities are frequently featured in newspapers in Nigeria and across Africa. And his work combating witch hunts, especially in Nigeria and Malawi, has been featured on TV and radio in Europe and as far afield as Australia and North America.
On several occasions, Igwe has personally saved children who have been beaten, raped and faced death because they have been accused of witchcraft. It is to build on his work to combat witch hunts that Igwe decided to move to the University of Bayreuth in Germany in October, 2011.
In sponsoring the Bill for an Act to Prohibit Marriage Between Persons of Same Gender, Solemnization of Same and for Other Matters Related Therewith earlier this year, Senator Domingo Obende said that there was growing approval of same-sex marriage in some countries, but Nigeria should act quickly to prevent it from taking root there.
“Same-sex marriage cannot be allowed on moral and religious grounds,” he said. “The Muslim religion forbids it, Christianity forbids it, and the African traditional religion forbids it. It should not be allowed because it will lead to a breakdown of the society.”