Law enforcement authorities in Nigeria are using the country’s same-sex prohibition law to target the LGBTQ+ community while ignoring abuses against them, rights groups and lawyers say, in the wake of fresh mass arrests of gay people.
Nigeria is one of more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries where homosexuality is criminalized in laws that are broadly supported by the public, even though the constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination, and the right to private and family life.
Mass arrests and detention of queer Nigerians that continued this week were done without proper investigations and could further expose them to danger amid the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in Africa’s most populous country, rights groups said.
The country’s paramilitary agency on Monday announced the arrest of more than 70 young people – 59 men and 17 women – in the northern Gombe state, accusing them of “holding homosexual birthdays” and having “the intention to hold a same-sex marriage.”
Following a similar detention of more than 60 people at what the police called a gay wedding in the southern Delta state in August, the arrests show “an uptick in this trend of witchhunt and gross violation of human rights” of the individuals, Isa Sanusi, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, told The Associated Press.
The arrests also suggest states are emulating one another “to get accolades” under the law, according to Anietie Ewang, Nigerian researcher with the Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. She said concerns highlighted by the organization in a 2016 report — about the abuse and stigma that gay people face in Nigeria — have remained.
Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2013, which has been condemned internationally but is supported by many in the country of more than 210 million people, punishes gay marriage with up to 14 years in prison and has forced many Nigerian gays to flee the country, according to human rights activists.
Arrests under the law have been common since it came into effect but the largest mass detentions yet have been in recent weeks in which some of the suspects were falsely accused and subjected to inhumane conditions, according to lawyers and rights groups.
After dozens were arrested at what the police called a gay wedding in a Delta state hotel, the suspects were paraded in front of cameras in a live social media broadcast despite a ruling by a Nigerian high court last year that pretrial media parades violate the nation’s constitution.
One of those paraded said he was at the hotel for another engagement. Another suspect said he does not identify as a gay individual and was arrested while on his way to a fashion show.
In Gombe, where the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) said its personnel arrested people who “intended” to organize a gay wedding, the prime suspect identified as Bashir Sani denied the allegation.
“There was no wedding, only birthday,” he said in a broadcast aired by local media.
Among those arrested were the photographer and the disc jockey at the event, Ochuko Ohimor, the suspects’ lawyer, told The Associated Press.