Will Nigeria’s new president be better for gays?


Muhammadu Buhari, President-elect of Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari has become the first opposition leader to be democratically elected into power in Africa’s most populous nation. But will he be more accepting of LGBT equality than his predecessor?

The current president, Goodluck Jonathan, has certainly been no friend of the LGBT community.

In January last year, he signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which outlaws any kind of same-sex relationships with imprisonment, and criminalises anyone who supports or operates gay clubs, societies or organisations. Gay sex was already illegal in Nigeria, with penalties including 14 years imprisonment.

Buhari also has a poor record when it comes to human rights. He previously led Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, after taking power in a military coup. During his rule, public dissent was quashed, critics of his regime were jailed and freedom of the press was restricted.

In 2001, he stated that he supported the enactment of Sharia law in the entire country. (Twelve northern states in Nigeria currently operate under Islamic Sharia law that allows homosexuality to be punished with death by stoning.)

Buhari, however, now insists that he is a changed man. In February, he said in a speech: “I take responsibility for whatever happened under my watch. I cannot change the past but I can change the present and the future. So before you is a former military leader and converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms…”

Earlier this month, he promised to build a “country that is fair to all of its citizens; a country in which all individuals feel and know that they are valued members of society with constitutionally guaranteed rights; a country that respects human dignity, promotes human development, fosters human equality and advances human freedom.”

Buhari’s also pledged to respect freedom of religion, stating that “the duty of government is not religion but security for all Nigerians regardless of tribe or religion.”

Whether he believes that LGBT people are deserving of their human rights and equal treatment like every other citizen remains to be seen. Thus far, the signs are not promising.

In a desperate pre-election ploy to leverage anti-gay and anti-colonial sentiment in his favour, Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party recently accused Buhari of secretly plotting with Western nations to legalise same-sex marriage and homosexuality in order to secure their support.

The head of Buhari’s election campaign group, Olayemi Success, responded that: “There is no relationship between General Buhari and any western nation concerning gay marriage and such pervasive orientations that are not in conformity with our cultures and values.”

It’s not an encouraging statement.

It is now up to Buhari to show that he is indeed a democratic leader who is prepared to take Nigeria into the 21st century. That can’t truly happen without acknowledging and respecting the human rights of LGBT people.

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