The anti-gay legislation that was passed by the Nigerian Senate last month may cause the country millions of dollars in AIDS relief funding from western governments.
Nigeria has the second highest number of AIDS cases in Africa. The western African nation is the continent’s most populous country and exports massive quantities of crude oil from its vast reserves.
Despite the great economy with which Nigeria exports oil, experts say the country cannot afford to lose Western aid to fight the disease.
"There are about 400,000 people on anti-retrovirals in Nigeria at the moment and 95 percent of those are paid for by donor funds," Nigerian public health physician and health blogger Chikwe Ihekweazu told the AP.
The Senate passed a bill in November that would punish gay marriage by up to 14 years in prison, and penalize anyone aiding in gay activities – club owners, organizations, witnesses to marriage – by up to 10 years incarceration.
Nigeria is a deeply religious country, split in half between Muslims and Christians. In the Muslim north, where Shariah law is enforced, homosexuality is punishable by death.
Lawmakers see the bill as a step towards a more pure Africa.
“Homosexual and lesbian practices are considered offensive to public morality in Nigeria. (The) bill is crucial to our national development because it seeks to protect the traditional family, which is the fundamental unit of society, especially in our country,” wrote the influential Nigerian newspaper, This Day, in an editorial on Nov. 10.
Advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and ONE have said that the key to curing AIDS is removing the stigma associated with the disease that it affects only gays and sex workers.
According to the World Health Organization, the “overwhelming majority” of African AIDS infections are caused by unprotected heterosexual sex. A Gallup poll released last week found that 80 percent of Africans know how to prevent the disease but they either choose to ignore warnings or don’t have the resources to effectively reduce risk.
The link some Western governments see between homosexual rights and AIDS prevention may put many at risk.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron recently said he would cut aid to Nigeria if it continued to harass the homosexual community with prejudiced legislation. Both the U.S. and the U.K. said they were watching the bill’s movement closely.
Though it is true that the rate of HIV and AIDS infection is highest in the homosexual communities in some countries, more heterosexuals are infected with the disease overall.
By tying AIDS funding to the treatment of homosexual communities, Western governments risk leaving thousands of AIDS sufferers untreated, given that African countries that are outspoken against homosexuality (like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda and many more) are more likely to pass anti-gay legislation than they are to suspend such lawmaking and accept AIDS funding.
Linking homosexuality to AIDS is precisely the stigma advocacy groups are trying to eliminate.
Indicating that the Nigerian government is unlikely to explore the roots of that stigma, Senator Baba Dati told lawmakers during a debate that homosexuality has no place in Nigeria.
"Such elements in society should be killed," Dati said.
Unfortunately for thousands of AIDS sufferers, Western aid may be tied to African governments’ views on homosexuality.