Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill into law earlier this month which sets the sentence to up to 14 years imprisonment for participants in homosexual relationships.
BBC News notes that in addition to the harsh sentences for offenders caught in the act, the new law recommends prison sentences of up to 10 years for anyone who participates in organizations for the non-heterosexual community and for same-sex couples who publicly show affection.
"Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations [sic] or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence [sic] and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years in prison," the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act states.
No public announcement was made for the move, which the Telegraph notes was signed into law secretly by Nigeria’s House of Representatives in Abuja on December 17 and by the president on January 7.
Dozens have already been arrested as a result of the bill. Dorothy Aken’Ova of Nigeria’s International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights told the British news outlet that police in Bauchi state have drawn up a list of 168 allegedly gay men; at least 38 have already been taken into custody.
Activists speaking to BBC expressed concern that life would also become difficult for those trying to help the gay community. According to one official, HIV testing and treatment for homosexual men had stopped, and outlawing the relationships had made assisting those affected difficult.
The move has drawn international criticism, especially from the West.
“We call on Nigeria to repeal this law and to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Nigerians regardless of their sexual orientation,” Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Monday in a release.
“Canada has clearly spoken out against human rights violations committed against people on the basis of their sexuality, and we will continue to do so.”
The US agreed. “People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality. No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love,” US Secretary of State John Kerry stated.
Dr. Heather Collister of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), based in Geneva, said in a statement that the law “was manifestly incompatible with international human rights standards and must be repealed" and that it "criminalizes" the work of supporters and activists for the gay community.
Nigerian officials, for their part, claim the law is supported by the will of the Nigerian people.
“More than 90% of Nigerians are opposed to same sex marriage. So, the law is in line with our cultural and religious beliefs as a people,” Nigerian President Reuben Abati stated.