Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nigeria's Anti-Gay Law and Our Political Leadership

The best policy-making is often a study in political leadership. 

In 1986, the UK government under Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher embarked on a national policy that raised a fair amount of opprobrium in a lot of quarters – its needle exchange program to provide access for injection drug users to clean needles.

A needle exchange program basically provides access to sterile syringes and other injecting equipment to reduce the risk of transfer of diseases by blood. Injection drug users are a high-risk population for such diseases as HIV/Aids, Hepatitis C, and other STDs. Public health experts who specialize in epidemiology of HIV/Aids would tell you that two highest risk groups for the illness are Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSMs) and injection drug users. At the time the law was program took effect, the UK was seeing a surge of new infections from drug users.  This needle exchange program was combined with aggressive safe sex education supported by Thatcher’s government, and today the consensus is that it worked. The current UK HIV/Aids prevalence rate from injection drug-users in the UK is 0.14%. Now, only 2% of new infections in Britain come from shared needles.

I never did know PM Thatcher personally, but I am quite sure that her support for this law had precious little to do with her inclination for drug usage. No one can say that needle exchange programs are not without its problems or that HIV/Aids dropped down to zero thanks to the silver bullet of the needle exchange program. After all, the cumulative number of new HIV diagnoses did double between 1987 and 1990, and peaked in 1999. The point is that her support for this program was grounded in the reports on the epidemiology of HIV/Aids that showed that, in addition to unprotected sex, drug use was a major cause of the spread of HIV. Her policy-making with regards to this public health issue was grounded in pragmatism, not emotion. It entailed listening to experts, taking on politically difficult solutions, and demonstrating leadership on them.

Pres. Jonathan is getting a lot of plaudits in the country for his signing of the anti-gay law, but I think these Nigerians are only seeing this as a moral issue, and not considering it in all its ramifications. Anyone who has bothered to cast a glance at the major public health issues ravaging the country would see the measure as the President’s display of a staggering ignorance of the facts and a refusal to take on the most important matters that face us today. As it stands, MSMs have the highest HIV/Aids prevalence rate for HIV/Aids after sex workers, and only around half of MSMs ever test for STDs. In the Nigerian mega-city of Lagos, the HIV/Aids prevalence rate among MSMs was 25% as of 2007. Lest we forget, a lot of these MSMs have sex with women as well, and are often even married to women. Ignoring an at-risk population is how diseases spread.

We are still not sure of what version of the anti-gay bill Pres. Jonathan signed two days ago, but from the early reports we can already see that this law will drive MSMs even further into the margins and render them harder to help. Also, the law’s attack on freedom of association in contravention to Chapter 4 (S. 40) of the Nigerian constitution would also make life harder for civil society groups to actively seek them out. And I do hope the law, when we do get a look at what was signed by the President, goes into a far more detail on what exactly constitutes a “public show of same-sex affection”, because that particular provision can be misread and abused in amazing ways. Does this mean that two men can't hold hands, as is currently socially acceptable in Nigeria? Does this mean that sisters at the airport can't hug? Short of seeing two men or two women kissing passionately in the corner of a bar, how does same-sex affection differ from, well, affection? 

It is easy to say “Oh, GEJ is wasting everyone’s time with this gay issue, and could have been signing more useful bills into law,” but I’m taking this on because real lives are at stake here. People have already been arrested for being gay just a day after the law was passed, and they would be thrown into prisons where they would be at even greater risk of STDs. Just as not simply throwing drug users in jail was not a condoning of drug-use under PM Thatcher, likewise dealing with the special risk that MSMs face and thus attending to an urgent public health issue need not be read as a call to morality. It is the job of the leadership of this country to be the Explainer-in-Chief, leading on difficult issues and guiding the nation aright while recognizing the plurality and diversity in the country of which he leads.

The passage of this law is a failure of leadership in more ways than even we realize.

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