Yara Blog


Wednesday, February 26th, 2014  


The best things in life are free but jailing gays isn’t one of them. It costs money to send people to prison, even homosexuals. In 2011, when the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was just a bill before the House of Representatives, I accused its sponsors of seeking to impose the religious views and beliefs of a Moslem and Christian majority of Nigerians upon a homosexual minority. The moral, cultural and religious justifications for the Act are questionable. The argument that homosexuality is a western import and alien to our culture is undermined by the inconvenient fact that Christianity itself is alien to our culture and is a western import that only really began to become established in Nigeria in 1842, a mere 170 years ago. Islam has been in parts of Nigeria for centuries, but it too was imported.

The ramifications of the passage of the Act are more than a little troubling. The Act not only prohibits same sex marriage, which it defines to include any agreement by people of the same gender to live together as sex partners, it also prohibits direct or indirect public amorous displays of same-sex relationship, an offence so vague that it could apply to merely holding hands in public. For good measure, the Act then revokes the constitutionally protected rights to privacy and family life, freedom of association and freedom of speech as far as homosexuals and homosexuality are concerned. The unintended consequences of the Act are troubling. Upon ‘reasonable suspicion’ or a conveniently anonymous tip, a policeman can show up at your door to investigate your private sexual behaviour or your domestic circumstances. What goes on in the privacy of our homes and bedrooms is now a valid subject of legal inquiry.


The Act creates a new class of criminals: homosexuals and their sympathisers and abettors. Homosexual self-identification occurs relatively infrequently compared to the much higher prevalence of homosexual behaviour. Many people do not identify as homosexual despite engaging in a pattern of homosexual behaviour. This makes the demographics of homosexuality difficult to pin down but various studies provide a conservative estimate of 3.5% of the population as likely to self-identify as homosexual. This means that there are approximately 6 million Nigerians who are at risk of falling foul of this law. Consequently, thousands of people will inevitably find their way into our criminal justice system and into our prisons. There are no winners here.

Incarceration is expensive in monetary terms as well as in the hidden social cost of removing productive and healthy individuals from society and placing them in prison where they cannot be breadwinners for their families or contribute to economic activity. Also, our prisons are currently ‘overbooked’. The Nigerian prisons system is made up of 227 prisons (83 satellite prisons, 1 open prison camp, 3 borstal institutions, 140 convict prisons and 11 mechanized farm centres) with an installed capacity of 43,915 beds. As at December 2007 there were 42,030 inmates in custody, 28,500 (68%) of whom were awaiting trial. Only 13,530 of the inmates in all of the prisons in the country had actually been convicted of the crime for which they were being held. The prison population as of August 2013 was 54,144. In some prisons, particularly in urban centers, the awaiting trial inmates are as high as 95% of the total inmate population. In Owerri prison, only 30 of the 1,051 inmates are convicts. In Ikoyi prison, the figure is 66 out of 1,760, and in Port Harcourt prison, it is 200 out of 2,600 inmates. There are so many inmates awaiting trial because the criminal justice is slow and inefficient (Nigeria has a dreadful conviction rate of 12 convictions in 40,000 prosecutions per annum) because of the judicial practice of remanding persons who are presumed innocent into prison custody, sometimes for years, without trial.


Space isn’t the only problem. Feeding all these new prisoners will cost money. In 2013, the government spent N5.205 billion feeding prison inmates (the average cost of feeding each prisoner is N200 a day and N73,000 a year, respectively). The budgetary provision for feeding prisoners in the 2014 budget is N5.585 billion. Either someone forgot to prepare for the arrival of their new ‘guests’ or intends for them to go hungry in prison. There is no provision in the 2014 budget to cover the cost of the additional facilities and resources required to accommodate the likely surge in the prison population as offenders begin to enter the criminal justice system. It will cost over N1m just to feed each individual prisoner sentenced to a term of 14 years (not counting the number of years spent awaiting trial). Feeding the thousands of likely new offenders will cost billions of Naira in addition to the sums already provided to feed prisoners. Further billions of Naira will have to be spent on expanding prison facilities to accommodate the inmates. The financial resources that will be required to fund this expansion may have otherwise ended up in some corrupt public servant’s personal bank account but there’s a chance it may also have been available to be spent on building schools and roads, providing water and electricity to communities, or any of the positive things a government could be doing if it wasn’t busy wasting time and money on trials and jails for people whose sex lives we disapprove of.


The mass persecution, arrest and incarceration of thousands of productive, non-violent people is not only damaging to the unfortunate victims, it deprives families of loved-ones and breadwinners, denies society the benefit of the productivity of those people whom we have incarcerated, and congests our prisons with non-violent offenders who will be no less homosexual while forced into confinement in close quarters with other people of the same gender (including other homosexuals). The Act has the support of an apparent majority of Nigerians, including religious leaders, like Mathew Hassan Kukah, the Nigerian Bar Association, and even the Civil Liberties Organization. That’s a shame. We can do better things with our time and money.


Olatoye Akinbode

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