Nigeria's Senate voted Tuesday to criminalize gay marriage, gay advocacy groups and same-sex public displays of affection, the latest legislation targeting a minority already facing discrimination in Africa's most populous nation.
The bill, now much more wide-ranging than its initial draft, must be passed by Nigeria's House of Representatives and signed by President Goodluck Jonathan before becoming law. However, public opinion and lawmakers' calls Tuesday for even harsher penalties show the widespread support for the measure in the deeply religious nation.
"Such elements in society should be killed," said Sen. Baba-Ahmed Yusuf Datti of the opposition party Congress for Progressive Change, drawing some murmurs of support from the gallery.
Gay sex has been banned in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people, since colonial rule by the British. Gays and lesbians face open discrimination and abuse in a country divided by Christians and Muslims who almost uniformly oppose homosexuality. In the areas in Nigeria's north where Islamic Shariah law has been enforced for about a decade, gays and lesbians can face death by stoning.
Under the proposed law, couples who marry could face up to 14 years each in prison. Witnesses or anyone who helps couples marry could be sentenced to 10 years behind bars. That's an increase over the bill's initial penalties, which lawmakers proposed during a debate Tuesday televised live from the National Assembly in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
Other additions to the bill include making it illegal to register gay clubs or organizations, as well as criminalizing the "public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly." Those who violate those laws would face 10-year imprisonment as well.
The increased penalties immediately drew criticism from human rights observers.
"The bill will expand Nigeria's already draconian punishments for consensual same-sex conduct and set a precedent that would threaten all Nigerians' rights to privacy, equality, free expression, association and to be free from discrimination," said Erwin van der Borght, the director of Amnesty International's Africa program.
Yet across the African continent, many countries already have made homosexuality punishable by jail sentences. Ugandan legislators introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians, though it has not been passed into law two years later. Even in South Africa, the one country where gays can marry, lesbians have been brutally attacked and murdered.
Nigeria's proposed law has drawn the interest of European Union countries, some of which already offer Nigeria's sexual minorities asylum based on gender identity. The British government recently threatened to cut aid to African countries that violate the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. However, British aid remains quite small in oil-rich Nigeria, one of the top crude suppliers to the U.S.