Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his daftly pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from flickr.com

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from flickr.com

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.

Foreign_prisoners_UK_jails_v2

Graph from FullFact.org

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/slavery/resource12c.htm. Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

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Nigeria: Screwing the nation

Nigeria has seen the first successful blow struck against neoliberalism in the New Year. After a week of massive nationwide protests met the removal of a key fuel subsidy for consumers, President Goodluck Jonathan backed down — a bit.  He reinstated the subsidy partially. That, together with reportedly massive payoffs to union leaders, persuaded labor to cancel the strike.

Lagarde in Abuja, with President Jonathan (L) and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (R)

The compromise was far from perfect. Dropping the subsidy initially more than doubled the price of gasoline, from (US) $0.40 to 0.88 per liter; now the price is teetering at around $0.66. The settlement outraged considerable parts of the protest coalition, including students, who remain committed to opposing neoliberal policies.  There’s considerable suspicion in Nigeria that the IMF and World Bank were behind the attempt to scrap the subsidy; IMF head Christine Lagarde visited Abuja in December, allegedly to congratulate Jonathan on his “reform” and anti-corruption initiatives, but more likely to set the terms for allegedly-indigenous structural adjustment efforts. Few believe the government’s retreat means the proposal is in permanent abeyance. Still, a half-victory is a victory. Jonathan, who announced the subsidy removal in a speech declaring, “Let me seize this opportunity to assure all Nigerians that I feel the pains that you all feel,” was made to feel rather more pain than he had banked on.  And even the Financial Times acknowledged that for the subsidy’s “removal to be tolerated” in future, “poverty must be alleviated in other ways.”

Attention immediately shifted to the horrific violence inflicted by the Islamist group Boko Haram on northern Nigeria, including coordinated bombings and shootings in Kano on January 20 that killed almost 200 people in one day. Zach Warner, in ThinkAfrica Press, has a fascinating analysis of the group’s rise. He admits that “Communal violence has been a constant for the last three decades, while the mobilisation of faith-based political identities has been a defining feature of Northern Nigeria for centuries.”  But in recent decades, Nigeria’s central government has eviscerated traditional Islamic hierarchies and power structures in the North, thinking it was eliminating a base for separatism. At the same time, a shift from Northern-based military leadership to democratically elected governments with their roots in the South has starved the region of resource allocation. The result has been spreading poverty, particularly among the young:

Thus, by the time of … the restoration of civilian rule, centuries-old social and political hierarchies of Islamic power had been completely smashed. Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the only viable leader of the Fourth Republic, engendering a massive power shift to the south after decades of predominantly northern military rule. Elite Muslims were sent reeling; the Sultan [of Sokoto, still the ostensible religious leader of Nigeria’s Muslims] could hardly show his face throughout the region.

Amid such social confusion, young Muslim men again tried to assume their place at the helm of the north. From late 1999 to 2002, twelve states expanded Sharia (Islamic law). Reacting to what they perceived as endemic corruption and moral decay, this crop of younger politicians enunciated a wish to return to Islamic governance outside the strict confines of the emirate structures which they felt were complicit in failed governments and national decline. As John Paden wrote in 2002, the sum effect was a split in Islamic solidarity and “significant confrontations between anti-establishment groups and northern Muslim elites, which in turn, [sic] are causing these elites to reconsider how to strengthen their own politico-religious credentials”.

The resulting alienation is fertile ground for insurgencies.

John Campbell (a former US ambassador) argues that, religion aside, Boko Haram bears conspicuous similarities to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which sponsored campaigns of kidnapping and bombing that kept the country’s oil-producing areas on edge from 2006 to 2010.   Both are symptoms of a disintegrating rentier state, which lives off the oil revenues it appropriates from a single region of the country, but has never tried to redistribute them evenly or fairly—either among the country’s geographic divisions, or among its social classes.  The subsidy protests and the Kano bombings reveal the same rot.

The massive unrest has drawn the public’s eye away from the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill,” a sweeping proposal that would criminalize most aspects of lesbian and gay people’s lives.   At some point soon, though, Goodluck Jonathan will have to decide whether to sign it.  The recent tumult reveals the underlying motives behind the law—a classic distraction, to unify fissiparous sects and interests around a common bogeyman, and turn disputes away from raw social reality toward imaginary demons.

Seun Anikulapo-Kuti: Don't fuck with the Nation

LGBT rights activists joined the popular protests to retain the fuel subsidy.  They took heart from reports that Seun Kuti (popular musician and son of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti)  shouted at a Lagos rally against the move:  “When two men fuck each other, it is better than one man fucking the Nation as a whole.”  It’s hard for political commentary to top that (as it were).   However, I also like the remark of my friend Dorothy Aken’Ova, of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, INCRESE: “Nigerians now know what is [really] evil.” One can hope.

Poverty, repression, resistance: Nigeria to Hungary

Romanian demonstrator: The world has mouths to feed

The first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution comes in ten days.   Cairo is suffering an inexplicable gas shortage: perhaps to turn the screws before the expected demonstrations, perhaps just a random thrombosis in a sclerotic economy up to one third of which may be in the greedy hands of  the generals who now run the country.

But you think the Egyptians have it bad? Yesterday, the world economy suffered another shock, with the credit ratings of nine European nations slashed and Greece pushed closer to default.

Even as austerity spreads and militarized police clamp down, though, resistance continues. Here are few scenes from around a still-rebellious world.

In Nigeria, nationwide strikes are due to resume tomorrow in protest against the removal of a key oil subsidy.

Tens of thousands took to the streets for strikes over five successive days last week in protest against the sudden removal of a fuel subsidy on Jan. 1 that more than doubled the pump price of petrol to 150 naira ($0.93) per litre from 65 naira.

“We are suffering,” shouted Paul Edem, after queueing for 12 hours to buy petrol at the new higher price in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. The only alternative to queueing is to buy at three times the new price from touts selling from jerry cans.

Socialist Worker adds:

For decades, the program has helped control the price of transportation and electricity in a country where two-thirds of the population–or about 104 million people–live on less than $1.25 per day. ..

The end of the fuel subsidy will increase the cost of nearly every aspect of life in Nigeria. Communal transport fares have already increased, and the price of food and other basic necessities is expected to soon rise, too. One Nigerian writer pointed out that a sachet of drinkable water, a product many Nigerians rely on, has already doubled in price where he lives.

The subsidy’s removal, absurd on the face of it in the world’s sixth largest oil producer, is part of a “privatization and austerity” plan promoted by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. The austerity plan’s essence is to reserve more Nigerian commodities for foreign markets.

During the past decade, both the Bush and Obama administrations have funded and supported the increasing militarization of Nigeria. American companies and the U.S. government have a massive stake in Nigeria–44 percent of the oil extracted from the country goes to the U.S.. The U.S. imports more oil from Africa than from the Middle East, and Nigeria alone supplies 8 percent of the crude oil imported into the U.S.

And the combined result of export dependence and militarization is murder:

In multiple Nigerian cities, security forces responded to the protests with violence. In Kano, police shot more than a dozen people on Monday. At least three protesters in Kano and Lagos died from either gunshot wounds or tear gas on the first day of the strike, prompting unions to call off public demonstrations in Kano on Tuesday, while maintaining the strike call.

Bucharest protester: "Down with Băsescu's dictatorship"Romania saw its fourth day of violent protests against government austerity plans, with 1000 demonstrators clashing with police and blocking a boulevard. They started Thursday, after a health ministry official resigned to protest government cutbacks in health care. President Traian Băsescu retracted the cuts the following day, but the rage only mounted. The protests, says the AP,

are the result of frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes, cronyism in state institutions and widespread corruption.

Protesters yelled “The Mafioso government stole everything we had!” and “Get out you miserable dog!” — a popular expression of contempt used to refer to Băsescu. Protesters roamed through the center of the capital, and Mayor Sorin Oprescu called on them to refrain from acts of violence. Antena 3 TV reported that shops in the vicinity of the protest were vandalized.

“We are here to protest, we cannot face it any more, we have no money to survive, our pensions are so small, the expenses are more than we can afford. It’s no way to live,” said a protester who would only identify himself as Sorin. Thirteen people needed medical treatment, said Bogdan Opriţa, who heads emergency services in Bucharest.

Saudi Arabia has seen a revival of protest in the perennially disadvantaged and policed Eastern Province — where a large population of disenfranchised Shi’a sit atop the kingdom’s oil. Open Democracy says,

While western powers have been happy to use Saudi Arabia as an ally to ratchet up the pressure on Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, [they have] not caught a whiff of the silent crackdown occurring within the kingdom. …

Today, while attention was focused on the Strait of Hormuz, on Syria, and on the rising tensions in Bahrain, Saudi security forces launched an assault on the city of Awamiyah killing at least one and wounding half a dozen more. Eye witnesses have stated that soldiers on trucks opened fire on demonstrators, hitting many as they fled. The attack bears all the hallmarks of a planned operation with electricity being cut to the area prior to the assault. The area at the time of writing is apparently still under military lock-down and reflects a state of siege with clashes continuing to occur and gunfire being heard.

This attack was almost certainly condoned by the royal family and comes on the heels of a series of indictments against demonstrators and high profile invectives against the protest movement. Despite this attack and others like it, the rumblings and tremors of protest and crackdown show no sign of abatement. Indeed in the past few months they have once again reared their head in the south west in Najran and Jazan, compounded with protests over women’s rights in Riyadh and Buraydah.

But the resistance to the resistance, the defense of the awfulness of things as they are, is immensely powerful. There is one excellent, dangerously exemplary instance of counter-revolutionary success. Hungary’s ruling party, the ever more far-right and more authoritarian Fidesz, steadily manipulates chauvinism and racism to keep a critical mass of its public distracted from a struggling economy.

He paid youths to attend his speech and clap. He championed laws to silence critical journalists. He rammed through a constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who made his name protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, is now confronting protesters chanting “Viktator!’’

I can barely stomach Bernard-Henri Lévy — every time someone calls him a “philosopher,” Socrates’ mouldering bones must grope for more hemlock — but he writes about Orbán’s loathing of democracy in terms that, for once, seem hardly overblown:

Among its nations, Europe is banishing Greece for failing — it’s true, big time — to fulfill the rules of good economic and financial governance. …

Well, today there exists in the heart of Europe a country whose government gags the media, is dismantling the health and social protection systems, challenges rights once considered acquired, such as that to an abortion, and criminalizes the poor.

There is a country that has revived the most obtuse chauvinism, the most worn-out populism, and the hatred of Tsiganes [sic] and Jews, transforming the latter in an increasingly open manner into scapegoats for any and all misfortune, much as they were in the darkest hours of the history of the continent.

Lévy  concludes, ominously:

In the Internet age, under the new regime where, for better or for worse, “social network” politics reign supreme, in this hour in which everyone communicates with everyone and where a Marine Le Pen can be linked, by a taut thread, to an extremist leader in Thuringia, Flanders, Northern Italy or, thus, to a Viktor Orban, it is not inconceivable that an increasing number of individuals in Europe perceive in this Hungarian laboratory the actualization of their less and less secret plan: undo Europe, get rid of it and, at the same time, get rid of a corset of democratic rules judged, as during the 1930s, unsuitable in times of crisis.

Growing pains: More on British aid

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg with the Queen

Kirk Cameron, the former child star and British Prime Minister, has threatened developing countries with dire consequences if they do not eliminate the sodomy laws that his distant ancestor Alan Thicke brought in his hand baggage on Qantas. Trapped in a loveless civil union with coalition partner and former rapper Marky Mark, Cameron made the move to bolster falling poll ratings among key fans. Possible sanctions include plagues of boils, locusts, and frogs, conversion of first-born children to child stars, and massive increases in agricultural development aid that would reduce the entire population to starvation. “These countries don’t want to be left behind,” Cameron said, referring to the popular series in which twelve contestants from all walks of life, stranded on a remote island in an exotic location after the Rapture, compete in tests of skill to keep God from throwing them into eternal damnation. “British aid should have more strings attached, in terms of do you persecute people for their faith or their Christianity, or do you persecute people for their sexuality.”

No. No. This is all wrong. It’s late; my mind isn’t working. Former child star David Cameron is the current British Prime Minister. Kirk Cameron, current child star and former Prime Minister, lives in Moldova, where he eats children in his converted castle on the Transylvanian border.

The silliness and posturing over Cameron I’s proclamation that he will tie overseas aid to LGBT rights issues has started. It is risible indeed, but it’s no laughing matter to the people whose rights will be affected.  An advisor to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC that Cameron had a “bullying mentality”:

“Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state and we are tired of being given these lectures by people … If they must take their money, so be it.  … But this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying: ‘You do this or I withdraw my aid’ will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children.”

The main political consequence? Repressive leaders and regressive initiatives now have a new excuse to couch themselves as anti-colonial assertions of independence. In Nigeria, where a new bill to restrict LGBT people’s rights is moving forward, a news source reports:

One of the backers of the same sex prohibition ban … told USAfricaonline.com that “Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron still think [sic] we are under his colonial rule. Let him keep his financial aid  and same sex agenda. Nonsense. He wants to run our country for us?”

And in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s supporters are wielding Cameron’s comments to undercut opposition leader (and Prime Minister) Morgan Tsvangirai, who recently voiced support for including sexual orientation protections in a new Constitution.

“It is possible that Morgan Tsvangirai could have been told by whites in the UK that part of their support to him would include him publicly supporting issues to do with gay rights in Zimbabwe. That could be the threat he was issued by the British and we all know that Tsvangirai has never been his own man,” said Mr Alexander Kanengoni [an author and former Mugabe propagandist who was allotted a farm in the violent land reforms ten years ago]. …

Zanu-PF spokesperson Cde Rugare Gumbo said it was clear that the British were pushing Mr Tsvangirai to support gay rights in Zimbabwe.  “There is a clear link between what Cameron said and what Tsvangirai is now advocating, and it is not surprising. They (MDC-T) [Tsvangirai’s party] are sponsored by the British and the West and they have to toe the line. Failure to do so would cost them British support,” he said.

It’s still not clear what Cameron’s initiative means in practice. When the UK cut back on aid to Malawi in July, after months of bluster about human rights, the reductions were limited to general budget support — a form of assistance that allows governments maximum flexibility in allocating the funds, “to deliver their own national strategies for poverty reduction against an agreed set of targets.”  Money shifted to other channels, and the overall donation figure didn’t change. But the scope of what will happen matters less than the publicity, which makes LGBT people’s human rights look like neocolonial meddling.  As a coalition of African activists wrote last week, their movements have

been working through a number of strategies to entrench LGBTI issues into broader  civil society issues, to shift the same-sex sexuality discourse from the morality debate to a human rights debate, and to build relationships with governments for greater protection of LGBTI people. These objectives cannot be met when donor countries threaten to withhold aid.

Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell has stormed into the fray, with a press release warning that

“The British government is wrong to threaten to cut aid to developing countries that abuse human rights. … Cuts in aid would penalise the poorest, most vulnerable people. Many are dependent on aid for basic needs like food, clean water, health care and education … Instead of cutting aid, Britain and other donor countries should divert their aid money from human rights abusing governments and redirect it to grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects that respect human rights and do not discriminate in their service provision.”

“I stand in solidarity” with the African activists’ statement, he proclaims. This is a welcome move. Tatchell, of course, has a long record of supporting aid conditionality. In a US speech in 2008, he said:

“We must urge the US State Department to make foreign aid and trade conditional on the recipient countries agreeing to respect human rights, including the human rights of LGBT people. Tyrannies should not be rewarded: No US aid for anti-gay regimes.”

And during the controversy in 2010 around a Malawi couple’s brutal imprisonment under a sodomy law (during which Tatchell’s self-publicizing made his white, British visage the possibly uncongenial face of homosexuality over a large swath of Africa), he urged cutting UK assistance: “If [diplomatic negotiation] fails the UK should reconsider its aid and trade agreements with Malawi. There can be no blank cheque for countries that violate human rights.”  But even mountains move: usually after an earthquake that brings down houses on their inhabitants.

However, redirecting aid “to grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects,” as Tatchell demands,  has its own problems. Such redirection is one of the strategies African activists urge on governments in their letter, but is hardly plausible for the full aid package. Some rights and needs — “food, clean water, health care and education” — are arguably the state’s proper business. To saddle NGOs with responsibility for the water supply is not much different from privatizing it: turning something that should be a general good over to particular, and perhaps partial, hands. And while civil society in some places has played important roles in providing health care and schooling the young, treaties and international law still make these core tasks of governing. There is no reason to think that NGOs, without the resources and experience of a state, can do an adequate job on their own. Redirection by itself echoes the neoliberal solutions of the 80s and 90s, practiced at home by Thatcher and Reagan and enforced abroad by the IMF and World Bank. Governments sloughed off responsibilities for their peoples’ welfare; civil society was told to pick up the slack. Advocates who had pushed for improved state action necessarily transformed themselves into exhausted, overburdened service providers. The poor, sick, uneducated and disenfranchised got more so.

Nor is it certain that rights-based and non-discriminatory service providers will be the ones to take advantage when aid to governments, and consequent state capacities, dwindle. It’s a truism that the growth of political Islamism in the post-70s Middle East came in the wake of lender-promoted government retrenchment. As welfare and services shrank, movements flush with Gulf oil money moved in to provide what the state once had, in older days. In the process, they built networks of gratitude, dependency, and political support.   In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, education is already as much the province of Christian churches as of the government. It would not much benefit LGBT people to promote policies to make it even more so.

All this means simply that the politics of aid are unsimple: complicated, full of unpredictable consequences, and fraught with both political and ethical concerns They are not susceptible to simplifying rhetoric. But rhetoric almost childlike in its simplicity is what the UK government is offering the domestic constituencies it strains to entice. Talk about growing pains! — but while British policy struggles to grow up, the pains will be felt in other, distant corners of the globe.

Nigeria: No marriage here, move along please

I was for it because I was against it: Nigeria's Senate President David Mark

A Nigerian Senate committee held hearings Monday on the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill.” This product of moral panic would provide criminal penalties for engaging in, solemnizing, or “aiding and abetting” a same-sex marriage — all quite unnecessary, since Nigeria’s colonial-era sodomy law already penalizes homosexual conduct sternly.

Nigeria’s politics often have a slightly mad quality. The hearing was no exception, since some participants seemed to have no idea what the bill was about, believing they were there to oppose a proposal for same-sex marriage, not support a ban against it. The Catholic Church mobilized in this addled fashion; Catholic Women of Nigeria (CWON) claimed it sent women from “36 states of the federation” who “converged in Abuja to march to the assembly.”

Speaking in a telephone interview, the CWON’s national president, Mrs. Felicia Onyaibo, said the women will this morning match to the National Assembly to hand in a letter of protest to the Senate President, David Mark, condemning the initiative, and urge him to discard such bill, as it is not in the interest of the nation and dignity of marriage.

“We are also extending invitation to the male counterparts to support us in this protest. They can join us in the protest today so that we can help fight this ill initiative, which is aimed at destroying marriage values and its dignity,” she said.

Other news stories lent credit to the same notion. But no one has offered a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Nigeria; no one in Nigeria has suggested it. Imaginative Christian soldiers, these souls are girding their loins and going off to war against a figment, a fiction, a ghost.  As a statement by bill opponents explained a month ago,

We as human rights defenders are aware that not a single gay group has asked for the right to marry. Our advocacy is not directed at that.  We are advocating for tolerance and respect for everyone irrespective of his or her sex, gender, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and gender identity, etc.

The spectral ability of same-sex marriage to induce a panic even in the absence of anyone proposing it has been repeatedly shown worldwide, and is worth deeper consideration. In this case, the bill would be largely a symbolic insult to the same-sex loving population, but one with practical ramifications — a bullying threat to public activism, and an affirmation that they have no place in Nigeria’s diverse array of communities and cultures.

Meanwhile, at Monday’s meeting of the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, opponents of the bill were given only two slots to speak, while proponents (that is, opponents of non-existent same-sex marriage) were given many more. The Senate President appeared at the hearing and “openly rejected the proposal for same sex marriage in the country,” which nobody proposed:

“It is incomprehensible to contemplate on same sex marriage. I cannot understand it. I cannot be a party to it. There are enough men and women to marry each other. The whole idea is the importation of foreign culture, but this one would be a freedom too many. We cannot allow our tradition and value system eroded.

“It is offensive. It is repugnant. I will preach against it and we must stand up to reject same sex marriages in Nigeria. I do not think any religion support this. I don’t know where this whole idea of same sex marriage comes from.”

The Daily Times notes that the “senate president’s disposition on the bill is a strong indication of its fate. It suggests that the bill, which has failed at two consecutive sessions in the House of Representatives, may finally be passed into law by the Senate.”  But the paper adds, “the little population of public homosexuals in Nigeria – with help from the international community – have been able to put up a strong resistance to the promulgation of any law directly against the act [of same-sex marriage].”

Aside from the question of international help, of which there’s been not so much, this is true. Activists in Nigeria managed to quash the early bill in 2006 -7 essentially on their own, by organizing, appearing at hearings, and speaking out when everybody believed they would be too intimidated to appear or to raise their voices. Courage to them as they face the same ruckus and rhodomontade for another round.

They’re back

Senator Domingo Alaba Obende, sponsor of the "anti-same-sex marriage" bill

It’s back: the Nigerian Senate has reintroduced a bill providing criminal penalties for engaging in, solemnizing, or “aiding and abetting” a same-sex marriage.  Never mind that Nigeria already has a sodomy law, surviving from British colonialism, which provides draconian penalties for any same-sex sexual activity.  If this bill passes, it’s going to be worse rather than better if you undertake sex under the penumbra of marriage. Go figure.

This is a slightly stripped-down version of an original bill brought forward by the then President in 2006, out of pure political opportunism. It was promoted in those days by Nigeria’s Anglican archbishop Peter Akinola, a US-supported right-winger trying to use the issue of homosexuality to bring about a church schism for his own opportunistic reasons. The proposal never attracted quite the international outrage that the only-slightly worse legislation in Uganda drew, perhaps because Nigeria in its vastness is simply too confusing a proposition for many Western activists. It was defeated then through the courage of Nigerian activists who fought it tooth and nail–including finding their way to the capital, Abuja, on 48 hours’ notice for a last-minute parliamentary hearing that had been scheduled deliberately to exclude them.

It’s going to take all their hard work to beat back the bill again this time. Send your moral or, if you’ve got any, material support to Nigeria’s International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights and the Initiative for Equal Rights, which will be spearheading the fight against this disastrous proposal.