President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a bill tightening the African nation's already tough sanctions against gays, prescribing a 14-year jail sentence for anyone marrying a person of their own gender, and ten years for offenses related to gay rights groups or expressions of gay affection.
Islamic religious police, known as the Hisbah, began detaining known and alleged gay men late last week, for trials which could legally result in sentences of death by stoning.
"It's an extremely horrible way to die," says Kenneth Williams of Amnesty International, "People have been known to suffer unspeakably gruesome injuries before finally expiring." The arrests, originally confined to the Islamic northern section of Nigeria, have now become nationwide, said Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, executive director of the International Center for Advocacy on Right to Health.
"The arrests are all over, it's not just in the north. Police are not telling us what the charges are, and people are scared."
"The key question is, who is calling for these arrests, and who, if anyone has the ability to stop them," said Andre Banks of the global gay rights organization All Out.
"Rarely do you see a bill executed with such efficiency." Banks noted that it wasn't just gay Nigerians who were in danger from the legislation. "anyone could be perceived to be gay." Amnesty International's Williams stated further, "It's a witch hunt. People will be denouncing individuals as gay, because of personal vendettas."
The United States, Great Britain, and other nations have condemned Nigeria's passage of the law, with Secretary of State John Kerry issuing a strongly worded statement rebuking the Jonathan government's actions. "This law dangerously restricts freedom of expression, association, and assembly for all Nigerians," Kerry wrote, adding in press conference that he would seek United Nations sanctions against the central African country in the Security Council next week.
Political observers say Jonathan, who faces general elections next year, signed the anti-gay law to shore up support among his country's religious groups, who had been recently leaning towards opposition candidates. Concerned that his grip on power was waning, the president "looked to this bill as a way of consolidating support, "said Williams.
Nigeria is the latest country to enact severely harsh anti-gay legislation. Russia passed a broadly-defined law prohibiting "gay propaganda" last summer, and that edict has become a controversial issue involving the Winter Olympic Games, set to begin in Sochi on February 7. India, the world's largest democracy, recriminalized homosexuality in December, and Cameroon has also bolstered enforcement of its anti-gay statures. 30 other African nations lave laws against homosexuality, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to execution.
LGBT rights activists at numerous organizations were said to be imploring President Obama to expedite political asylum for Nigeria's LGBT population, but the White House has so far declined comment on the matter.