Visit by former Nigerian president draws protest at Sacramento State

Director of Sac State center says Africa needs time to evolve gay marriage views

Ernest Uwazie, director of Sacramento State's Center for African Peace & Conflict Resolution, reacts to criticism over the planned appearance on campus Saturday of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who in 2014 signed a law prohibiting g
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Ernest Uwazie, director of Sacramento State's Center for African Peace & Conflict Resolution, reacts to criticism over the planned appearance on campus Saturday of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who in 2014 signed a law prohibiting g

Nigeria’s anti-gay law – which punishes not just gay marriage but public support of it – has drawn fire from Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen and others protesting the upcoming campus visit of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan, who signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014 into law after it was unanimously approved by the Nigerian Assembly, is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at Sacramento State’s 25th annual Africa Diaspora conference Saturday.

Jonathan peacefully left office after his party lost the 2015 elections, avoiding what many predicted would be a bloody civil war.

In an open letter to the Sacramento State campus, Nelsen said Jonathan was a “worthy example of peaceful transition of power.” But he went on to say that the former Nigerian president’s appearance on campus “will be extremely problematic for many members and allies of the LGBTQIA community, and it is extremely problematic for me.”

The acronym used by Nelsen reflects the current diversity of sexual identities recognized on many college campuses in the United States. It stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.

“It is difficult for me to understand how someone can stand for peace when it does not include the inherent human rights of safety and security in religion, partner, sex, race, ethnicity, creed and gender,” Nelsen said.

Nigeria’s law threatens with imprisonment not only those in gay relationships but anybody who supports them. It bans homosexual clubs, associations and organizations. Potential penalties include up to 14 years in prison, according to published reports.

Despite his personal objections to Nigeria’s law, Nelsen said, he is allowing Jonathan’s visit to go forward and hopes Sacramento State can be a catalyst for change by hosting a series of open conversations Saturday between Jonathan, his chief of staff Thierry Ngoufan and members of the greater community about Nigeria’s anti- LGBT law.

Ernest Uwazie, a Nigerian professor who directs Sacramento State’s Center for African Peace and Conflict Resolution, said he invited Jonathan for his groundbreaking work to promote peace, not just in Nigeria but in other African nations. In 2015, he said, “All indications were that Jonathan’s ruling party, the PDP, would not give up power,” Uwazie said.

He noted that Jonathan was the first sitting Nigerian president to be unseated at the ballot box, and his decision to concede allowed the country to have a democratic transition. “If that had not happened, Nigeria would still be on fire, and the whole continent would have felt the impact,” Uwazie said.

Jonathan is not anti-gay personally, Uwazie said, but faced impeachment if he did not sign the bill. Nigeria’s has 170 million people – divided equally between Muslims and Christians, he said. Both groups, he said, “united solidly in a moral panic” against same-sex relationships. Uwazie said anti-gay laws have existed in nearly every country in Africa dating back to the colonial era.

Jonathan is scheduled to speak Saturday evening at the Peace Awards Dinner held each year by the Center for African Peace and Resolution. Two of the men winning awards are a Nigerian pastor and imam who have worked to unify the country’s faith groups and counseled teenage girls who escaped the clutches of the Boko Haram terrorist group.

One of the award recipients, Pastor James Wuye, said Nigeria’s anti-gay law was inspired by public opposition to gay prostitutes linked to practitioners of voodoo. Nigerians are private about sex, and same-sex couples are safe as long as they keep their business private, said another recipient, Imam Muhammed Ashafa, who co-founded Nigeria’s Interfaith Mediation Center with Wuye. “Gay and lesbian couples have been around in every community, kingdom or religion since the beginning of time,” Ashafa said.

In January, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa attended his daughter’s same-sex wedding. But same-sex relations are still “considered un-African by traditional conservative Africans,” Ashafa said.

Chris Kent, program coordinator of Sacramento State’s Pride LGBTQ Center, said a protest by Sacramento-area LGBT leaders and supporters has been scheduled for Jonathan’s speech Saturday night. He praised Nelsen’s “thoughtful statement” and said an open dialogue at the speech “would be a very special learning opportunity.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

Peace Awards Dinner

Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, will give the keynote speech at the 25th Peace Awards Dinner and Dance at the Sac State Student Union 6:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday. For more information, go to