Rights groups and gay activists in Nigeria are speaking out on a bill that criminalizes gay unions under the guise of a gay marriage ban. Being gay is already illegal in the African nation.

The new law would punish gay and lesbian relationships with up to three years of imprisonment if the pair were caught living together. Gay allies are made into criminals as well; anyone who “witnesses, abet[s] and aids” a gay couple living together could face five years of imprisonment.

“The bill masquerades as a law on marriage, but in fact it violates the privacy of anyone even suspected of an intimate relationship with a person of the same sex,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It also threatens basic freedoms by punishing human rights defenders who speak out for unpopular causes.”

At a National Assembly committee hearing on the issue, gay activist and rights groups spoke out against the proposed bill, reports the BBC.

“This bill is not necessary, we see no reason why people should be criminalized,” Rashidi Williams, 21, of the Queer Alliance of Nigeria, said.

“I did not choose to be gay. It is trial enough to live in this country, we should not create more laws to make us suffer,” Williams added.

Lawmakers say the bill is needed to break the links between “sodomy” and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Nigeria remains in the grip of the HIV pandemic. It has the world's third-largest population of people living with AIDS, but research reveals that 80% of the infected are heterosexual.

Both the Anglican and Catholic church of Nigeria are backing the bill; they said gay marriage risks “tearing the fabric of society.”

“If you are not careful and allow the family institution to break down, and the consequences will be on all us,” Mayor Eze, the bill's sponsor in the House, said.

The bill is just the latest in a rash of anti-gay rhetoric that has been spilling out of Africa in recent years. Last week, up to 20,000 people took the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi angry that senators had rejected a law that would criminalize being gay. Ethiopian religious leaders called being gay “the pinnacle of immorality” when they asked lawmakers for a constitutional amendment criminalizing being gay in a country where it is already illegal. Nigerian leaders attempted to pass a law last year that would have criminalized associating with a known gay person. Gambia's president has called for the beheading of gay men and women. And human rights groups have condemned the harsh eight year prison sentence given to nine men in Senegal who were found guilty of being gay. Prosecutors secured their convictions with condoms found at the office where the men worked: an HIV/AIDS outreach center.

Over 25 leading human rights organizations, including the United Kingdom's Amnesty International and the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a U.S.-based gay-affirming church, have signed onto a letter urging lawmakers to reject the “Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2008,” calling the bill an incitement to homophobia and transphobia.

“This legislation would allow the state to invade people's homes and bedrooms and investigate their private lives, and it would criminalize the work of human rights defenders,” said Gagnon. “It is not a ban on marriage, but an assault on basic rights.”