Uganda’s controversial leader is at home among some of Africa’s homophobic leaders and communities, writes Thebe Ikalafeng.
There is no doubt that when Yoweri Kaguta Museveni ascended to the presidency on January 29, 1986, he brought peace and stability to Uganda. He deserves credit after a tumultuous period of coups since independence in 1962, culminating in the brutal reign of Idi Amin Dada, which was characterised by human rights abuse, political repression, ethnic cleansing and extrajudicial killings.
But other than for the Amin era, having the largest gorilla population in Africa, aromatic coffee and reputedly the most effective national response to the HIV and Aids pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda hasn’t generated nearly as much positive attention as tech-savvy Kenya in the east, or Rwanda.
Museveni has championed and signed into law many measures and practices that have defined and protected Ugandan society. These embrace the diverse ethnic groups – ranging from the Lango and Acholi in the north to the Iteso and Karamojong in the east, the Gishu on the slopes of Mount Elgon to the Pygmies in the rainforests of western Uganda – and defined societal and cultural norms for Uganda.
But in December, Museveni and his parliament upped the ante with a couple of high-stakes “ethics and integrity” laws to assert those Ugandan social values and norms.
The new anti-pornography bill outlaws overtly sexual material and will criminalise women who wear “anything above the knee”, show their breasts, thighs and buttocks, or display behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement.
When parliament ultimately passed the act with a provision of life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality” it was met with universal derision by the international community – and an equally resolute defence by Ugandans and other Africans who support the law.
In an unusual public ceremony, Museveni signed into law the anti-homosexuality act in a packed room at the State House in Entebbe. “No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That’s why I have agreed to sign the bill,” Museveni said in defiance. He dismissed international pressure, most notably from the West, as “an attempt at social imperialism – to impose social values of one group on our society”.
Uganda joins 38 other African nations which the International Gay and Lesbian Association’s survey indicates have criminalised homosexuality. In at least 13 African countries, homosexuality is legal or there are no laws pertaining to it.
In Tanzania and Sierra Leone, offenders can receive life imprisonment for homosexual acts. In Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria, homosexuality is punishable by death. In addition, in Nigeria it’s illegal for straight family members, allies and friends of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex persons (LGBTI) to be supportive of homosexual behaviour.
South Africa is the only African country whose constitution guarantees LGBTI rights. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country, the first in Africa, the first in the southern hemisphere and the second outside Europe to legalise same-sex marriage when the Civil Union Act came into force.
In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a “binding” human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity” resolution which calls for an end to sexuality discrimination worldwide. Several African and Middle Eastern nations have criticised South Africa, which introduced the bill, for “westernising” and breaking from what “90 percent” of Africans want, and decrying the UN trying to force controversial ideas with no legal basis on their countries. Typical of the UN’s toothless resolutions, it does not address any penalties for violating the act, but merely “expresses grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity”.
Most of Africa, like Uganda, has had difficulty with the reality of homosexuality – deeming it a Western behaviour that is against African cultural and religious value systems, inhuman, counter-procreation and an affront to the majority of anti-homosexual Africans. As Ugandan researcher Timothy Kalyegira put it: “To insist on the rights of the minority in Africa shows a lack of understanding of how much even the majority still suffer.”
The “majority” have responded with un-African inhumanity towards their fellow brethren. Gambian President Jammeh referred to homosexuals as “mosquitoes” and “vermin”. In Nigeria, those suspected of being gay were marched through the streets of Abuja naked and beaten with clubs.
David Kato, a Ugandan teacher and LGBT rights activist, was murdered in 2011 shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed.
In South Africa, lesbians are often victims of “corrective rape” to convert them to heterosexuality and “cure” them of homosexuality.
But anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe’s 1976 study, “Cross-Cultural Codes on 20 Sexual Attitudes and Practices” and their subsequent book, Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities refute the myth that homosexuality in Africa is nonexistent, incidental or the result of Western influence. Museveni himself confirms that possibility. “There’s nothing new about criminalising homosexuality. The British also criminalised it.”
Homosexual expression in native Africa, Murray and Roscoe conclude, has always been present and took a variety of forms in pre-colonial times. They cite among others, the example of motswalle, a common expression in Lesotho that describes women who engaged in socially sanctioned “long-term, erotic relationships”; and the Azande warriors in the northern Congo who routinely took on young male lovers to help with household tasks and participate in intercrural sex with their older husbands.
South Africa’s Rain Queen, Modjadji of the Lobedu, is known to have taken up to 15 young wives, with prominent families sending their daughters to her to increase tribal loyalties and ensure wealth through rainfall.
In the Buganda Kingdom of Uganda, King Mwanga II is reputed to have been openly homosexual. He battled the attitudes of early missionaries towards homosexuality, sometimes even killing Christians who dared question his sexuality.
And in northern Uganda, the Nilotico Lango tribes allowed men to switch their gender status, rendering them free to marry other men. Of course without the social construction of homosexuality then, such practices were not frowned upon as un-African or inhuman as they are today.
However, the debate should not be about whether homosexuality is African or un-African. Rather, the question should be whether it is right to discriminate against and criminalise fellow human beings for their personal choices. Their rights are espoused in Article 2 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human rights, namely, that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
There’s no doubt that Ugandans use Tim Cook’s Apple products, such as the iPhone; were moved by Elton John’s song, Candle in the Wind, at Lady Diana’s funeral, aspire to wear Tom Ford’s couture, or in their time have liberally quoted or read James Baldwin’s best-known novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which explores and examines the role of the Christian church in the lives of African-Americans, both as a source of repression and moral hypocrisy and as a source of inspiration and community. They may even on occasion catch TV icon Ellen de Generis’s show on DStv or stay up on Sunday, when she hosts the Oscars for a second time.
These are among the most successful and revered fellow humans. They just happen to be homosexual. Indeed they are not Ugandan or broadly African. But they are human. At some stage in their lives, they too, as Cook remarked, experienced discrimination “rooted in the fear of people that were different than the majority”.
But as far as South Africa is concerned, there’s no need to be timid or ambivalent, as the official response by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation has been. Or to send conflicting messages by professing to, on the one hand, uphold all human rights while on the other tolerating and deploying a self-confessed homophobe, Jon Qwelane, as an ambassador to Uganda.
Qwelane, a former Sunday Sun columnist, was found guilty of hate speech for his 2008 column “Call me names, but gay is NOT okay”. Unless of course, his deployment was banishment to a place where his views have resonance.
It is precisely the concern expressed in the recent World Report 2014 Human Rights Watch, which praised South Africa for introducing the resolution on combating violence and discrimination against LGBT people at the UN, but noted the country “has not played a decisive leadership role on this issue at the UN since then”.
In coming out to decisively defend LGBT rights, South Africa is not necessarily singling out Uganda or the other 38 African anti-homosexuality countries, but is upholding the universal rights of all humans to be who and with whom them want. It’s hardly a crime.
South Africa is better because of Somizi Mhlongo, for example, who brilliantly choreographed the ceremonies for the 2010 soccer World Cup, or the judicial wisdom of Justice Edwin Cameron. They are both South African. African, and proudly homosexual. A human right, affirmed by the constitution of 1996 of the Republic of South Africa – and globally through the UN Human Rights Council, however regrettable that it had to be legislated.
In the midst of religious, ethnic and power conflicts, incessant famine and poverty, and a hard-won victory over a colonial history of discrimination and criminalisation based on having a different identity, this is one battle in which Africa should not be engaged.
Uganda is among the largest recipients of international aid – about $1.6 billion (R17bn) as recently as 2011, according to the Overseas Development Institute – but they should not be held to ransom by donors, such as the US, which have a chequered human rights record.
Museveni said “countries and societies should relate with each other on the basis of mutual respect and independence in decision-making”. A “valued relationship”, as US President Barack Obama described it, “cannot be sustainably maintained by one society being subservient to another society.”
That is precisely the wisdom Museveni, Ugandans and Africans should have heeded prior to trampling on their fellow human beings’ individual rights.