Harold Wilson the two-time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom said "A week is a long time in politics": to signify that political fortunes can change extremely rapidly. Well this past week proved his point in Uganda where the ground shifted considerably against the anti-homosexuality Bill, triggering a collective but cautious sigh of relief among human rights activists and great disdain among homophobes. Some major assumptions metamorphosed into unsupported myths and while proponents of the Bill still stand on the firm ground of a deeply ingrained culture of homophobia, they surely realize that Uganda is not island on its own. We are inextricably linked to a global community with differing ideals and persuasions. An issue that is locally popular can be globally repulsive to an extent where local dictators must succumb to external pressure to stop the hysteria.
Rwanda became the first African neighbor to pour cold water on Bahati’s Bill; putting into disarray the alarmist theory that Uganda was leading a wave of homophobia that would have a domino effect throughout Africa causing ‘kill the gays’ legislation to spread like wild fire throughout the continent. Rwanda’s Minister of Justice put a quick end to speculation that his nation would pass a similar Bill. He also struck a fatal blow at the argument that African states had a responsibility to preserve African culture by persecuting homosexuals. The Minister of Justice of Rwanda stated that “The government I serve and speak for on certain issues cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality; sexual orientation is a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation - - this is not a State matter at all,” Hon. Tharcisse Karugarama thereby demolished the theory that was quickly gaining currency that the proposed Ugandan legislation is popular because it reinforces African anti-gay culture and the belief that homosexuality is an imported phenomenon spread by evil imperialists to debase African dignity. Bahati who tabled the Bill stated that it was meant to “protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda against the attempts of sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sex promiscuity on the people of Uganda".Rwanda obviously disagrees with those who would use legislation to persecute a minority under the guise of protecting culture.
In the past week we also saw Bahati’s Bill lose the assumed support of President Museveni as the President caved in to US pressure to veto the Bill. This astounding news was first disclosed by US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson when he told reporters that he has urged President Yoweri Museveni twice since October "to do everything he can to stop this particular legislation." Carson added that it is premature for US government to consider withdrawing aid from Uganda because Museveni himself said he does not support the legislation. And that is how Ugandans first learnt that their President was against Bahati’s Bill. One can be forgiven for not believing Carson after all hadn’t the President’s spokesman stated that: ‘But if the President is associated with a group opposed to homosexuality [I would not be amazed] because he has made his position on homosexuality very clear.” Hadn’t the President urged Uganda’s youth to stand firm and abhor the divergent sexual orientation stating that: "I hear European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa?"
Well, a week is indeed a long time in politics, and by the end of the week we were starting to become familiar with a new image for President Museveni as a fighter for the rights of homosexuals. Carson’s unthinkable claim that President Museveni would veto the anti-homosexuality Bill were repeated more authoritatively by Jon Tollefson, a State Department spokesperson, who told DC Agenda that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has pledged on several occasions to the top U.S. diplomat engaged in Africa that he would stop progress on the anti-gay bill. Then Tamale Mirundi spoke to a German Press Agency and stated that "We should not have an extreme position. The president will harmonise the two sides and address the concerns of the Europeans and our other development partners. We should put into consideration the position and concerns of our partners." And there you have it! The full about-turn was complete and no one could list President Museveni among those extremists who would hang gays… no one with a short memory that is!
So here I am on Christmas Day reflecting on what lessons I have learnt from this saga which is far from over. The Bill is still before Parliament and it is too early to celebrate its demise. Double faced duplicity on the part of Uganda’s chief executive is nothing new. We have glaring evidence of such duplicity in the 2001 presidential manifesto where President Museveni pledged he was running for a final term of office then two years later he turned around and supported an amendment of Uganda's Constitution to ensure that he became president for life.
This saga however reaffirms my belief in the power of the international community to influence policy by putting pressure on African regimes aka development partners. It also started me searching deeper for the triggers of international response to a local cause.
My question to US gay activists has been - if they are powerful enough to sway a dictator’s mind half way across the world in the space of a week why have they not used their influence to rescue us when our dictatorial rulers have us shot in the streets, herded into concentration camps, raped and pillaged in armed conflict?
One recurring response is that gay activists feel an affinity to the anti homosexuality issue that they do not feel for other issues we espouse. It sounds like a cynical response but it reveals a sad truth. They explained to us that when wars kill people in Africa, when people are thrown into concentration camps and when pictures of death, hunger and starvation fly across their television screens or computer monitors, they feel a lot of sympathy but no empathy. These other overwhelming issues are viewed as far away African issues so they say to themselves, ‘those poor people,’ and donate a few dollars through their churches and charities; and they feel they have done enough.
It turns out that the gay community can relate totally to persecution of gay people anywhere in the world because the only family they have is one another. They have experienced rejection in their churches, families, schools and communities; and so they have huddled around one another to form a ring of defense against the outside world. This minority whose members are hanged, beheaded, beaten to death and constantly humiliated in all corners of the world has created strong cross-cultural bonds to look out for each other. And it is that strong bond, borne of being ostracized and rejected; that has created one of the most powerful lobby groups in the US.
Our challenge as human rights activists working with the international community is not to create presentations of starving kids and raped women. Nor is it in writing hundreds of petitions and OPEDs; for we have done all these things. The challenge is in demonstrating that our struggles for human rights are not isolated from each other. Uganda will not become a better place, free of oppression and persecution if President Museveni vetos the anti-homosexuality Bill as he has promised the US government (not Ugandans of course!) Uganda will remain plagued with this syndrome of persecuting minorities and mobilizing ignorant masses around socially divisive issues as a diversion from greater political and economic issues, all for the purpose of reaping political dividends.
The power that the gay lobby has demonstrated in this instant should be harnessed to focus world attention on the biting issues in Uganda like poverty, hunger, starvation, disease, drought (climate change), corruption, and political repression.
Our real challenge as activists is to convert sympathizers into empathizers knowing of course that those from whom we seek solidarity may never have experienced hunger, starvation, disease or political repression in the same way that Africans have known them.
The saga has certainly reaffirmed our strong belief that it will take empathetic Africans to find solutions to Africa’s problems…with a little help from our friends.