Monday, December 7, 2009

Unmasking Uganda's 'Born Again' Fad

An interesting fall out of the international outrage at Uganda’s anti-homosexuality Bill has been the unmasking of fundamentalist forces driving the born-again hype in Uganda. Ugandans witnessed a wave of evangelical frenzy across the country as papyrus reed churches mushroomed around the country recruiting people for Jesus and the NRM-O. By the 2000s ‘born again’ churches had become powerful political mobilization centers for the Movement government with the President making appearances alongside ‘born again’ pastors who went beyond praying for sinners to mobilizing them to vote for the government. Some went as far as prophesying election results while predicting evil against the government’s opponents.

By 2000 it was also an open secret that in order to get a job in the right place or marry into certain families one needed to be born again. One dangerous ramification of this trend was the miracle churches that claimed to cure everything from blindness to HIV AIDS. Uganda attracted all kinds of miracle pastors including one from West Africa who was arrested at the Airport with a miracle making machine that transmitted low voltage electricity through the Pastor to unsuspecting sinners seeking a miracle!

In the mid 2000 we saw the entry of the First Lady in elective politics. In her debut campaigns she was known not only to throw around her husband’s name but also the name of God as the power behind her calling to competitive politics. Within a short while of winning a Parliamentary seat she was made a member of the Cabinet and she continued to champion an anti-condom pro abstinence campaign to prevent HIV/AIDS. In the meantime American Pastors continued to pour into Uganda to pray for our sins and make some money while First Daughter Patience Museveni opened her own ‘Born Again Church.

Except for the small nuisances of election theft, political persecution of opponents, massive corruption, state instigated torture and murder; it appeared as though Uganda was set to become a major God-fearing nation.

In the late 2000 a power struggle erupted among the powerful evangelical churches as they tried to win the supremacy and recognition from the First Family and their US sponsors. The struggle spilt over into the press exposing the impropriety of nationally recognized Pastors. Serious allegations that included smuggling and misuse of funds made their way to the papers and ironically Pastors alleged that their colleagues were sodomizing young males under their care. The evangelicals were basically tearing each other apart in order to gain superior recognition over their competition.

So what was the driving force behind this Christian fundamentalism?

It turns out that the country has become an experimenting ground for US right wing fundamentalism and it took the anti-gay law to expose the depth of right wing involvement in our country. Jeff Sharlett has documented the Ugandan First Family’s involvement with ‘The Fellowship’ a secretive Christian right organization that is led by the reclusive Douglas Coe. The Fellowship, also known as The Family is reported to be the real sponsor of the anti-homosexuality Bill currently before Uganda’s Parliament.

But the relationship between Uganda’s rulers and US extreme right leaders is older and deeper than that. Controversial Pastor Rick Warren, the best-selling author of ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ declared Uganda to be a ‘Purpose Driven Nation,’ and was key in drawing the attention of the Bush White House to Uganda’s ABC AIDS strategy. But there was a twist to the ABC that Rick Warren promoted that rattled AIDS activists. Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told the New York Times that Rick Warren’s activism is “resulting in great damage and undoubtedly will cause significant numbers of infections which should never have occurred.”

Max Blumenthal wrote that… an investigation into Warren’s involvement in Africa reveals a web of alliances with right-wing clergymen who have sidelined science-based approaches to combating AIDS in favor of abstinence-only education… Warren’s man in Uganda is a charismatic pastor named Martin Ssempa. The head of the Makerere Community Church, a rapidly growing congregation, Ssempa enjoys close ties to his country’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, and is a favorite of the Bush White House. In the capitol of Kampala, Ssempa is known for his boisterous crusading. Ssempa’s stunts have included burning condoms in the name of Jesus and arranging the publication of names of homosexuals in cooperative local newspapers while lobbying for criminal penalties to imprison them.’

Blumental continues, ‘When Warren unveiled his global AIDS initiative at a 2005 conference at his Saddleback Church, he cast Ssempa as his indispensable sidekick, assigning him to lead a breakout session on abstinence-only education as well as a seminar on AIDS prevention. Later, Ssempa delivered a keynote address, a speech so stirring it “had the audience on the edge of its seats,” according to Warren’s public relations agency. A year later, Ssempa returned to Saddleback Church to lead another seminar on AIDS. By this time, his bond with the Warrens had grown almost familial. “You are my brother, Martin, and I love you,” Rick Warren’s wife, Kay, said to Ssempa from the stage. Her voice trembled with emotion as she spoke and tears ran down her cheeks.

Joining Ssempa at Warren’s church were two key Bush administration officials who controlled the purse strings of the president’s newly minted $15 billion anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, PEPFAR. Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni also appeared through a videotaped address to tout the success of her country’s numerous church-based abstinence programs…’

A full reading of Blumenthal’s article is absolutely necessary for one to fully appreciate the connection between US right wing and Uganda’s First family. The article sheds light on how veering from the formerly successful ABC program in favor of abstinence only programs led to a rise in new HIV/AIDS infections in Uganda. It is a story of betrayal and confirmation of what we have always suspected: That religion in Uganda is used as a ploy for political mobilization of ignorant masses who take their Pastors and leaders at face value while the usual two-faced suspects use their suffering as an opportunity to get funds for private and political projects.

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