Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Gift for Uganda's Gay Community?

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.

Anne Mugisha

Monday, December 14, 2009

‘First they came for ...

‘First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.’

Pastor Martin Niem̦ller (1892 Р1984.)

During the past week many Ugandan activists have been quoting Pastor Nimöller’s poem and they have good reason. I have spent the last 8 years trying to attract international attention to human rights abuses and the lack of democratic governance in Uganda and in all those years I have never been able to get one paragraph or one minute of interest from major news bureaus, journalists or even activists in the USA. Yet in the last few weeks, because of the anti-homosexuality legislation; I have received more phone calls and expressions of interest in my work than in all the past eight years put together. So like most activists I am cynical of the motives of both those seeking to save us from homosexuality and those seeking to save us from Christian fundamentalists. The anti-homosexual Bill has, for better or worse; drawn Ugandan into the midst of US culture wars and Ugandan human rights activists are unconvinced that the sudden attention has anything to do with genuine concern for Ugandans or their rights.

The questions on our minds are:

Where were they when Uganda was indicted by the International Court of Justice for committing violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and are they aware that the Ugandan government has never compensated DRC or been held accountable by Western governments for the devastation that Uganda’s military committed in DRC?

Where were US activists when millions of Ugandans were herded into Internally Displaced Peoples Camps and kept there for two decades in destitution and inhuman conditions? Horrendous human rights abuses were committed by the military and the government through omission or commission, in these camps for two decades, and yet Uganda's President and officials continued to enjoy the prestigious company and favor of the international community.

Why is there no blip from US human rights activists when Ugandans are brutalized and killed in order to keep the Kampala government in power.

And more recently, where were these so called human rights activists last September when ethnic tensions overflowed and government released its brutal police and military on the streets leaving 30 people dead?
My opposition to the anti-homosexuality Bill is not about taking sides in US culture wars, it stems from my experience with state sponsored persecution in Uganda. I have witnessed legislation and policies being implemented selectively for the sole purpose of isolating and persecuting unwanted elements in society, particularly opposition activists. Many commentators in the US seem unaware of other US sponsored legislation, policy or training that has had an adverse impact on human rights in Uganda.

The US sponsored law on terrorism was used between 2001 and 2006 to scatter the opposition because they were dubbed terrorists by the government. When Uganda's popular opposition leader Kizza Besigye returned to Uganda in 2005 after 4 years in exile, he was charged with terrorism in a military court in addition to trumped up charges of treason and rape in a civilian court.  The rape case was dismissed but the treason and terrorism charges linger on before the courts in Uganda. The meddling of US conservative evangelists in Uganda has led the Uganda government to pursue abstinence measures over the use of condoms in curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and as a result Uganda's fertility rates and HIV/AIDS infection rates are on the rise. The population explosion that has resulted from these abstinence policies has hindered efforts to fight poverty.
I also oppose the Bill because I am not convinced there is need for separate laws for people based on their sexuality. Families and children are protected by our penal code which punishes unwanted and criminal sexual adavnces including rape, sodomy, prostitution and defilement.
Existing laws are not enforced because perpetrators of practices like defilement and forced marriage of underage girls, wife inheritance hide behind culture and religions that allow marriage of minors or perpetrators bribe corrupt enforcement officials to turn a blind eye. So our culture and some religions are invoked selectively to conveniently accommodate certain practices like marriage of underage girls or to persecute minorities like homosexuals. Selective enforcement of the law flies in the face of the principle of equity and Uganda's committment to international human rights treaties and conventions.

I believe that a person who wilfully or forcefully spreads HIV/AIDS through heterosexual or homosexual is hateful and there is no reason why we would punish the homosexual and spare the heterosexual. I think we should be approaching these issues from a compassionate non-discriminatory perspective that emphasizes education and counseling on HIV/AIDS.
I oppose the Bill because the legislation has an ulterior motive of political mobilization. Homosexuality was practiced in Uganda before English missionaries arrived in the country. This is a well documented fact in the story of the Uganda Matyrs who included the Buganda King's pages that embraced Christianity and rejected the King's homosexual advances hence their martyrdom. Yet the state has delibeartely rallied the population to believe that homosexuality is a foreign practice that is being 'imported' into the country. Ugandans are essentially conservative traditionalists and they are being mobilized around this one issue and diverted from real issues like widespread poverty and entrenched pervasive corruption which the government has failed to solve for 24 years.

Finally, I also oppose the law because it can and will be used in the same manner as that the Malaysia and Zimbabwe governments used anti-homosexuality sentiments to persecute and derail the careers of political opponents.

Unfortunately, I can understand why some think that Western interest in the rights of homosexuals exceeds interest in all other human rights abuses in Uganda that have claimed thousands of lives and caused pain and anguish to millions more.

What an irony!
Anne Mugisha

Deputy Secretary, International & Regional Affairs

Forum for Democratic Change

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.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who is the real sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill?

President Museveni’s utterances last month at a Young Achievers Awards Ceremony in Kampala, that: “I hear European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa…You should discourage your colleagues [involved in homosexuality] because God was not foolish to do the way he arranged;” were interpreted to be an endorsement of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill tabled by Hon. Bahati in Uganda’s Parliament.

Some basic Internet research on state inspired homophobia in Uganda clearly shows that Bahati is taking the rap for his President and for fundamentalist right wing idealists. While I could not find any anti-homosexuality sentiments attributed to Bahati prior to the tabling of the controversial Bill last September, I was able to find such reports attributed to President Yoweri Museveni. I have previously stated that the covert purpose of the Bill is political rather than moral. It is an instrument for mobilization of the masses, that is meant to detract from government’s policy failures and eventually it will be used to persecute opposition politicians.

A Human Rights Watch Report states that as early as 1998 President Museveni told a press conference, “When I was in America, sometime ago, I saw a rally of 300,000 homosexuals. If you had a rally of 20 homosexuals here, I would disperse it.”… In September 1999…President Museveni told a conference on reproductive health: “I have told the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] to look for homosexuals, lock them up and charge them.” Several people were jailed in the wake of this mandate.

At the time the only quoted voice in opposition of the President’s pronouncements came from renowned African Scholar Ali Mazrui. He spoke at an International Conference on Constitutionalism in Africa organized by Makerere University and stated that: "The governments of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe attacking homosexuals sound as though they are more concerned with homosexuality than corruption… That shouldn’t be a matter for the president to make pronouncements on homosexuals and gays shouldn’t be used as scapegoats. Intrusion in the private lives of individuals is unconstitutional,"

Later President Museveni’s links with the US far right ideology became evident in his policy preferences for curbing the spread of HIV AIDS and his attempts to criminalize the spread of HIV AIDS. In mid 2004 President Museveni made a controversial speech at an International HIV Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. His remarks drew the attention of AIDS activists but not the wrath of the LGBT community as the current outrage has done. At the time we focused on how the Bush Administration was influencing Uganda’s HIV AIDS policy and driving it towards emphasis on the A and B (Abstinence and Be-Faithful) while detracting from the C (Use condoms) in the ABC policy; in conformity with far right ideals in the USA. We were also concerned that US funding was undermining the widespread use of cheaper generic drugs in the fight against HIV AIDS.

When he visited the USA in November 2007, Human Rights Watch drew the attention of President Bush to President Museveni’s proposed criminalization of HIV transmission and the Global AIDS Alliance released a statement that said: ‘Museveni announced that because Uganda "has no homosexuals," HIV is not spread through homosexual contact there. However, Uganda not only has homosexuals, but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented that homosexuals have suffered systematic abuse at the hands of the government.’

In 2008 at a service for the consecration of a Bishop of the Church of Uganda, The President once again described homosexuality as ‘mtumbavu’ the Swahili word for ’stupid’ and saluted the Church for resisting this decadent culture.

Hon. Bahati is a sitting duck for the LGBT community because he has become the face of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda after he tabled it and his name will forever be linked to the international outrage that Uganda has attracted for proposing to execute gays and lesbians for what the Bill calls aggravated homosexuality. But rights activists need to focus harder and higher on the real source of his inspiration and not just on the Ugandan President but also the fundamentalist interests in the US that sponsor radical right wing idealism in our country.