With Anti-Gay Bill, Museveni Seeks To Divert Attention As Regime Crumbles From Multiple Crises

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Yoweri Museveni

[Commentary: Uganda]

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed into law an anti-gay bill on February 24, 2014, which criminalizes lesbianism and imposes severe penalties, including life imprisonment, for what it terms "aggravated homosexuality."

He did this despite the fact that homosexual acts are already not only illegal but also regarded as a social taboo in Uganda, as is the case in most African countries. The signing of the anti-gay bill by President Museveni generated divergent reactions from different quarters.

Western governments, which had until then tolerated and bankrolled President Museveni’s regime, despite far graver and more widespread human rights violations than what the anti-gay bill will perpetrate, condemned it. US Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, compared the tough new anti-gay laws enacted in Uganda to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany or apartheid in South Africa. He said, "You could change the focus of this legislation to Black or Jewish and you could be in 1930s Germany or you could be in 1950s- 1960s apartheid South Africa," and he added: "It was wrong there egregiously in both places and it is wrong here."

Secretary John Kerry’s condemnation is understandable, although to liken Uganda anti-gay law to Nazism and apartheid tends to trivialize the crimes committed under both Nazism and apartheid.

And various human rights groups and activists have also condemned the anti-gay bill. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate for peace who is widely regarded as Africa’s conscience, for instance, has suggested that the bill was reminiscent of fascist regimes that in history attempted to “to legislate against love or marriage across class, caste and race."

On the other hand, it is fair to summarize that the general population in Africa has tended to support the anti-gay bill, because President Museveni’s regime has marketed it as "protecting" African culture. Although it might be true that prejudice can be part of any culture, the fact of the matter is that cultures are never immutable: they often change in the context of time. Take for example racism, which not too long ago was regarded the world over as ordained by God and integral to global cultures. Today, only mostly alienated fringe elements in society still believe that racism is part of their culture.

Whatever views different people take about the anti-gay law in Uganda, it is fair to say that it has not only exposed the nature of President Museveni’s regime, but also opened a window of opportunity to discuss the various human rights violations in the country.

Given the divergent reactions that the anti-gay law in Uganda has generated, how are we to understand and explain both the timing of bringing it into force and the dramatic shift away from the working relations with the USA to Russia that President Museveni signaled a day before he signed the bill?

The proponents of the bill have asserted that it is intended to protect so-called African culture, as if prejudice is an unchangeable African culture, which remains immutable or regressive despite the march of time and changing conditions and the state of scientific knowledge in the world.

Some other writers have sought to explain President Museveni’s anti-freedom actions by reference to the influence exerted on him by some conservative Christian groups from the USA. This explanation, though it has a hint of truth, downplays other significant factors. For one, it ignores the fact that some of the conservative Christian groups and individuals had been frustrated by President Museveni’s manipulation of them, including telling them many naked lies with a straight face.

In fact, a number of the conservative Christian individuals and groups that had supported President Museveni based on disinformation that he was a Christian had begun to disassociate themselves from the regime. Some disagreed with him and refused to dignify him with the title “Christian.” It is also apparent that the various conservative groups and individuals distancing themselves from President Museveni were doing it out of self-interest and in order to salvage their credibility.

But of far greater relevance is the fact that those who place most of the blame for President Museveni’s anti-freedom laws at the doorsteps of conservative Christian groups and individuals unwittingly tend to divest him of moral and political responsibility for his actions.

If we are to properly understand and explain President Museveni’s anti-freedom laws, we must place them in context and examine them by reference to the purposes they are intended to achieve. In summary, the anti-freedom laws he's pushed through in Uganda, which include the Public Order Management and the Anti-Pornography Laws, are intended for political consumption. They come at a time when President Museveni has been buffeted by a multitude of crises, has seen his credibility and support dwindle dramatically both externally and internally and is faced with determined efforts to end his rule of nearly 30 years.

Like most bankrupt and unprincipled politicians in crises who either bemoan past glories or find refuge in perverted nationalism, President Museveni is using the stratagem as a formula to deflect attention away from, and conceal, evident conditions of crises and of his decline and growing irrelevance.

It should be remembered that Uganda is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2016. Significantly, over the past several months, if not years, there has been mounting opposition to President Museveni’s dictatorship. Why? Because in close to 30 years in power, except for a tiny circle of cronies and family members, President Museveni has brought about the ruin of the country on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, every sector and group in Uganda has suffered unmitigated disasters at the hands of President Museveni’s totalitarian rule; and it is clear that he could not win in a free and fair election.

In summary, over the past three decades, President Yoweri Museveni has used a cocktail of lethal politico-military tactics to fashion a personal dictatorship and to accumulate wealth. The tactics have included playing off one group against another, otherwise known as divide and rule; encouragement of massive corruption and the fostering of poverty; ordering the assassinations and torture of his political opponents; manipulating and muzzling of the press; perpetrating military adventures into neighboring countries and fomenting conflicts there; using the war on terror to win support from Western countries; and destroying public services to such an extent that they are the worst in the region, which has given rise to myriad health crises, including outbreaks of famine.

A few specific examples should illustrate the extent of the crises President Museveni faces:

The cancer of corruption, whether in the form of bribery or misappropriation of public funds has reached epidemic proportions. In 2012, Transparency International found that Uganda was the most corrupt country in the East Africa region, which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Inequality and ravaging poverty in the country have reached obscene levels. In fact, Uganda government’s own study in 2012 concluded that about 70 per cent of Ugandans were either poor or highly vulnerable to poverty. The study found that 23.1 million people, out of a population of about 34.5 million, were prone to poverty and about 8.4 million (about 24,5 percent) were trapped in absolute poverty.

Add to the above data is the fact that unemployment has reached crisis level. The situation is more or less hopeless when youth unemployment is considered. Last year, in 2013, a study found that 62 per cent of Uganda’s youth are jobless. This year, 2014, the figure has gone up to 72 per cent.

In international affairs, President Museveni has sponsored and exported conflicts all over the Great Lakes Region of Africa, with devastating consequences. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) found, for example, that from the mid-1990s until early this century, President Museveni exported illicit arms to, recruited child soldiers and incited ethnic conflicts in, and plundered, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The military invasion of the DRC by Uganda did not only set into motion the rape epidemic in that country, but also resulted in the deaths of over five million people. The ICJ fined Uganda US$10 billion in damages for the plunder and devastation of the DRC.

This year, 2014, President Museveni sent his troops to South Sudan on a mission similar to the destructive one in DRC. The results so far have been catastrophic; dislocation of millions of people in South Sudan, escalation of ethnic-base civil wars and general ruin of the country. Unlike in the DRC, however, Ugandan troops have suffered huge losses; and leaders in the regions have demanded that President Museveni withdraw his troops.

The various military adventures in neighboring countries have left him quite isolated  and hated by the majority of people in the region.

These developments have been complicated by the changing attitude of Western powers in general towards him. It is apparent that enlightened policy makers in the USA in particular have come to realize President Museveni’s duplicity in dealing with them. In particular, it had become increasingly apparent in the USA that President Museveni was cynically manipulating the war on terrorism to garner undeserved support, when he in fact did not share the values that informed the war on terrorism.

With all these crises, and more, closing in on him, President Museveni decided to resort to an old stratagem used by bankrupt and unprincipled politicians. That is to prey on the most vulnerable in society and to call to his rescue perverted nationalism. It was in that context that he adopted an Africanist posture to “champion” so-called African heritage against gay people. What in fact President Museveni has done is to skillfully and cynically serve “the people” opium of prejudice in the hope that he can lull them to the failures of his regime.

It should be remembered that a few months before President Museveni signed the anti-gay bill, he had assented to an anti- pornography piece of legislation. Among other things, the new legislation outlaws material that shows parts of the body including breasts, thighs and buttocks, or any erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement. In Uganda, the legislation has become known in short-hand as "anti-mini skirt" law, because it targets almost exclusively women.

Interestingly, the law does not make it a criminal offence for poor people or those from marginalized communities to dress scantly. A common element about both the anti-gay and anti-pornography laws is that they target arguably the most marginalized if not powerless members of society. In other words, President Museveni and his cronies picked on women who are generally treated as second-class citizens and gay people who are regarded as pariahs, to prey on.

This fact gives the twin laws an odious tinge. As a general principle, normally, laws are enacted to protect those who are vulnerable. In these cases, the laws focus punishment on groups who are already marginalized in society.

To add spice to the political context, a day before he signed the bill, President Museveni made a statement in response to US President Barrack Obama’s warning that if the anti-gay bill was signed into law, it would complicate the relationship between Washington and Uganda. President Museveni announced that he would, henceforth, work with the Russians instead of the US government.

President Museveni’s announcement caused quite a ripple if not consternation among a cross-section of people because until then the US had been a principal source of diplomatic and financial support for the dictator. For example, between 2006 and 2010, the USA was Uganda’s biggest donor, providing $1.7 billion; followed by Britain with $694 million.

Over-all, Uganda under President Museveni has been not only one of the largest recipients of mostly Western aid but has also been treated with “scandalous exceptionalism,” when it comes to respecting human rights to quote a prominent Ugandan politician. According to Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, the country was the world's 20th largest aid recipient.

President Museveni justified his shift and preference to work with the Russian government on the grounds that it does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. It is interesting that President Museveni used the red herring of US meddling in the internal affairs of other countries as justification for his shift. This is so because when he enjoyed the diplomatic and financial largesse of the USA, he never complained about Washingtgon tolerating his abysmal human rights record nor about it superintending various Western interests in Africa and beyond.

President Museveni’s statement is evidently reminiscent of the political games rulers from the so-called Third World countries used to play for their benefits during the Cold War. Although most Ugandans would prefer that the USA, Western powers and institutions should take a principled stand against President Museveni for his various egregious contravention of international law and massive violations of human rights over the years rather than focus simply on the anti-gay law, it is nonetheless a welcome beginning.

For Africans in general who have suffered needlessly as a result of President Museveni’s military adventurism, and for Ugandans in particular who have endured 30 years of his sordid corruption and divide and rule, they should not be hoodwinked by neither his rhetoric of social populism that homosexuality is un-African, nor by his deployment of the yesteryear language of anti-imperialism against the so-called arrogant West.

The historical truth about President Museveni is that he has not an ounce of patriotism in him and cares not an iota about the country’s sovereignty and independence. Moreover, the West, China and Russia should all know that President Museveni does not care about their interests either. Rather, he is essentially a political prostitute who will do anyone’s bidding as long as he is given resources to stay in power.

As President Museveni reinvents and reveals himself with many gimmicks, it is hoped that enlightened policy makers all over the world will realize that he is deserving of censure rather than provision of extravagant and undeserved praise, propaganda, military materiel, diplomatic cover and financial resources.

Any manipulation of popular rhetoric by President Museveni should not be allowed to conceal his abysmal record in power for close to 30 years. During that period, Ugandans have been subjected by President Museveni to the cancer of corruption, crippling poverty, lack of basic health care and quality schools and dilapidating infrastructure, all of which have become a nightmare that haunts the lives of the great majority of people who have been rendered miserable and disunited.

As Ugandans rise up as a tidal wave, the time has come for the international community to discard its selective morality and to support the people’s struggle for freedom and democracy from three decades of President Museveni’s dictatorship.

Ugandans deserve the right to establish a united and democratic society in which all citizens enjoy fundamental human rights regardless of their social backgrounds and orientations.


Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights at the University of Connecticut and Chairman of Uganda’s Freedom and Unity Front (FUF) 

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