Like many of post-colonial Africa’s leaders, Yoweri Museveni is a bit of a contradiction, a conundrum.
For a man who fought valiantly to end Idi Amin’s bloodthirsty reign, and also picked up arms against Milton Obote’s profligacy, plunder and despotism, it is a rather curious fact that Museveni has been in power from 1986.
This is the same man who, while still riding the wave of popularity, told his followers: “The problem of African in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power,” – only to later abolish presidential term limits. He has been in power for 28 years.
While the West lauded him in the mid-to-late 1990s as being part of a “new generation of African leaders”, his presidency’s hands were dripping blood from invading and occupying Congo during the Second Congo War (the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has resulted in an estimated 5.4 million-deaths since 1998) and other conflicts in the Great Lakes region.
At home in Uganda, the picture was no different. Opposition voices were quashed through the confirmation of the Public Order Management Bill – which eroded freedom of assembly, by enforcing overt censorship of the media at worst or, at best, creating an environment where self-censorship could be the only ticket to survival for a media that had to constantly look over its shoulder.
The bill also set the tone for the persecution of democratic opposition to such an extent that his critics accuse his regime of extrajudicial killings and the indiscriminate arrest of opposition candidates.
This is a charge which Museveni has dismissed almost jokingly by pointing out: “Whoever tries to cause problems, we finish them. (Colonel Kizza) Besigye (an opposition leader) tried to disorganise Kampala and we gave him a little tear gas and he calmed down. He didn’t need a bullet, just a little gas.”
This is the same man who has been praised for re-injecting relative stability and economic growth to a country that has endured decades of government mismanagement, rebel activity and civil war. It was also during his tenure that the country witnessed one of the most effective national responses to HIV/Aids in Africa. To this day, it is being touted internationally as sub-Saharan Africa’s success story in turning the tables on the HIV scourge.
In a nutshell, then, we are looking at the proverbial curate’s egg: some parts good, other parts bad.
Museveni’s signing this week of a law that provides for harsher punishments for anyone caught having gay sex, imposes jail terms of up to life for “aggravated homosexuality”. It criminalises lesbianism for the first time and makes it a crime to help anyone engage in homosexual acts.
Which brings us to our response as a country. Apart from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s voice from the wilderness, we South Africans have thus by far been silent. If, indeed, this law is an infringement of human rights, a throwback to the past, then we would be complicit in this infraction.
Far be it from me to suggest that our government should interfere in another country’s internal affairs. All I am pointing out that as the flag-bearers of a constitution that upholds freedom of association, non-interference in an individual’s sexual orientation, we should – at the very least – dissociate ourselves from the barbaric practice of condemning people for biological “otherness”.
Critics of homosexuality have slammed this “otherness” or condition as being “unnatural”, or, as Museveni pointed out when he signed this new law on Monday “an attempt (by the West) at social imperialism, to impose social values (on Africans)”.
I have news for you: I grew up during a time, in this country, when it was considered “unnatural” to fall in love across the racial barrier. They had names for it – miscegenation being one of them. They even pointed out that you would never see a lion mating with a tiger – as if human beings did not have a higher intelligence.
All matter of gibberish was trotted out in an attempt to prove just how “unnatural” it was for people of different races to fall in love. Isn’t that what the Nazis tried to legislate back in the 1930s? We never learn.
When a fellow African country ostracizes or kills its citizens for all the wrong reasons we should raise our voices of objection and condemnation because we have just emerged from that recent past when it was considered “unnatural” that a person of colour could hold a certain position in society.
We are a nation that was forced to drink from the poisoned wells of bigotry – but were strong and brave enough to recognize the poison as such and spit it out, no matter how many times it was forced into our mouths again. When we had confounded the poisoners of our souls, we shouted out decisively: never again; not in our name!
This is a mantra we can’t stop chanting. For we are a nation whose democratic spirit was cooked and fashioned in a crucible of chants; the chants which are now the underpinnings of our constitution; the chants that speak about equality, tolerance, freedom of association and movement.
These are the beautiful chants that beautiful men and women of this beautiful country should not stop making. Because when good women and men stop chanting, evil will prevail.