A rather surprising headline greeted Ugandans who picked up The Daily Monitor last Friday: “Clinton to monitor Uganda’s elections”. Really? Between Wall St, al Qaeda, Afghanistan and half a dozen other hot spots, America had spare capacity to squander on our elections?
It turned out that the US Congress had directed the Obama administration to closely watch Uganda’s preparations for the presidential and general elections in early 2011. This “unprecedented directive”, said the Monitor, requires the Secretary of State, working through the US embassy in Kampala and the Ugandan authorities, to create an accurate verifiable voter register; scrutinize the candidates; ensure security during the elections, media freedom and citizens’ rights to assembly, and a timely announcement and posting of the election results.
President Yoweri Museveni’s government had said thank you, but we’ve already started putting these measures in place, while the opposition crowed that at least next year the government would have to ensure truly “free and fair” elections.
The rival daily added that Mrs Clinton will be working also with the European Union and Canada. Both papers mentioned that the directive comes alongside a Congress approval of $70.6m to Uganda for development assistance.
Any mystery about this sudden surge of interest in Ugandan democracy was dispelled by another front page story that day on the now notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Proposed last October by MP David Bahati, this legislation has provoked an international outcry of major proportions, led by the gay rights movement, because of its provisions for jail terms for homosexual acts and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” — that is, if it involves a minor, if the perpetrator is HIV-positive and for “serial offenders”.
The Monitor reported that Parliament’s Speaker, Edward Ssekandi, opposed President Museveni on the “Gays Bill”. This proved untrue, since the bill is now being studied by a parliamentary committee for possible amendments, and will not become law yet. The Speaker had only said that the President was giving an opinion when he recommended “going slow” on the bill.
However, in this same article a more hostile tone prevailed. It said the US government had threatened to expel Uganda from the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), an agreement the US had made with several African countries in 2000 to get leeway to export products duty-free to the US market.
The newspaper had seen a letter written by US Trade Representative, Ron Kirk Wyder, to Hillary Clinton on January 12 (this year) saying: “I strongly urge you to communicate immediately to the Ugandan government and President Museveni directly, that Uganda’s beneficiary status under AGOA will be revoked should the proposed [homosexuality] legislation be enacted.” The letter added: “Beneficiaries of AGOA must meet certain eligibility criteria, one of which is to not engage in “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
But, precisely, Uganda is not among the nations that accepts gay behaviour as a human right. As Ssekandi put it, albeit too bluntly for some tastes: “As Black people, the way we understand this issue (homosexuality) is not the same way the Whites understand it, and we should be able to decide our own ways without being influenced.”
All this is a far cry from when Uganda was a darling of the new post-Cold War Africa, and aid was dished out with no questions asked.
In March 1997 The Washington Post reported: “Hillary Clinton held up Uganda today as a ‘model of economic and social reform’ – even as she essentially ignored its reported involvement in neighbouring Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) that threatens to destabilize the entire central African region.”
Which in fact it did; the following year began Africa’s “world war” when, in the span of some five years, an estimated four million people died in DRC from starvation, disease and war injuries. (Twelve years later Mrs Clinton was to see for herself some of the terrible after-effects in Goma, eastern DRC, when she visited a displaced persons’ camp where many women had been raped – and men too, though this was not reported at the time).
The 1997 Post report continues: “At the end of a two-week “goodwill mission to Africa”, she kept her emphasis on the positive as she toured (this lush capital city), Kampala, hailing Uganda’s progress in educating young girls, fighting AIDS and expanding work opportunities for women.”
With the homosexuality legislation on the table, however, the honeymoon is over; there will be no more accentuating the positive for the time being. In a 45-minute phone call to Museveni very recently Mrs Clinton made clear her own views, and those of the Obama administration, on the homosexual issue and why Uganda should toe the line, or else.
Had she forgotten that she was calling from the country that executed 52 people last year under its benighted capital punishment laws? Did she fail to recall that less than a year ago she visited China, which denies religious liberty, uses capital punishment more freely and has half a million people, including political prisoners, in forced labour camps — and never mentioned human rights to the Chinese Premier? Double standards, anyone?
Intervention in the affairs of other nations is sometimes necessary and often welcome. The impressive response to the Haiti earthquake catastrophe by the US and other nations, rich and poor, is a prime example. This is the kind of intervention the countries of the “economic South”, like Haiti, need, expect and appreciate because of their poor infrastructure and low living standards. Why they are like that is another matter. For now, the hospital ships and sniffer-dogs are what is needed.
It is a different story, however, when the West interferes in the deeply-rooted cultural values of developing countries, as is happening in the case of Uganda’s debate on homosexuality. The media onslaught and political arm-twisting are seen as unjustified invasions of privacy and strongly resented. The colonial presence here was mild, compared to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and Ugandans clung to their culture as a way of resisting new values, since their own, with exceptions like witchcraft, were serving them pretty well.
The African dislike of homosexuality has its explanation. This behaviour is contrary to openness to life; it is sterile, infertile. It fractures the link with the ancestors. Ugandans also remember why their 30 Catholic and Anglican martyrs died in 1886: for resisting the homosexual advances — totally exceptional, given the cultural circumstances — of the king, the Kabaka, a demi-god with power over the lives of his subjects. And they don’t want to forget that.
A further, less-publicised, instance of US and UN interference occurred the previous week, when Ms Clinton announced in Washington that the US would engage in a massive funding push over the next five years to promote “reproductive health care and family planning as a “basic right” around the world. She had previously stated for the record that this includes abortion.
The plan means siphoning off funds currently directed towards fighting HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, the real killers in Africa. In 2007, Museveni was one of the African presidents who refused to sign the Maputo Protocol, one purpose of which was to push the legalization of abortion throughout Africa.
Who can blame Africans for wanting to keep out this new kind of cultural, economic and social imperialism, especially when it smells of double standards, and fails to address real needs?
Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, the Ugandan capital.