By Kalundi Serumaga
Debate has camps that think indigenous African society is not capable of formulating its own view of the matter
The current debate –or near shouting match- about the legal future of Ugandan sexuality marks the point where two Europes; one from the present and another from the past, meet and fight. Africa is merely the battleground, but her challenge is to see how to become a real participant in a real conversation.
Of course the donors are being hypocritical, and at two levels. On the one hand, they know that it is the still-powerful instututions planted here by their ancestors that imposed the current understandings of the matter. The only difference then was that it served their imperial ambitions of the time. A genuine change in atitude can only be done through principled dialogue within these bodies. This has not happened.
On the other hand, they remained committed to funding the NRM government even at the height of its serial and systematic abuses of all human rights, but they will not explain why some rights are now more important than others.
And of course our rulers are simply exploiting these contradictions in the donor argument, where they can: this western pressure has allowed them to re-awaken the anti-imperialist instincts nearly dormant in Uganda society as in many other IMF-battered African post-colonies.
“This is about Uganda and what its people want. If these are the conditions for aid and loans…loans we pay with interest. Who is giving us free money? We pay…..” argued our Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga recently.
But this has a downside: the capacity to be defiant is restricted by how much donor cash one has begged for in the past. So while Kadaga can breathe fire, the President and the Prime Minister can only wriggle.
One other thing confounding the West is how the critical voices often come from what the donors thought was their one success story in African social engineering: the African woman political leader. As well as Kadaga; Presidents Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi have also expressed views that have dismayed the donors.
The problem is that nothing about this debate so far has been normal. Actual African society is already suppressed across a whole range of issues. The camps doing the shouting are each trying to sell their own various concepts of “normal”, to a population they have all colluded in silencing.
North American and European societies suffer an obsession with sex, and devote a large amount of media and intellectual time on it. This is not normal. But, being who they are, they have historically developed an attitude whereby they believe that whatever they think should be what everybody else thinks, even if it contradicts what they were thinking before. So, when they mobilised a Christian militia against King Mwanga in the 1880s, deposed him and seized his country, they said they were fighting homosexuality. Now, over a century later, they are bullying another African government in the opposite direction.
As for those running the country; Uganda is not yet a democracy. It retains the organisational logic bequeathed it by its roots in the colonial project. Official society remains dominated by powerful interest groups descended from the various African warlord factions that built the colony. This means that debates are not won by the one with the most logical argument, but by the one with the loudest voice and biggest supporting institutions.
Foremost among these are the Anglican Church, one of the biggest landowners in the country, owner of nearly half the country’s schools, numerous hospitals and rural clinics, and until the eve of Independence in 1962, the only faith group whose members were legally allowed to rise to the very top of the civil service.
These constituents remain firmly entrenched in the body politic and neither they nor their concerns can simply be wished away, not least by the very historical “donors” who put, and have kept them there for generations.
This approach implies that all these camps think that indigenous African society is not capable of formulating its own view of the matter, or that if it could; it would not be a view of use to anybody. This is where the real problem lies. As we all know, the Uganda state is broken. Mere laws –either for or against homosexuality- will not shape the way the population looks at it. We already ignore laws on most other things, and only use the courts for vindictive justice. What is needed is a much broader discussion.
For example, the native concern might be more with public displays of sexuality across the board, and not simply same-sex ones. We should remember that it was AIDS that forced us to begin having open and random discussions of matters sexual. Traditionally, we have much more explicit discussions on questions of sex, but in designated spaces.
The free-wheeling open displays of sexual energy by our urbanising youth are actually much more to do with the side-effects of the anti-AIDS campaign and the uncritical access to mainly western media, than any internal revolution. In short, Africans may wish to know if what the West is really after here is the further legitimisation of a generally hypersexualised Western culture.
Already suffering the attentions of the global sexual tourism industry that is targeting our poor but ambitious youth, these native concerns are real.
Who, amongst all these interested parties and institutions, is the true custodian of the process of thinking about this matter? Can a rights-violating state guarantee any rights, and can individual rights be guaranteed in a soceity made up of entrenched group interests? We have not yet been able to get to these questions.