Uganda’s recent oppressive rulings – most notably with heavy imprisonment sentences for suspected promotion of homosexuality – stand in stark contrast to its civil rights advances in the 1990s. In the late 1990s, several African nations appeared to be on the upswing. Although progress towards democracy and civil liberties on the continent has risen and fallen since that time, Uganda and South Africa – both with hopeful progressive futures at that time – have taken different tracks via à vis freedom for their people. Comparing the history of both nations may help us gain insight.
In the 1990s African leaders of Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Ghana, and South Africa seemed to be a “new generation,” focusing on independence, introducing democratic governments, managing economic turnarounds, ending human rights abuses and financial corruption, and bringing stability to their countries. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s new Front for National Salvation party overthrew Idi Amin in 1986, ending two decades of corruption against its people and putting in place through the 1990s economic and social improvements.
Change was not a direct line equally for these six nations, however. From 2001 to present, President Museveni of Uganda alternately promised to retire and then abolished term limits while in office and ran again for re-election, saying it is the “will of the people.” When the next election happens in 2016, he will be 71. The effect of long-standing autocratic rule is that a country’s institutions weaken, and this negatively impacts its people. As an example, in 2006, substantial oil reserves were discovered in Uganda. The following year, a similar discovery was made in Ghana. Beginning production of that oil might increase the per-capita income, which for Uganda is $600. While Museveni kept tight control and has not begun the process of commercial production, Ghana – which by contrast made African history in 2001 by relinquishing power to democratic process – has already begun the process of oil production.
By contrast, Mr. Museveni has gone in the opposite direction of democracy. Last year he issued the Public Order Management Bill (POMB), which requires that there must be police approval prior to any public meeting of three or more people. This past week, news in Uganda is focused on the new law against homosexual acts, including life in prison in some instances.
Compare the history of the progress of freedom in Uganda with that of South Africa: For over 40 years, the apartheid (separateness) policy under the National Party (NP), included segregation of blacks and whites, and led to the banning of the African National Congress (ANC), and the 27-year jailing of ANC leader Nelson Mandela (1964-1990), the forcible resettlement of 3 million blacks, protests that led to violent clashes with security forces, township revolts, and a state of emergency in 1989. With the new government of FW de Klerk in 1989, desegregation began, along with freeing of ANC activists, the unbanning of the ANC, and the repeal of apartheid laws. Mandela was elected President in 1994. That year South Africa took a seat in the U.N. General Assembly after a 20-year absence. For his part in the ending of apartheid, FW de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. The contrast is that South Africa responded, albeit slowly for many years, to the changes demanded by its people.
South Africa is one of the most liberal places in the world for LGBT people can live safely, equally, and legally. In 2006 same-sex marriage was legalized there and prior, in 2002, same-sex couples were allowed to adopt children. Equal rights are guaranteed for women by the South Africa constitution and the Commission on Gender Equality promotes this. Things are not perfect, by any means. In daily life in South Africa, gays – and women, especially – are subject to physical attacks and de facto discrimination. However, the seeds of progress are there, evidenced by the 42 percent of National Assembly seats that women hold in South Africa.
Freedom for gays and lesbians to marry is no small feat for a country to achieve. With statistics updated earlier this month, five countries and parts of two others still punish same-sex orientation with the death penalty. Those are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, and Mauritania. Seventy other countries imprison citizens for homosexual tendencies. And, even where it is legal to be lesbian or gay, same-sex relationships are treated unequally. South Africa has come a long way since the days of apartheid, and has progressively held onto civil freedom as a strongly held, ethical value.
While the history of Uganda and that of South Africa are certainly different paths, the commonality is that the Peoples of both African nations have experienced severe oppression at the hands of their leaders, and we can compare their commitment to civil freedom for their citizens – bumpy and a return to repression and autocracy in Uganda, and becoming increasingly open and forward-thinking in South Africa.
By Fern Remedi-Brown