By Makau Mutua
The most powerful phrase in 2013 was uttered by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s first Third World pontiff.
The revolutionary bishop from Argentina took a sledgehammer to homophobes when he asked – “who am I to judge?” Those simple, if venerable five words, demolished millennia of official hatred for homosexuals in the Church that Saint Peter built.
And it wasn’t just the power of the words. The tone – voice inflection, demeanour, and comportment – of the Pope was revelatory. The man regarded as infallible by the globe’s one billion Catholics was telling homophobes – within and without the Church – to take a chill pill. To the Jesuit Pope, gays should be welcomed, loved, and accepted. That’s why Pope Francis is a godsend. I’ve watched with dismay – and utter disbelief – as some states in Africa descend into an orgy of homophobia. People with scant knowledge about the anatomy and science of human sexuality froth at the mouth every time the word homosexual is mentioned.
Rogue politicians and bigoted clergymen whip up hapless followers with anti-gay propaganda. The poor and hungry of Africa are being seduced with homophobia to numb the pain of their squalid lives. It’s political jujitsu when you can get the people from whom you steal and rule with impunity to identify with you.
French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville was right – a people get the government they deserve. That’s why African homophobes are hissing like snakes.
I am particularly concerned about Uganda, Kenya’s erstwhile neighbour. In that otherwise lovely country, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni appears to have taken leave of his senses. The man who brooks no dissent – and has been in power since 1986 – decided to give red meat to Ugandans. He is a master of obfuscation. Last week, he abruptly changed tack and signed the odious anti-homosexuality law. Methinks he always intended to assent to the draconian piece of legislation at the most politically opportune time.
But it was his remarks at the signing that exposed him. The ruler who prides himself as Africa’s “philosopher king” left no doubt that he’s no intellectual giant. Mr Museveni has made a number of startling and completely perplexing statements – simply unbelievable. He claimed – which is hysterical – that he only signed the law after the “opinion” of medical doctors. Those so-called doctors apparently told him that homosexuality is a perversion that’s learnt, not biological. But, and this is critical, they adduced no data for their “science.” That’s because no such science exists.
To me, the doctors sounded like Apartheid Afrikaners who argued that black people were “genetically subhuman”. The Boers, like Mr Museveni, used the Bible to justify legislating hatred. Then Mr Museveni did himself one better. In language that’s clearly un-presidential, he called the genitalia of gays the “wrong address” for sex. Then he dug himself deeper when he alleged that one could “get worms” for engaging in oral gay sex. Is this how African presidents talk – exposing their ignorance to a globe that’s only too willing to caricature African leaders?
The man from Kampala has become a global laughingstock, taking the trophy from Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. I know Uganda produced “Field Marshal” Idi Amin, the buffoon. Must Mr Museveni add insult to that ignoble injury? I am both angry and stunned by the crudity of Mr Museveni, but he needs salvation, not damnation or understanding.
In asking the faithful and the faithless to respect gays – and treat them without discrimination – Pope Francis was appealing to the best in us. Pope Francis wasn’t only criticising longstanding Church doctrine. The Pope’s message was a sharp rebuke to unprincipled politicians and leaders like Mr Museveni. It’s leaders like Mr Museveni who use “wedge” hot-button issues like sexuality, mini-skirts, abortion, or fake attacks on cultural imperialism to cling to power.
Unfortunately, the hoi polloi are sometimes too thirsty for this Kool-Aid. Where is the anger of “African patriots” when Africans butcher each other in the Central African Republic, Somalia, and South Sudan? Why all the vitriol and anger against gays who’ve never done a thing to you? I end where I started. Last week, a section of Muslim clerics at the Kenyan Coast asked President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare his stand on homosexuality and legislate against it – like Mr Museveni. Let me say this without equivocation – not happening in Kenya. The Constitution forbids homophobic hatred and discrimination. Kenya – like the US and Western states – must squeeze Uganda economically until it revokes the anti-gay law. The West should cut all aid to Uganda.
Let’s vote with the Pope on gays – and embrace them.
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