Guest post by Silver Kayondo
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
These were the words spoken by the African-American reformer, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) in his speech on the occasion to commemorate the twenty-fourth anniversary of Emancipation in April 1886 in Washington D.C. I find them applicable to Uganda as we wind down 2013 and wait for a new year 2014.
Recent global attention has been drawn to Uganda after passing two controversial laws- the Anti-homosexuality Act and the Anti-pornography Act. The latter gives a very wide definition of pornography to include “any representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement.” The media has tagged onto it the label of the “Anti-mini skirt Bill”.
In this brief Op-Ed, I will not dwell on the legal analysis of the efficacy and merits of these two laws. I will give an ivory-tower view of the current state of Uganda’s law making process, the politics that influences it and how we can improve our pathetic state of governance and leadership deficiencies.
The two laws highlighted above are not yet in force. Under Ugandan law (just like it is in Kenya, the US and many other countries), after the law making body (the legislature: i.e. parliament in Uganda, the Senate in Kenya or Congress in the US) has made a law, it should be taken to the president for assent. President Museveni has not yet assented to these laws. Legalese aside, what do such laws mean for Uganda?
The Anti-homosexuality law has very many contentious provisions. Key among them is the life imprisonment sentence proposed for repeating (serial) offenders. This is seen as very harsh in many circles. The law seems to enjoy a lot of support from the church, State organs and influential cultural institutions. Some see both laws as an over-reach of the State on purely private matters.
Many also feel that politicians are using their positions to create moral panic by using the law making process as a fig leaf to manipulate the masses and distract the people from the mismanagement Uganda is facing. The country is reeking with big government corruption scandals, terrible infrastructure, a pathetic public transport system, obscene youth unemployment levels, sky rocketing economic instability, State-sponsored land grabs, gross human rights abuses, brutality by police and the military, poor management of natural resources, a terrible education system that is highly detached from the societal needs, a sick public health sector, a stinking bureaucratic machinery that reduces efficiency, low wages for teachers and other public servants, etc.
Amidst a myriad of such problems, deficiencies and an insecure neighbourhood in the volatile great lakes region of Africa with neighbouring South Sudan, Congo, Central African republic, one would expect Uganda’s leadership (if any) in political, religious, cultural, economic, social etc circles to mobilize the population and rally consensus towards a set of clear, well defined and pan-Ugandan goals instead of instigating more division and hatred, an assault to individual civil liberties and freedom. But this is not the case. We lack a national philosophy to clearly articulate what Uganda’s agenda is. Therefore, we clutch at anything the wind of global forces blows along our way. Grappling in darkness and hanging by the shadows.
At its most basic foundational philosophy, the liberal idea was birthed to resist tyranny of law and custom, the despotism of the State and the oppression of the minority. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the most cardinal principles of the modern liberal democratic States (Uganda aspires to be one) is protection of minority rights as the majority enjoy their rights. That is how societal cohesion is built.
We look forward to the day we shall have rule of law, and not rule by law.
There is a nauseating endless focus on the signs and symptoms (e.g. moral decadence) instead of the actual problems (e.g. high unemployment, economic imbalances, high income disparities, etc). This misguided focus evidenced by selective morality appears to distract the entire nation from focusing on the chronic leadership vacuum that fails us at effectively articulating a national agenda and guiding the citizens toward a national philosophy based on the true values and ideals that are consistent with tolerance, freedom, liberty and justice for all- especially those with whom we disagree. The suppression of all form of dissent can only perpetuate anarchy. If we fail on dialogue and persuasion through free speech and expression, then the only route of expression we are left with is violence. That is too costly a price to pay.
We need a new breed of leadership that will demonstrate that politics should be about offering service above self and above populist demands. Leadership should be a true sacrifice to serve society by effectively mobilizing our collective and individual responsibility to create positive change and societal transformation, and not using the tyranny of the mob and haphazard laws to reap society apart.
The writer is a young Ugandan lawyer and a Board member of Solidarity Uganda. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.