With the tragic bludgeoning death of Ugandan gay activist David Kato last week, international attention has once again focused on the state-supported open homophobia in Uganda. Many, including President Obama, issued statements condemning this murder, while the Ugandan authorities said it was simply a robbery gone wrong.
After the anger at the death of a human rights activist, however, and after the condemnations of the hatred permitted and encouraged in Ugandan society, one question emerges in my mind.
Of course we know that hatred is often irrational, but it is too easy, and too wrong, to say that Uganda is a savage land filled with hatred. Frankly, so is the United States, and we have our own tragedies to account for. Moreover, it is so 19th century, so Joseph Conrad, so colonialist, to dismiss Africa as the heart of darkness. Uganda is filled with human beings, not savages, though it is easy to stoke our own tribalist hatreds and call them inhuman. It is often the flaws we most in ourselves cannot stand that we condemn so loudly in others.
Moreover, a surface look at the causes has led to simplistic and clearly incorrect answers. This is not about U.S. evangelicalism, though it is a related factor. It is time to look more deeply, and understand better, or perpetuate by our words the very thing we say we condemn.
None of this is meant to excuse or condone the murderous homophobia that exists in Uganda. I will understand if some commenters inveigh against my explanations, seeing in them a justification for it that I do not intend. But we cannot fight this shameful hatred if we misunderstand it, and employ arguments that even more firmly cement it in place.
In order to understand Africa, not that I claim to be an expert in that regard by any means, one must understand the history of imperialism and post-colonialism. The African political classes learned from centuries of colonization by Europe to be brutally efficient and to rationalize oppression for the good of the people, in the style of the European militaries that occupied them. In earlier centuries, Europe claimed to be saving the savages in the name of Christ, by killing those who objected to imperial rule from outside, and by indoctrinating the more docile with a fatalist religious philosophy that allowed the conquerers a free hand. Of course, the Europeans in Europe were shielded from the brutality practiced by the military dictators that they had sent, instead being told touching stories of how they were saving the savages.
When the grip of imperialism in Africa loosened during the brief, oh so brief, wave of shame that engulfed Europe after the near-triumph of the ultimate European colonialist philosophy, Nazism, many African nations declared independence from their European colonialist masters.
But independence turned out to be a hard road, because the European powers supposedly saving Africa had neglected to teach their charges how to lead. Yes, indeed, Africa for the Africans, they said, but the political elites could not lead Africa. The Europeans had developed no independent-thinking political class, indeed, had done all they could to crush independence. In many African countries, not all, certainly, but many, those who took over from the colonialists imitated what they had seen. Now Africans were in charge, but living in imitation of their colonialist masters, living high on the hog while stealing from their compatriots as fast as they could, rationalizing their thefts, oppressing the people economically and politically, practicing brutal efficiency in favor of the political and economic elites and against independent thinkers.
Throughout all this, they rationalized their actions by proclaiming Africa for the Africans. They rejected the claims of independent democratic thinkers by declaring their thoughts too European, in the same way that politicians here condemn democratic ideas as "un-American." They fought claims of corruption and oppression by declaring those speakers to be agents of European powers bent on toppling African leaders. And, in truth, some of them were. Europe and, later, the U.S., played a "Great Game," in which they manipulated Africans like pawns in order to increase their interests and their wealth. One look at the cynical cables recently released by WikiLeaks shows why US leaders are so outraged. These cables reveal their cynical manipulation and utter contempt and disregard for the rights of those in Africa and the Middle East. It is not surprising that many Africans hate and fear the "West."
But in that case, then, why is it that evangelicals from the United States have so successfully indoctrinated the Ugandan leadership into their "save the savages" campaign, in which they achieve control and leadership and money from Ugandans by stoking hatred of gay people? Don't the Ugandans see this as more cynical manipulation by the West?
No, they don't. And it shouldn't be a mystery, either. "A page of history," as eugenicist-leaning Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "is worth a volume of logic."
There is an excellent article by Chidi Odinkalu, brilliant Nigerian human right lawyer, who is currently senior legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, entitled "Why More Africans Don't Use Human Rights Language, " from the Winter 1999 edition of Human Rights Dialogue. Mr. Odinkalu examines the evolution and practices of the organizations and institutions that espouse the protection of human rights around Africa. He says that the various human rights movements in Africa generally fail to understand the needs of African peoples. "What they need is a movement that channels these frustrations into articulate demands that evoke responses from the political process. This the human rights movement is unwilling or unable to provide," said Mr. Odinkalu.
The current human rights movement in Africa--with the possible exception of the women's rights movement and faith-based social justice initiatives--appears almost by design to exclude the participation of the people whose welfare it purports to advance. Most human rights organizations are modeled after Northern watchdog organizations, located in an urban area, run by a core management without a membership base (unlike Amnesty International), and dependent solely on overseas funding. The most successful of these organizations only manage to achieve the equivalent status of a public policy think-tank, a research institute, or a specialized publishing house. With media-driven visibility and a lifestyle to match, the leaders of these initiatives enjoy privilege and comfort, and progressively grow distant from a life of struggle.
In the absence of a membership base, there is no constituency-driven obligation or framework for popularizing the language or objectives of the group beyond the community of inward-looking professionals or careerists who run it. Instead of being the currency of a social justice or conscience-driven movement, "human rights" has increasingly become the specialized language of a select professional cadre with its own rites of passage and methods of certification. Far from being a badge of honor, human rights activism is, in some of the places I have observed it, increasingly a certificate of privilege. .
Mr. Odinkalu's article was written in the late 90s, and I do not know if he would still stand behind these words in today's climate. From my limited observations, however, it appears to me that this is still the case. Indeed, this should hardly be surprising to U.S. LGBT readers, as similar charges are leveled against large LGBT rights organizations that are disparagingly referred to by some as "Gay Inc.", implying that they are out of touch with ordinary LGBT people and seek to promote an elitist and oppressive agenda. Another analogy is imagining a strong force of groups across the United States, well-funded by countries we generally dislike, attempting to put messages in the media that we ought to embrace human rights by giving up American democracy and going with a One-World-Government plan. Of course, these analogies are vastly different from the Ugandan situation, and I don't mean to compare their specific facts, but only the motivations that can stir dislike even of those espousing human rights.
I recently spoke to an African scholar regarding this issue. While his expertise is in Ethiopia, and in particular the issues of development and sustainability, his knowledge of Africa is useful in this context. I asked him why it is that human rights movements, including the African LGBT rights movement, are viewed as colonialist encroachment on African identity, whereas U.S.-imported evangelical Christian homophobia is viewed as compatible with African identity. To me, it seems a sad contradiction.
His answer made it clear to me that the subtext of the LGBT rights movement for many Africans is that of foreign imperialism, a "Western corruption" not native to Africa. Christianity, to the contrary, despite its origins in missionary activities designed to indoctrinate the "savages" into compliance with European dominance by means of a fatalist philosophy of acquiescence, was introduced so long ago to Africa that its imperialist subtext is completely obscured. Its handlers have deftly messaged it as supporting African autonomy, sovereignty and ownership. They truly believe it is African, despite the fact that, as discussed by Eugene Patron in his Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review article, "Heart of Lavender: In Search of Gay Africa," Africans have lived without discord with LGBT identities in the past, despite the efforts of Christian missionaries.
The history of post-colonialism is a reaction against oppression of autochthonous rule, particularly the successful attempt to neuter those who might be independent-thinking local leaders. As Matthew Quest has noted, anything that appears to imply effeminacy is often rejected by Africans as smacking of imperialism.
Thus, it is impossible to understand the state-supported open homophobia imported from the U.S. that likely killed David Kato without understanding that rights advocates in Africa are seen as imperialist agents bent on the destruction of a pure and strong Uganda identity independent of the imperialist West. All this is confirmed by the condemnation of Western leaders, ensconcing the homophobic Ugandan leaders with the mantle of defiance against the imperialists.
None of this is meant to excuse or condone the homophobia of Ugandan leaders, or the complicity of U.S. evangelical Christians who stoke these fires while wearing the mask of African independence. But the solution is not going to come from condemnation. This issue is shot through with the same thorny problems raised by the homonationalist movement. Though speak out we must at the murder of a brave rights activist who was unwilling to let his LGBT brothers and sisters continue to suffer, despite the known danger to himself, let us not fool ourselves that heaping condemnation will solve this problem. It adds fuel to the fire.
This is connected with the struggle for rights in many places, and the horrific paradox that pits nationalism against humanism. On Monday, I will detail the story of a professor at CUNY who has written about the sociology of suicide bombers in the Middle East, and who was likely dismissed as a result. While the issue there is cast as one of academic freedom, more significant is the question of whether we can understand and thereby grapple effectively with the social forces that spread hatred and death, or prefer to give in to the hatred and contempt that perpetuates the problem. The latter is certainly understandable, but it is hardly a solution.
As Mr. Odinkalu said:
Human rights organizations are probably here to stay with their imperfections. But they can do well to adopt the strategies and values of the successful social justice movements of the past, such as popular mobilization and inclusivity. People will struggle for their rights whether or not the language of human rights is accessible to them. But they will not build their struggle around the notion of human rights unless that language and those who wish to popularize it speak directly to their aspirations and survival.