When Politics and Power Trump Human Rights for All

The Political Cost of Exclusion

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is an example of what is wrong with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and why human rights frequently take a back seat. Museveni refuses to relinquish his hold on power.

On February 18, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect a new leader. But the chances are very high that they will end up with Museveni as president again. If successful, he will begin his fourth decade in office in the east African country.

Museveni, who seized power by force in 1986 before winning “free” elections in 1996, says he needs another term to build a middle class economy-- something he has not managed to do in the past 30 years.

He joins the likes of Paul Biye of Cameroon, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola, among others, who have held office for over three decades.

This is a bad thing because many of these leaders go to great lengths to retain power, usually at the cost of basic human rights and freedoms. Violence, police brutality and a media clampdown usually characterize election campaigns. Another campaign tactic is to scapegoat minority groups such as LGBTIQ communities as a way of distracting voters from lack of delivery and progress. 

Amnesty International, in a report released in 2013, warned that homophobia in Africa was on the rise, often encouraged and protected by anti-gay laws. It’s a fact that four African countries still have the death penalty on the books for anyone found guilty of homosexuality. And 36 of 54 independent African states criminalize homosexuality.

In Uganda homophobia has been rampant since the prohibition of homosexuality in the 1950s. It is today inflamed by religious bigotry and the political situation. In February 2014 Museveni sparked international condemnation when he signed a law that outlawed homosexual acts and required that citizens report suspected homosexual activity to the police. In August of the same year the controversial law was annulled on technical grounds. 

While celebrating the judgment, Ugandan LGBTIQ activists say they are bracing for a new onslaught, especially with elections around the corner. They say the fact that the law was annulled on a technicality and not on moral grounds means there is a high chance that it will be back. 

However, there have been recent positive developments for LGBTIQ rights in Africa. Earlier this year local LGBTIQ advocacy groups in Kenya and Botswana had their right to freely associate upheld in court decisions and homosexuality was decriminalized through legislative reform in Mozambique.

But perhaps the most important development was the adoption of the first ever resolution by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights calling on African states to end all acts of violence and abuse against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

African leaders recently adopted new long-term and medium term strategies for the continent – Africa Agenda 2063 and Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda – in which they set out their vision of a united, peaceful and prosperous Africa. 

But as United Nation Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon pointed out to African leaders at a recent African Union Summit; “A transformed Africa will also need an empowered civil society, gender equality and respect for human rights”.

African leaders must take this advice to heart.