Going Rove In Uganda
December 1st, 2009
American political strategist and Bush Administration adviser Karl Rove was famous for his use of wedge politics to drive voters to conservative causes. He became so famous for it that his name became an adjective to describe that style of campaigning: Rovian. If you want to turn out voters to get behind your cause, make sure there’s something for them to vote against, a wedge that pits one segment of voters against their own better judgment. And nothing is wedgier than gays. A rash of anti-gay marriage amendments in 2004 have long been regarded, rightly or wrongly, as being part of a successful strategy to put Bush over the top in key battleground states.
We may call it Rovian politics, but that doesn’t mean Karl Rove invented it. It has been a staple of political campaigns the world over for centuries. Ugandan political observers detect what we would call Rovian politics at play with the Anti-Homosexuality Act that was introduced in Parliament last month. Anne Mugisha, of the Forum for Democratic Change, observes that “Uganda is in fact on the verge of a political crisis created by the conflict of an authoritarian police state trying to pass for a quasi modern democracy.” And whenever there’s a political crisis, leaders need a convenient scapegoat to provide a distraction from the real problems facing a country, and American anti-gay activists were more than happy to point the way.
The current strongman, President Yoweri Museveni, has won accolades as a reformer for his 1995 Constitution that requires elections every five years. Museveni has also been behind numerous moves to subvert and change that same constitution (including the removal of its mandated term limits), and this has allowed him to retain the power that he has held since overthrowing his predecessor in a 1986 civil war. But despite his authoritarian credentials, his reputation as a reformer has somehow remained intact. And to keep it that way he has to have elections every five years — 2011 will be another election year — and he has no intention of losing even if a few gay people have to be put to death in the process.
The elections are two years out, but observers note that Uganda’s Parliament is already busying itself with the kind of populist measures to burnish the government’s reputation that voters have come to expect in advance of national elections. But Uganda’s notorious corruption can’t be covered over by another round of popular land reform measures. Wedge politics, according to observers, are also re-appearing after lying dormant since the last elections in 2006, and political leaders are turning to new scapegoats to prop up their popularity.
At a forum held in Makerere University two weeks ago, Law Professor Sylvia Tamale observed that gays make a great scapegoat. “Anyone who cares to read history books,” she remarked, “knows very well that in times of crisis, when people at the locus of power are feeling vulnerable and their power is being threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in society.” She reiterated that in her column published on November 3 in the government opposition paper The Daily Monitor:
Politicians find that homosexuals are a great scapegoat or red herring to divert attention to more pressing issues that affect the ordinary Ugandan such as unemployment, corruption, poor health facilities, reform of electoral laws and so forth. If we are to be absolutely honest with ourselves, we should ask whether there are not more pressing issues of moral violation in other areas such as domestic violence, torture and corruption. None of these areas have specific laws outlawing their practice. That is where the likes of Hon. (David) Bahati (chief sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Act) should expend their energies.
Writing for tomorrow’s edition of The Daily Monitor, Augustine Rizindana observes that Museveni’s gay bashing isn’t meant to solve any actual problems which Uganda faces, but is instead a blatant attempt to distract voters from endemic corruption and mismanagement that has been hallmarks of his 23-year rule:
Why does the government and Parliament find the Anti-Homosexual Bill more of a priority than the electoral bills and other governance issues? Already homosexuality is a criminal offence as a “crime against nature” in the Penal Code and marriage is defined in the Constitution as between man and woman. The life and death sentences introduced in the new Bill are to impress an external constituency critical for regime survival.
He doesn’t name the “external constituency critical for regime survival” but Anne Mugisha reminds us to look elsewhere for the bigger picture. Wedge politics may be in play here, but that’s not the whole story. It’s not about David Bahati, a member of Museveni’s ruling party who is the chief sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality bill. And it’s not just about Museveni winning yet another election. She says it goes even further than that:
Hon. Bahati is a sitting duck for the LGBT community because he has become the face of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda after he tabled it and his name will forever be linked to the international outrage that Uganda has attracted for proposing to execute gays and lesbians for what the Bill calls aggravated homosexuality. But rights activists need to focus harder and higher on the real source of his inspiration and not just on the Ugandan President but also the fundamentalist interests in the US that sponsor radical right wing idealism in our country.