WRONG PRIORITIES

Uganda’s government should focus on building our economy and drop its morality and porn obsession

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Kampala

Uganda wants to be a middle-income country by 2020. At least that’s the gospel the current government has been preaching.

In 2016, the Google top ‘how to’ searches in Uganda led with “How to achieve your goals for the day” and “How to attract money”. This may not surprise for a country which, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2016 report, is the most entrepreneurial country in the world. It’s positive, but the same report found the biggest challenge for Ugandan entrepreneurship was to ensure the growth and survival of entrepreneurial ventures because only 2% of businesses expected to employ more than 20 people in the next five years. The need to run your own business in Uganda is largely driven by the need to survive.

 The obsessive legislating to control how Ugandans conduct their sexual lives has consumed Museveni’s government for the last decade. Last year’s census showed 58% of Ugandans are unemployed, capturing the country’s non-utilized labour potential among people of the productive age of 14 and 64. With so much potential but few opportunities, young Ugandans have embraced digital technology, businesses have sprung up and some have been expanded. There are 11 million internet users here—nearly a third of all Ugandans. This is great, but the cost of internet remains high for those seeking to do meaningful work.

With our youth potential limited by this high rate of unemployment, one of the highest on the African continent, you would think a government would have sleepless nights trying to figure out not to jeopardize the route to middle income status. But the Ugandan government has its own priorities. What it sees as challenges for the nation are far removed from this reality.

In the latest move in a long list of morality policing, the government, last month, set up a nine-person committee to monitor and prosecute consumers of pornography. The minister for ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo tell us it’s a worthy cause because “pornography has unfortunately encompassed the entire nation.”

The committee says porn now includes ‘sexting’ text messages and poetry threatening media freedom and artistic expression beyond individual rights. Anybody found in possession of what is deemed pornographic material could face a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

You would be mistaken to think Uganda is among the world’s top pornography consumers. Social networking and messaging apps like WhatsApp are the fastest growing means of communication and sharing information. And yes this information includes sexual images and pornography and a move to protect children from exploitation and pornography is laudable. However, the obsessive legislating to control how Ugandans conduct their sexual lives has consumed president Yoweri Museveni’s government for the greater part of the last decade.

Faced with a young population, 78 % below the age of 30, the pressure on the government to deliver socio-economic transformation is greater than ever. President Museveni, 73, has been in power for 31 years. He was re-elected last year in yet another controversial election and has given leeway for conservatives to keep the country on its toes as he further entrenches himself in power. He will likely scrap off the age limit in the constitution which would bar him from running again in 2021. And as he pushes his patronage system to gather the poor to demonstrate for him to stay in power forever, pornography talk is a good sell. The right to protest in Uganda is as good as gone unless you are praising Museveni.

When pressed to deliver his promises, the parliament and those around Museveni evoke immorality as the real disease eating away at our society even when there are over half a million Ugandans with cancer can’t find a radiotherapy machine and 16 women still die daily due to pregnancy related complications.

Splashing two billion shillings ($556,000) for an anti-porn committee at a time when government cannot provide free sanitary pads for adolescent girls dropping out of school denotes a regime out of touch with reality. Over 20 women have been killed in two months in president Museveni’s backyard in the town of Entebbe and not enough security is provided. Corruption has left the state system crippled and incapable of providing basic public services.

We see more laws passed that put many Ugandans in harm’s way. This anti-pornography bill which the president signed into law in February 2014 led to the stripping of several women who were mobbed in various Ugandan towns for wearing miniskirts in 2014 and 2015 just like the Anti-Homosexuality debate and law emboldened those who threaten the lives of LGBTI Ugandans.

In ‘Keep Your Eyes off My Thighs’: A Feminist Analysis of Uganda’s ‘Miniskirt Law’, professor Sylvia Tamale said “a single stroke of the presidential pen signaled a redeployment of women’s bodies as a battlefield for cultural-moral struggles, and an eruption of new frontiers in sexual political tensions in the country.”

Women’s rights advocates led by the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention are still challenging the Anti-Pornography Act before the Constitutional Court.

The law is largely unimplemented but ambiguous enough to instill fear in ordinary citizens and are a good weapon against political critics. The conservatism we see as Prof. Tamale says has political interests behind who want to set the agenda for the country, by partly distracting many from real challenges faced, while imparting their perceived ‘sexual truths’ and gaining more control on what are ‘accepted’ Ugandan norms. They have been partly successful but Ugandans who fight for liberty will not sit back.

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