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A Humanist Week in Uganda
Submitted by admin on 1 August, 2004 - 07:38
A Humanist Week in Uganda
By Babu Gogineni
In the second half of May 2004, the first General Assembly of IHEU in Africa, the first General Assembly of the Uganda Humanist Association and an International Conference on ‘Humanist Visions of Africa’ – all events sponsored by IHEU – as well as a successful IHEYO Conference ‘Global Humanism for Peace and Social Justice’ were held in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city.
Declared a British protectorate in 1876, Uganda – Winston Churchill’s ‘pearl of Africa’ – achieved peaceful independence in 1962. Most people remember Uganda for the fact that Prime Minister Milton Obote, who created a republic and at the same time a civilian autocracy in the country, was overthrown in 1971 by the illiterate and gluttonous Idi Amin. Amin’s viciously cruel regime led to the death of nearly half a million Ugandans from rival tribes. After the breakdown of diplomatic ties with the UK in 1976, Idi Amin declared himself ‘Conqueror of the British Empire', awarded himself the Victoria Cross, and also the title of 'Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea' – even though Uganda has no sea coast! Less comically, he promised Libya that he would establish an Islamic republic in Uganda. At times Amin established policy – like the 1972 expulsion of nearly 70,000 Asians from the country and the confiscation of their property, worth US$400 million – after receiving messages from God in his dreams. Not until the brutal buffoon was deposed during a border conflict with, and invasion by, neighbouring Tanzania did Uganda sigh with relief! Sadly, a second Obote regime which followed in 1981 did not have much to differentiate it from Amin’s misrule.
Today, the country is riven with much unrest in the North, and religious obscurantism and superstition continue to suck the life blood of the people. But under Uganda’s present ‘elected’ dictatorship of former army man Museveni, the economy has seen an average 6% annual economic growth over the last five years, once even rising to 10%. The World Bank has hailed the country for progressing like the East Asian Tiger economies – but the fact is that while Uganda's traditional export crops, like cotton and coffee, have brought in much needed resources, as have exports of sesame seeds, roses and vanilla, even the World Bank has admitted that real poverty has only increased under the Structural Adjustment Programmes that it imposed. Today while Uganda groans under a US$4 billion foreign debt, the country is ranked seventh in the annual survey of global corruption compiled by Transparency International, just above Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan. On the UN’s Human Development Index, the country ranks 147th.
Uganda is one of several African countries which have a similar or worse plight: dictatorships, failed democracies, debilitating poverty, extreme discrimination against women, rampant diseases, uncontrolled population, depressingly low life expectancies, corruption, warlords, tribal conflict, cultural backwardness underpinned by belief in magic, religion and superstition, whimsical rulers, and miserable hunger. Multinational companies continue to plunder Africa’s resources just as was the case in the colonial era.
Where do the solutions to Africa’s problems lie? What prospects can Humanism offer either Uganda or the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa? For the more than 120 Humanists from 13 countries, viz. Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Tanzania, France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, India, Switzerland, Norway and the United States, meeting at the ‘Humanist Visions for Africa’ international conference, these important problems were to be engaged with in a positive and practical way, to see how a Humanist approach could make a real difference.
We heard detailed reports from Humanist activists in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and Nigeria. And with horror we were reminded of the communal strife that has resulted in the massacre of Nigerian Muslims and Christians; of the deprivation of the very basic human freedoms such as freedom of thought and expression, that many of us take for granted. A human rights group reported on the more than 1,000 Christian faithful who committed suicide in the Kanungu District of Western Uganda, under the influence of a fanatical religious leader. The realization that these instances are only an indication of the grip authoritarianism, illiberal attitudes, ignorance, religion, and superstition have gained over the minds and lives of people in the continent is chilling – while the conference was going on, one of the daily newspapers in Kampala reported the attempts by a village mob to lynch a suspected sorcerer, and in Nigeria a week later I saw posters claiming to show the transformation of two young children into dogs by another sorcerer …
“Actually, Africa has taken – first through the colonisation by some non-African countries, with their soldiers, their merchants, their priests, then through decolonisation, with its new soldiers, its new merchants, its new priests – Africa, indeed, has now taken a form which is somewhat worrying me.
The traditional distinction of tribes and the multiplicity of languages which originated a long time ago, when demography was still manageable without frictions, is now reviving in several parts of Africa. And it creates severe dangers. No one can ever forget the dramatic fates of Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Angola, Congo, or the Sudan – to quote only a few. And the role of non-African countries, interested by the wealth of Africa, is not completely foreign to these dramas.
Still, Africa is a tremendously rich continent thanks to its natural resources, but also thanks to its artistic cultures, to its oral traditions, and now to the drive and willingness of its new generations. Its future could potentially be great indeed.
I would like to assert that Humanism may bring a lot to Africa. After all, we are all brothers and sisters, one single human species, born, according to the most recent studies, from a single origin, and are certainly of the same nature. We are all men and women, whatever our colour, whatever our level of living, whatever our culture... Nothing should keep us from working at improving our mutual understanding, and our level of living on the whole Earth, on the whole Africa. Yet we are still unfortunately far from that ideal vision of humanity.
Why? Financial or commercial interests (mostly based in continents other than Africa), corruption linked with these competing interests, outdated religious concepts, faith in superstitions, local communautarisms or unjustified pride, born in closed societies – all these are brakes to development. The Humanist attitude, which considers that men and women all over the world must have the same rights, is the only way to change the minds of people, and to lead to prosperity and peace.”
Our Conference also dealt with the question of homosexuality in Africa and the issue of sexual autonomy – and came out in favour of supporting the sexual autonomy of consenting adults. Unfortunately in hostile reports and cartoons in the Government-owned newspaper New Vision, IHEU’s Conference was described as a conference of homosexuals, who were breaking the sovereign law of Uganda. Many Ugandan journalists were interested in knowing more about our attitude to sexuality, but my letter to the editor was never published and I did experience some ‘turbulence’ even before I boarded the plane at Entebbe Airport because, I suspect, the police were unhappy with our Conference!
The Kampala Declaration: a Call for Humanist Awakening in Africa
We the representatives of Humanist groups in Africa and other participants in the International Conference on Humanist Visions for Africa sponsored by IHEU, London
Having deliberated upon issues including poverty, economic decline, globalization and the debt burden, religious fundamentalism, ethnic bigotry, human rights abuses and other problems and challenges facing Humanists and Humanity in Africa
Noting the importance of the Humanist outlook to Africa’s quest for freedom, emancipation, development and progress
Recalling the human degradation, darkness and devastations caused by slavery, racism, colonialism and imperialism in the continent
Considering the positive and progressive impact the enthronement of Humanist values and principles could have on the region and its peoples
Observing the lack of a regional body of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics to work towards the actualization of the Humanist Visions for Africa
Concerned by the upsurge in religious fundamentalism, paranormal irrationalism, and ethnic bigotry, particularly the threat of political Islam, evangelical Christianity, and traditional religion, and their campaigns of hatred, terror, division, intolerance, violence, and human rights abuses
Having resolved to form a regional body – the African Humanist Alliance – with the mission to promote public understanding of Humanism, defend the rights and interests of Humanists and of other people; and work and campaign for the humanization and secularization of Africa
We hereby call on all African peoples and their governments
• To take all necessary measures to keep religion and state separate, and work to end all forms of discrimination against people regardless of life stances.
• To support efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation, ritual killing, and other harmful traditional practices.
• To promote and defend the civil rights, dignity, and liberties of all individuals.
• To work to defend women’s rights and gender equality in all countries.
• To put in place the necessary machinery to revamp African economies – tackle poverty, hunger, ignorance, and diseases, and work towards giving globalization a human face.
• To articulate and implement policies and programmes in accordance with the ideals of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Universal Humanism.
We urge all African peoples and their governments, institutions of learning, and civil societies to work towards the realization of a Humanist breakthrough for the continent.
An African Humanist Alliance (AHAL) was created as part of IHEU by the Humanists attending the Humanist Visions for Africa Conference. The Network elected Yohannes Tsegay from Ethiopia as its Coordinator, Adeyemi Ademowo Johnson as Publicity Officer, and appointed numerous country representatives.
If, as most speakers emphasized, Humanism could provide the answers to Africa’s problems, it is of course important to clarify what this Humanism would imply. It cannot be of the vague, unclarified form purportedly espoused by the new President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila who, when questioned about his world view, is said to have replied “It is not communism or capitalism, but humanism”, but whose actions do not reflect the values we organized Humanists cherish. The Humanist visions and approaches that we discussed at the Conference were those fundamentally loyal to the principles of freedom and peace, that recognized human moral autonomy and our common humanity and accepted human rights as inalienable and non-negotiable. The Humanist vision of Africa is an Africa with no magical nor fatalistic conception of nature; an Africa that relies on the critical scientific attitude, insisting on using reason and reasonableness as an approach to Africa’s problems. Above all, a Humanist vision for Africa has to be founded on optimism, and the knowledge that in the past, parts of the world succeeded in driving out their misery by following the very same methods being advocated by Humanists.
In eloquent speeches, Leo Igwe, the keynote speaker (coordinator of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, an IHEU member organization, and Director of the Center for Inquiry, Nigeria), and Deogratias Ssekitooleko, Chair of the Uganda Humanist Association, and other African speakers pointed out that Africa experienced neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment. The continent underwent neither the agricultural nor the industrial revolutions; and being at the receiving end of brutal market forces, Africa cannot participate in the present globalizing world as an equal partner. The way out, the speakers declared, was the liberation of the enslaved African mind through a Humanist Enlightenment.
As was noted at the Conference, Humanist pioneers from within the IHEU fold had already made several attempts in the past to bring this message and the answer of Humanism to Africa. More than 50 years ago, Lloyd and Mary Morain – both IHEU Board members – visited Africa, and helped Tai Solarin on behalf of IHEU to establish the famous Mayflower School in Nigeria.
IHEU supported Humanist projects in Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, and in Ghana through the IHEU-HIVOS funding programmes and brought representatives from many countries to the events in Uganda. An IHEU member organization, the Council for Secular Humanism, led by Paul Kurtz, supported the growth and development of Humanism in many African countries, and Norm Allen and Bill Cooke have also visited Africa in an effort to promote Humanism. As President of IHEU, Levi Fragell had visited Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana to prepare the ground for the events in Kampala this year. But the development of an indigenous Humanism in Africa requires not just encouragement and assistance from Humanists outside Africa, but a solid foundation of local Humanist leaders and organizations who will work among their communities and transform them from within.
We met young people who were active in the Uganda Humanist Association’s General Assembly – all of them full of hope and clear determination to change their society. Many activists of this organization are former university students who despised ethnocentrism, dogmas, human exploitation, and bad politics, and their reports were full of encouragement. They have been working on empowerment of women, on exposing sorcery, and dispelling superstition. They have enthused younger students to join them. We heard very encouraging reports of collaboration between western and African Humanist and human rights activists. Jean and Barrie Berkley, leaders of the IHEU member organization North East Humanists (UK) have supported the land rights movement in Uganda and have also helped initiate a unique experiment in women’s rights through teaching them football! We heard in speeches and in private conversations heartrending tales of the genocide in Rwanda, but also met with the courageous and brave who survived and told us the tale … If the crushed and battered spirit of Rwandan refugees cannot be broken after such brutality and unimaginably horrific experiences, nor can the spirit of Africa. It will, however, require the taking up of moral responsibility by the more fortunate, great courage and determination by Africans, and lots of Humanism, to improve the plight of Africa.*
* A book will soon be published based on the papers submitted at the Conference.
GA Resolution 1
The General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union meeting in Kampala, Uganda on 27 May 2004 urges all African governments, and especially those of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Zambia, to respect the rights of all people to sexual autonomy and privacy, to eliminate all forms of discrimination against their citizens on grounds of their gender or sexual orientation, and to decriminalize homosexual activity between consenting adults.
GA Resolution 2
We, the General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union meeting in Kampala, Uganda on 27 May 2004 unanimously
Deplore the failure of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to condemn the government of the Sudan for its failure to take adequate action to end the ethnic cleansing and genocide currently taking place in the Dafur region of the Sudan,
Support the efforts of the United Nations Secretary General Mr Kofi Annan to resolve this conflict.