Mugabe’s infamous homophobia employs the same logic as racism. Nor is it any different from the extremism of Al Shabaab or Boko Haram, because rather than foster understanding and mutuality it can only lead to mayhem and violence. Contrary to his claims, his views do not represent Africa in its past, present or future.
In September 2015 before an assembly of Heads of State at the United Nations in New York, Robert Mugabe, the all but in name President-for-Life of the beleaguered nation of Zimbabwe, blithely announced that, “we (meaning Africans) are not gays” and so the rest of the world mustn’t meddle when the rights of sexual minorities are being trampled upon. Accordingly, a dubious majoritarianism would then serve as the basis to inflict widespread oppression and injustice in places where same-sex relations are criminalized. Only a terribly anachronistic individual could have had the gumption to utter such an embarrassing absurdity.
The implication of the gaffe doesn’t end there. Obviously without knowing it, Mugabe is attempting to resurrect the ghosts of racism and yes, colonialism, which he always professes to abhor. How is this so? For centuries, so-called intellectual advocates of racism defended it on the basis that there was a ‘scientifically proven’ hierarchy of races that was universally applicable to humankind in order to justify the subjugation and exploitation of victimized races. The same argument was deployed in undertaking and maintaining the imperial project of colonialism. And for centuries, the whole world was made to accept this lie until it experienced the inevitable backlash. Similarly, it is possible to discern an element of fascism in Mugabe’s stance; the whole façade of enlisting demagoguery as an essential feature of leadership and collective persuasion.
However, there is a significant difference between Mugabe’s kind of oppression and the colonialism of yore. Mugabe is advocating a view that is evidently marginal and tinted with fringe insanity. It is also a view that is contrary to the contemporary norms of democracy which election after election, he has done all in his power to tarnish and pervert. If Mugabe had uttered his words as an unattached individual, it wouldn’t have carried much weight but he had deemed it appropriate to speak for an entire nation and on behalf of a whole continent numbering a billion people and so his verbal violence cannot be allowed to pass like that. In a world where figures of public authority are being compelled to be transparent and accountable, Mugabe has come to stand for an outmoded emperor bedecked with numerous rags of ridicule. Surely, this is not a figure that ought to speak for a continent intent on embracing the future.
Apart from being an enemy of genuine democracy, Mugabe is also traducer of historical truth. Despite Mugabe’s vice-grip and regressive impact, Vice-President Banana’s queer sexuality was still able to come to light and then Mugabe was compelled to pass a law that condemned those caught engaging in homosexual acts to ten years of hard labor. Of course, the question of Banana’s sexuality was swiftly and conveniently brushed under the carpet because it would have contradicted what constituted Mugabe’s idea of African tradition and custom.
Mugabe’s homophobia can also be regarded as a desperate face-saving measure as it buys into the surrounding pool of fundamentalism and intolerance in Africa. In real terms, his extremist views are no different from those of Al Shabaab or Boko Haram because rather than foster understanding and mutuality they can only lead to mayhem and violence. Since he has failed on the leadership front, what other way is there to curry cheap popularity and disjunctive acceptance? In this case, gay-bashing would seem to be the most convenient excuse. And this distracts all too easily from the task of re-building a squandered national economy, credible democratic institutions and a vibrant public sphere. So rather than do the right thing, is it possible for Mugabe to see himself at the same table with Al Shabaab and Boko Haram terrorists earnestly plotting the dismemberment of the African continent since they share so much in common, ideologically-speaking?
Cheikh Anta Diop, a pioneer of Afrocentric thought and radical Black African history, claimed in his ‘Precolonial Africa’, that homosexuality was present in Africa so when Mugabe avers that it is contrary to African norms and custom, he isn’t been truthful and like all insufferable and panic-striken dictators continually strives to fabricate falsehoods as bulwarks against resistance to his tyranny.
In his pervasion of democracy, Mugabe might not understand there is a demonstrable link between civil rights, women’s rights and the LGBT movement all of which have contributed immensely to our understanding of contemporary democracy. As such, an assault on the LBGT community also constitutes a direct attack on the principles of democracy. This in turn might explain why his reign would forever remain anamolous and disruptive since he is unable to accept a truly inclusive meaning of democracy. Employing a flawed concept of democracy, Mugabe has ended up constricting its conceptual possibilities and space. And the irony is that he has launched his latest onslaught on the concept under the rubric of a global institution established for its dissemination and deepening.
It is necessary for all democratically-minded Africans to understand Mugabe’s real intentions because the consequences of not doing so are quite far-reaching. First of all, Mugabe’s essentializations bolster a certain strain of African exceptionalism that is at once unduly self-marginalizing and self-sabotaging. It also seeks to absolve him from scrutiny and accountability in a context that sorely requires them. Mugabe’s global gaffe ought to want to make all well-intentioned and progressive Africans bury their heads in a pit of shame unless of course they choose to do something about it.
No one under whatever definition of democracy could in good conscience accept Mugabe’s infringement. This is because in contexts of chronic bigotry, murder and carnage can easily be committed in his name. Sometimes unfortunately, the abrogation of rights and liberties may not be seen for what they truly are under the de facto rubbishing of constitutional institutions and practices. As in so many other cases, democracy is deployed to not only undermine itself but also to entrench the most anti-democratic forms of domination.
In addition, Mugabe’s utterance, like so many of his other utterances, only ends up lending history, tradition and culture a bad name because he refuses to accept the urgency of the present as well as the inevitability of the future. In other words, he acts as the proverbial ostrich wanting to deny or perhaps even forestall a monumental and irreversible tidal wave.
Even the staunchly norm-governed Catholic Church is increasingly coming to terms with the fact that change is not only inevitable but also necessary in order to continue to survive. But Mugabe at 91, knowing fully well that his time is up, and psychotically terrified of the present not to mention the future, can only find succor in a past that is always least representative of the truth and what’s best of humanity. And so everyone and everything around must be eerily dragged down into the hole beneath him. What a legacy after thirty-five years of unabated and remorseless misrule.
* Sanya Osha is the author of three novels: ‘Naked Light and the Blind Eye’ (2010), ‘Dust, Spittle and Wind’ (2011) and ‘An Underground Colony of Summer Bees’ (2012). ‘A Troubadour’s Thread’, a volume of poetry, was published in 2013. He resides in Pretoria, South Africa.
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