Mugabe's Homophobic Remark Highlights Africa's Human Rights Issues

by Sarah Merekar

While you were probably watching reruns of "The Good Wife" on Netflix, Robert Mugabe, the 91-year-old leader of Zimbabwe, was addressing the United Nations General Assembly with a speech that deviated from his prepared address:

[...] Nowhere does the charter abrogate the right to some to sit in judgment over others, in carrying out this universal obligation. In that regard, we reject the politicization of this important issue and the application of double standards to victimize those who dare think and act independently of the self-anointed prefects of our time. We equally reject attempts to prescribe 'new rights' that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays!

Let’s take a moment to really unpack this. Mugabe, whose long rule over Zimbabwe has slowly slid into what the New York Times labels as “[a] cheerless saga […] into dictatorship,” makes thinly veiled stabs at Western power and hegemony.

No one was quite sure how to react, so delegates politely and uncomfortably tittered at the comment the way a dinner party does after an inappropriate remark from raving Uncle Albert.

And this isn't the first time Mugabe has been caught with his proverbial foot in his literal mouth. He’s labeled Nelson Mandela a “coward” and an “idiot,” and he has concluded, since President Obama supports gay marriage and is quite attractive, Mugabe might not mind getting down on one knee and proposing.

Hey, he said it. I'm not sure how FLOTUS feels about that one.

Not one to hold a popular line anywhere other than his own sub-continent, Mugabe — who led the militant Zimbabwe African National Union against white rule in Rhodesia in the 1960s and 70s — continued his address by avowing his country’s “unwavering” support towards Palestinians, while condemning Western “destabilization” policies in the Middle East.

One can’t help but think this was solely propped up for another worthy potshot on previously colonial powers. Well played, Mugabe, well played.

But everyone kind of noticed.

Blatant homophobia is not simply an attitude prevalent in governmental policy, but it's an oft-bleated position full of populist rhetoric. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is blanketed by this stance.

Thanks to the Tea Party, the United States is fully familiar with the corrosive effects of this. In fact, Mugabe’s invective aimed at homophobia, regardless how deeply felt, is an excellent diversion tactic reminiscent of Putin’s own macroeconomic populism or cronyism at work.

Distract and conquer is a historically useful tactic for any kind of totalitarian rule.

The rise of homophobia in African countries, such as Uganda, Kenya and Gambia, have a distinctly religious bent and seem to be tied up with these nations’ self sovereignty and self-identity. Homophobia, then, has become the arena in which politics and religion come to play and prop each other up.

In an absurd chicken-before-the-egg paradigm, it’s difficult to try and sort out whether this is a severe reaction toward previously colonial powers and, thus, is, at present, rooted in a firmly anti-colonial, anti-Western ideology, or if fundamentalist, American, anti-gay Christians have fueled the mindset to begin with.

In any case, extremist groups do find willing hosts in these nations, and the culture of hatred trickles down (or gushes up) into the very heart of each nation's policy.

It reminds you of the days of Idi Amin, doesn’t it?

And while the roots of homophobia and the culture of fear surrounding overt homophobic policies might have several ties to statehood and self-rule in African history, the consequences of such divisive rule and draconian policy are likely to play out, as is often the case, on the country's own population.

Witch hunts, increasing rates of STDs and human rights violations are already in play.

Given, however, that Gambia's own president remarks upon the homosexual population as "vermin," to be dealt with almost as though they are malaria-causing mosquitos, it would seem misinformation (the view that homosexuality is a disease) is alive and well within these iron-clad rules.

Still, no one is quite so surprised at Mugabe's open hate toward his own population, given this self-same history.

The interesting aspect of his speech rests in the way a single sentence about homophobia — "We are not gays" — is volleyed at those states that "sit in judgment" and try to push "new rights."

The conflation of these two issues — homophobia/homosexuality and the encroaching Western hegemony (as perceived by African nation states) — is a worthy tool for dictators to whip up so-called outside threats that populations can then rally over and direct their rage against.

Hey, it worked for fascism.

So, it's easy to see why homophobia, besides enjoying a religious anathema, is so easily turned into populist rhetoric when that rhetoric is aimed solely against nation-states, with asymmetrical power both in the UNGA and on the world stage, especially in the eyes of African nations.

It is entirely unsurprising that African leaders are joint in their homophobic message. It's of far more concern that their population's struggle, poverty and general disengagement is being harnessed to fuel the invective.

C'est la international politics, courtesy of Mugabe.