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Honing Uganda and Ethiopia’s silly laws

Hama Tuma
By Hama Tuma

Hama Tuma is an Ethiopian writer,poet and journalst who has been for long active in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Africa. His collection of satirical articles have appeared in four volumes of African Absurdities (the latest one titled Why Don't they eat Coltan?).Some of his books of fiction and satire have been translated into French,Italian and Hebrew.

Posted on Tuesday, 4 March 2014 15:41

Considering the pungent cocktail of weird laws decreed out of the blue by thumb-twiddling wannabe sophist parliamentarians who only see problems from the golden palaces, villas and powerful offices they occupy and want to keep by hook or by crook, one can’t help but wonder.

When Malawi legislated its preposterous anti-public farting law a couple of years ago, many thought it was going to be the last time anyone heard of laws that questioned the intellectual capacity of African lawmakers. We were wrong.

Uganda has taken the lead, passing one irrelevant law after another, while blaming the west for its pagan, decadent and unchristian imports.

It is here that we realise that the brains of Africa’s current politicians have been washed to such an extent that the same Victorian laws that once sought to rid Africans of their pagan traditional ways have now been accepted as intrinsically African, warts and all.

The same middle-eastern religions that travelled west and were exported to Africa, alongside slavery and later colonialism, have now become the African culture to protect, relegating our history and highly developed cultural understanding of gender to Satanism.

As Uganda’s amusing story unfolds, those with an idea of Africa’s precolonial history, wonder what went wrong.

Those irrelevant legislations began with the oppressive and archaic Victorian laws that the United Kingdom, from whence cometh those laws, has been trying to announce to Africa in many subtle ways to drop because they belong to the boom years of social Darwinism when anything aboriginal was considered unfit.

“It is now apparent that the ecological pragmatism of the so-called pagan religions […] was a great deal more realistic in terms of conservation ethics than the more intellectual monotheistic philosophies of the revealed religions,” Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband said a couple of decades ago.

But could the harm that has been done be reversed? As multiple-time Nobel Prize for Literature nominee, Milan Kundera notes: “The first steps in liquidating a people is to erase its memories”.

It is here that we realise that the brains of Africa’s current politicians have been washed to such an extent that the same Victorian laws that once sought to rid Africans of their pagan traditional ways have now been accepted as intrinsically African, warts and all.

Africans now believe half naked women and homosexual relations are western imports.

The reason behind Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s “scientific” anti-homosexuality tirade and stringent decree against what concerns an invisible, vulnerable minority is aphoristic.

Endowed with an incredible political cunning acquired by virtue of his longstanding addiction to presidency, Museveni isn’t a stranger to the opium effect of religious populism on the masses.

And after its move to effect a ban on miniskirts, Uganda – a country where the larger population basks in the luxury of poverty, bad governance and corruption from the very top – is well on its way to becoming the biggest police church.

But truth be told, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and others like him in Africa are no exceptions.

While all the world’s unusual laws (see box below) do not excuse Museveni’s vitriol against gays, Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian president Robert Mugabe will soon go six feet under or down in history as one whose attempt at owning the founding president title of his country is seen in his continued gay-bashing speeches; an attempt to discredit that country’s first president Canaan Banana, a former priest who was convicted for being gay. Repeat: a black African gay priest president.

As innocuous as they may seem, silly laws strike the most unpleasant chord when one realises that they are mostly used to foster virulent anti-democratic values.

Is it not the same religious integrity-influenced anti-gay argument that has been used to effect laws that infringe on women’s rights in Uganda?

The burning issues in Uganda and many African countries do not concern dress codes or sexual orientations and yet the rulers harp on these issues while persecuting those who dare to question corruption, bad governance, ethnic discrimination… among a plethora of real concerns.

The issue of dress codes and sexuality is what brings in the votes. It works for them. They do not go to bed on empty stomachs, why should they care about the daft ones who can’t see behind the political rhetoric?

After all, is it not widely known that to hide something from the African, all one needs to do is to hide it in a book?

It is in this light that Uganda’s anti-gay antics and banning of miniskirts become a smart farce; a reminder of the cruel regime in Addis Ababa that once argued that Ethiopians, who cannot afford three decent meals per day need, should go on a dieting regime and stop complaining about the rampant famine.

Such is the politics of irrelevance, a clever governance tactic used by Africa’s power-hungry rulers, adept at turning non-issues of no significance whatsoever into burning issues with the help of the State controlled media.

The regime in Ethiopia is an expert at this art. After blatantly stealing an election and killing hundreds, it expertly manipulates the whole situation – turning attention away from the issue at hand – by arresting so-called political dissidents and triggering a massive hue and cry from a gullible and amateurish opposition.

The main issue forgotten, the secondary concern made crucial—add a weird law to this and the whole focus of the people is hijacked to a non-issue. Voilà !


Back to the invisible minority. How many women wear miniskirts in Uganda, an African region whose women folk once proudly wore clothes that bore their chests, hips and midriffs naked, in respect of traditional values.

And who said homosexuality is an European import in that country when it is on record that one of their most remembered ancient, pre-colonial kings kept a harem of well-bred men to feed his sexual cravings?

Are these funny but extremist laws not a shortcut towards fundamentalism? Or are they different from those laws that ban women from driving or taking the same bus as men? Are they different from those that say men with moustaches are forbidden to kiss women including their wives? Are they different from those that get women whipped for allowing themselves to get raped by men so strong even ten legislators can’t fight off just one?

Nonetheless, some of Uganda’s anti-gay law bashers are a perfect example of the stinging double standards and hypocrisy on the continent.

Zenebu Tadesse, Ethiopia’s minister for women, children and youth affairs has criticised the Ugandan law despite a 15-year prison term for homosexuality in her own country, where criticising the regime’s human rights record can get the noblest of citizens thrown into the hole for up to 20 years without a warrant.

This is where Washington comes in. Despite his worsening human rights record, Museveni remains a close ally of Washington, which tolerates good allies with grotesque decrees and practices. In Ethiopia, the more the regime has turned repressive the more it has enjoyed vast international support. And Obama’s words: “we live in a world of imperfect choices” highlight a recognition of those double standards.

Can the American media honestly condemn Museveni while homosexuality remains an offence in many states?

Writing on this hypocrisy, Tracy Clarke-Flory had the following to say in her article: Sodomy laws still exist?!

“When the Indian Supreme Court this week reinstated a law banning gay sex, everyone in my liberal social circle began circulating outrage. I shared in this — and yet, I couldn’t help but wonder at the remnants here in the U.S. of attempts of doing just that. In fact, we still have laws against sodomy in several states – Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Currently. In the year 2013. [I pause to let you pick your jaw up off the floor.] Two states — Kansas and Texas — explicitly outlaw homosexual contact. That’s right: the United States of America still has laws on the books criminalizing gay sex”.

As I wrote years ago, homophobia on the part of the repressive regimes is but a cover for “demophobia”, a rabid fear of democracy and the peoples’ demand for good, or at least tolerable, governance.

Museveni and others actually enjoy the hue and cry on the gay issue, a perfect distraction from the many tough questions and serious problems.

India, China, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Arab countries, Russia are all part of those repressive and/or corrupt governments engaged in the most politically profitable gay bashing.

My advice to budding despots is: forget the serious problems, the poverty, the lack of social services, the corruption, police and military brutality, the absence of democracy, the oppression of women, the political prisoners, the rampant torture… Just make sure your people do not have access to historical research about what the African culture was in precolonial times. Go for the most shocking legislations that hurt the most vulnerable… and just bash the gays. You’ll be loved. Amen!

A few of the world’s silly laws

The larger world has its fair share of weird and absurd laws. While some legislators can just not be bothered to waste a second of their precious time to strike them down, some of these laws are so outlandish that they are mostly ignored. Unless, of course, it can serve to bring down a troublesome oppositionist.

US state of Oklahoma reserves the right to arrest anyone who makes ugly faces at a dog, while in Devon, Texas, it is illegal to make furniture in the nude.

No pig can be named Napoleon in France, and in California it is illegal for a vehicle without a driver to exceed 60 miles per hour.

While it is criminal to forget a wife’s birthday in the most chivalrous island of Samoa, Switzerland, known for its string of weekly laws, prohibits a man to relieve himself standing up after 10pm.

In Ethiopia, it was illegal to think of protesting or pushing others to dissenting thoughts.

In England it is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament, to carry rabid dogs and corpses in a city cab and an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the Queen upside down.

In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for women to drive, in Bahrain a male doctor can check a woman’s genitals only via a mirror and in Singapore chewing gum is illegal.

In Equatorial Guinea it was once illegal to observe Christmas, for the Boko Haram of Nigeria it is illegal to get modern education, the Al Shabab has banned the internet in Somalia (although they use it) and again in Ethiopia anyone found trying to gain access to prohibited web sites will be jailed.

In Sweden, where prostitution is legal, it is illegal to use the services of a prostitute and in Thailand it is illegal to leave your house without wearing underwear.

A note to those who love to pick their noses and are planning to visit Israel where it is illegal to pick your nose on Sundays.

In Turkey 80 years is an illegal age to become a pilot.

In Lebanon, you can be killed if caught having sex with a male animal but not punished if that animal is female.

As to be expected, America has some of the weirdest laws.

In North Carolina it is illegal to swear in front of dead people and in Florida having intercourse with a porcupine is very illegal.

In Chicago it is illegal for anyone to eat in a place that is on fire.

In Ohio, it is illegal to get a fish drunk.

And in Minnesota, it is against the law to hang male and female underwear on the same washing line.

In Texas it is illegal to threaten a man with an unloaded gun, in Miami imitating animals is illegal, in Washington pretending to have wealthy parents is illegal, in Baltimore taking a lion to the cinema is also illegal, and in Texas if you are going to commit a crime you legally have to give the police 24 hours’ notice.

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