Uganda’s Minister of Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo has no shortage of critics. A driving force of the conservative movement, Lokodo keeps making international headlines and remains unapologetic for it. As we sit down together, it’s hard not to like the minister. Lokodo is smart, engaging, and personable. But he is also a man whose convictions couldn't be more different than mine.
By Thomas Kleinveld, Kampala
Arranging an interview with a Ugandan minister can be a bit of an ordeal. After several unanswered phone calls and e-mails, I decide to bluff my way past security by telling them I have an appointment, and then refuse to leave until I actually get one.
Once inside, the procedure is surprisingly easy. I write down my request on a scrap of paper that disappears into the bowels of the Ugandan bureaucracy, sit down, and wait. For the next five hours, I watch a secretary sharing pictures of ladies on her computer; said ladies are posing in a way that would be illegal if Lokodo has his way.
At this point in time, I have been in Uganda for the better part of a month researching the anti-homosexuality and anti-pornography bills. I have spoken with expats, officials, clergy and closeted gays. In all those interviews, one name kept popping up: Simon Lokodo, the champion of Uganda’s conservative movement. Interviewing him should be worth the wait. Finally my scrap of paper returns. The minister would be delighted to see me.
The minister for Ethics and Integrity is a big man with big ideas. And, as he sits down behind a desk that could double as a conference table, I can’t help but feel that he is sizing me up. Lokodo, 57, is an intelligent man: educated in Uganda, Italy, France and Austria, he is fluent in at least six languages. He is also a man who likes controversy.
Lokodo made the international headlines by talking to the British writer, actor and television presenter Stephen Fry about "the right kind of rape”. He took it upon himself to break up an LTGB-workshop in Kampala because, as he’ll later tell me, “he wouldn’t allow terrorists to assemble either." With the hum of several AC-units drowning out the noise of Jinja Road, we start the interview. “I’ll answer any question,” promises Lokodo. “Just don’t take my words out of context.”
Both pornography and homosexuality are illegal in large parts of Africa. But for some reason, Uganda saw the need to introduce new anti-gay legislation last February. The Anti-Homosexuality Act strengthens existing punishments for those caught having gay sex and prescribes jail terms up to life for “aggravated homosexuality” — including sex with a minor or where one partner is HIV positive.
So why was new legislation necessary? Are Ugandans really that much more depraved than their neighbours?
“So you ask me how we ended up here? It’s because of our constitution, which gives people freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of behaviour – you name it,” says Lokodo. “All of this freedom, unfortunately, has been accelerated. It gives people freedom to do the wrong thing. And that’s when we say: no!”
The minister has done his part in saying no to homosexuality. Lokodo first entered national politics in 2006, leaving his position as a priest. After serving as MP and minister for Industry and Technology, he was appointed to his current post in the 2011 cabinet reshuffle. As a staunch supporter of the anti-gay bill and creator of the anti-pornography bill, Lokodo transformed himself into a prominent politician.
Although he admits he doesn’t have exact figures, Lokodo is convinced pornography and homosexuality are spreading. When I ask him why, he doesn’t hesitate. "Because the whites brought this culture. People asked ‘if they can do this, why not me?’ This happened especially in the urban areas. In the rural areas we don’t even talk about it, because they’ll take you for one who has gone off-wits.”
Entering politics put Lokodo at odds with the Church he served for years. Although the minister maintains he has never left the priesthood, the facts tell a different story. Lokodo was excommunicated after he decided to become a politician.
“That, I felt, wasn’t fair treatment. I didn’t break any sacred laws,” says Lokodo, his voice dropping to an angry whisper. The Vatican may no longer consider him a Catholic, but Lokodo’s policies continue to be inspired by his faith.
“Life is conviction, and I must have built a character of determination and conviction through my formation as a Catholic priest,” he says. “But I reached a point where I had to leave. You must live your life with assertion and not just be dormant.”
When I ask what this conviction drives him to do, the minister is clear. For him, it means ensuring that Ugandans live their lives within certain moral boundaries. “Have you heard of the biblical treasure?” he asks. “Once you have identified a value, you crave for it. And if something is good for me, then why shouldn’t it be good for the other?”
Keeping it off the streets
Lokodo’s anti-pornography bill is an incredibly broad piece of legislation, banning any display that can be considered indecent. Although it’s not yet clear how the law will be implemented, it could have a serious impact on people’s personal lives. Yet the minister maintains that it’s not his intention to infringe upon the rights of Ugandans. Those rights, however, are to be enjoyed only in the privacy of one's home.
“If you want to dance naked, why don’t you go home? You’ll be more comfortable. Why should everybody be there to see?” asks the minister. "The same goes for gays living in Uganda. I have my reservations whether one deserves to go to jail for being a homosexual. But certainly those who go around proclaiming a wrong gospel must be apprehended. These people are unfortunate. Please, it’s already bad that you are a homosexual. Just remain alone.”
But the lines between the public and private tend to blur every now and then. The anti-pornography law, for example, makes it a crime to publish ‘undesirable’ material on the web. “Block and check!” says Lokodo. “We shall have a control centre that will check every website. If the Chinese can do it, we can do it too.”
Lokodo’s approach has earned him many critics, but the he remains unapologetic. Part of his job as minister of Ethics and Integrity is fighting the widespread corruption. On my way to the interview, I had to bribe a police officer after he accused me of being a terrorist – I only asked for directions.
When I ask the minister about this, he is adamant that by fighting ‘moral decay’ he is in fact fulfilling his entire mandate. “Corruption is not the result of poverty. It’s the result of moral decadence,” he says.
If anything, Lokodo seems to feel that the opposition to his policies shows he is successfully frustrating the agenda of those trying to pervert Ugandan culture.
“I like to relate to people," he says, “but this relationship should not be depriving me of my own rights and privileges, judgements and values. I had better lose my life, better die poor, than lose my dignity. I will die with esteem, not with shame.”
The minister leans forward and fixes me with a stern look. “If you want to help, do so irrespectively of what you believe," he says. “I can tell you that we find people like you, who would withdraw their money because we proposed this bill, a bit infant. Leave us alone, or let us relate. But do not colonize us again with your unacceptable culture.”