From the outset of the 4-day conference, it was immediately clear that the Right Honourable Norbert Mao was, if nothing else, a practiced storyteller of considerable skill. He was one of those men that demanded the attention of the entire room, a booming voice backed by a natural charisma, most comfortable with all eyes on him while he spun amusing tales with metaphorical significance. 9am Monday morning had arrived, and, as around 40 of us sat in a conference room at the beautiful Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo, provided with bottled water and programme outlines, we were called upon to introduce ourselves one by one.
These introductions took on a typically standardised form: “Good morning, my name is Simeon Gready, and I am an Honours student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.” This type of introduction was repeated around the room, until, of course, the microphone was handed to Norbert Mao. I had no idea who this man was, but, as he took the microphone in his hands, I felt the atmosphere sharpen slightly. The lady next to me sat a little more upright, bristling in anticipation. Mao looked around, produced a wide-toothed grin and promptly stood up though all those before him had introduced themselves sitting down.
“Good morning comrades,” his voice echoed around the conference room. He spoke slowly and deliberately, taking care to look at each person in the room. “My name is the Right Honourable Norbert Mao, and I am the President General of the Democratic Party of Uganda. I am, therefore, the leader of the opposition. I do not know why they call me both the President and the General, for it is the same thing! But that is what they call me. I am thoroughly looking forward to plenty of good discussions this coming week. Thank you.”
The lady next to me almost spontaneously burst into a rapid round of applause. Norbert Mao was clearly a popular and influential man. As such, come lunchtime on the first day, I managed to hoard off his numerous admirers and take a seat next to him. After the usual pleasantries, I learnt that he was a Yale educated man who also part of a Scottish clan, the pin of which he wore proudly on his jacket. I learnt that he was a boxer and a rugby player, although he didn’t seem particularly fond of the Springboks. He was also enjoying the FIFA World Cup that was, at the time, currently ongoing, but said, with a laugh, that “no one supports England here because they are the colonial masters! We like it when they lose.”
I soon moved the conversation onto slightly more pressing matters. In the 2011 Ugandan elections, Mao’s party received the third most votes, out of a total of 8 presidential candidates, where Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) was the outright winner with 68% of the votes. Mao says he knows where he, and other opposition leaders, went wrong:
“There were too many of us [opposition leaders]. We have support but there was too much choice. I am trying to fix that - I am trying to form a coalition with these other opposition leaders to challenge Museveni in 2016 [when the next elections will take place]. That is the only way we will have a chance. Even if I don’t lead that coalition - that is fine. Even if I am 2nd or 3rd in line. We need a stronger opposition here in Uganda. For us, the campaign never ends. We are always campaigning.”
I asked him about Museveni; I wanted to know about the man himself. Mao, naturally, decided to tell me a story in order to illustrate his views on the President:
“One day, some journalists asked me the same thing. They said ‘Museveni is the paradigm of morality. Is he not?’ Do you know what I said to them? I said ‘you ask Museveni’s wife if she is the mother of all of his children, and that will give you your answer,’” Mao’s body heaved with a deep throated laugh, as had become customary throughout our conversation. “You know, the road leading to Museveni’s is always lined with prostitutes. His security doesn’t do anything about them. You tell me if that moral! Morality is not something you can pick and choose.”
As was to become a natural development of my conversations throughout the week, I asked Mao about his views on the anti-homosexuality bill that became part of Ugandan law in 2014. I was intrigued, for the most part, to discover how his answer differed to that of Joseph’s answer, my taxi driver from the night before. Joseph was the uneducated lower-class worker, who views Museveni as the saviour of their nation, whereas Mao was the Yale-educated leader of the opposition, currently campaigning to end Museveni’s 27-year long rule. His answer, alongside Joseph’s, offered fascinating insight into the mechanics of Ugandan perception and culture.
Mao, firstly, admitted that the bill reflected the “prevailing sentiment of the Ugandan majority.” This ties in with Joseph’s answer to the same question - he forms part of the majority. While recognising that, however, Mao commented on what he perceives to be the ridiculous consequences of the law: “Let me tell you, Simeon, if the two of us want to go fishing or hunting for the day, and we are caught or even just seen together, we can be arrested on suspicion of homosexuality. Just for fishing as two friends would do! So, two men cannot go and do something together, for fear of arrest.”
I asked Mao what the passing of the bill meant for the Ugandan political scene, in particular for the future of Museveni’s rule. Once again, his answer confirmed what many analysts had feared when the bill was passed: “the bill is a tool for political oppression. It is a tool to keep himself in power. Do you know that the Refugee Law Project itself [RLP - the organisation that convened the conference that we were attending] is under investigation for promoting homosexuality? RLP is a university organisation, and university is where you must discuss such controversial issues! But they cannot, because of the law. So you see - the bill is oppressive, it is a way for Museveni to crush his opposition and oppress civil society. It was signed to please the large religious right, even after he told the USA he wouldn’t sign the bill.
Mao also took the opportunity to tell me one last story, in his uniquely amusing way: “Once I had an intern from Yale working with my Party - she was an American. One day, she came to me and said ‘Mr. Mao, I am a lesbian.’ So I said ‘OK. Do you have a girlfriend?’ She said no. So then I asked if she had ever had sexual relations with a girl, to which she said no again - she was a virgin. So I asked ‘then how do you know that you are a lesbian!!’ That is the perception of the African on homosexuality - it is just about the physical sexual relations, not about the loving relationship beforehand!”
Towards the end of our lunch, I decided to challenge Mao directly. I asked “so if you are successful in forming a coalition with the other opposition leaders, and then lets say, for arguments sake, that you defeated Museveni in the 2016 elections, would you challenge or revoke the bill?”
For the first time during our conversation, Mao bristled slightly. He skirted the question somewhat, saying that he would have to first “appoint a cabinet and discuss a lot of bills.” At this point, he promptly said “I think our time is up,” before thanking me for our conversation and leaving the table.
The problem of gender and sexual discrimination in Uganda, and indeed other African countries, is deep-rooted in cultural and religious traditions. As Joseph taught us, the overriding perception of the majority perpetuates this discrimination; as Mao taught us, there are those that see the inhumanity and immorality of these perceptions. The likes of Mao, the charismatic storyteller, and the Refugee Law Project are challenging the status quo, but, as has been the case for much of African history, the power of those wishing to enforce change is limited.