By Tefo Pheage*
Festus Mogae served as president of the southern African country of Botswana from 1998 to 2008. He is the recipient of several international awards, including the 2008 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. In this interview held recently in New York with Tefo Pheage for Africa Renewal, the former president shared his thoughts on gay rights, the reform of the UN Security Council, the right to protect civilians in humanitarian crises and the fight against HIV/AIDS. These are excerpts from the interview.
Africa Renewal: Let us start with the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Some African leaders are of the view that gay rights are un-African. They applauded Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe when he declared at the UN 70th General Assembly that Africans were not gay. As an advocate for LGBT rights, what is your view on Africa and human rights?
Fetus Mogae: It’s not surprising that we appear to be speaking from different corners of the mouth. Differences in opinion are welcome. While I admit that the West often push their agendas on Africa, which we must be wary of, I also believe that we must, as Africans, admit that the world is changing and we must move with the times. This means often abandoning some of our long-held convictions about life, if the need arises. In my long interaction with LGBT groups and extensive research, I have come to the realisation that we are limited in our knowledge and must be open to new discoveries. I have been converted; I used to hold the same beliefs as my counterparts. President Mugabe has said that he hates homosexuals and is on record as saying they are worse than pigs and dogs. That is still his position. Leadership is not always about you, it is about people and often circumstances. I call upon African leaders to open up to second generation rights.
You have on several occasions clashed with Botswana’s current leadership and religious organisations due to your persistent advocacy to decriminalise LGBT practices in Botswana. How has it been?
Obviously not easy, but when you believe in something, nothing should stop you. Botswana inherited a law that outlaws is against homosexuality. We have not repealed it, but generally we have not harassed or arrested these groups (gays and lesbians). But the international community would say it is not enough to say you haven’t made any arrests because if you have such a law, you or another leader may wake up the next day and apply its provisions. Our argument as a country has always been that we haven’t imprisoned any member of these specific groups.
Are you hopeful that LGBT rights will be respected in the near future in Africa?
Yes, some countries like South Africa have already paved the way and others are following slowly. Change takes time and often meets resistance in some quarters. One of the challenges we have in Africa is that even the traditional leaders or chiefs are against LGBT groups. I once participated in a debate organised by the BBC. Traditional leaders argued that they didn’t like homosexuals because young people will follow their ways. They said they wanted their children to get married, give birth and keep family names alive and bring bride prices, amongst many other benefits. I found this to be selfish and a wrong mentality towards LGBT rights.
The UN has been heavily criticised of late by some member states for being ineffective and undemocratic. Do you think the UN has lived up to expectations?
Just like any other organisation, the UN has its own problems and limitations. I think the problem is with the Security Council and its veto power. The UN would be better off and more democratic without veto powers. Even we as Africans have to advocate for total abolition of the veto, but not permanent Security Council membership. In that case, states will be more equal. It is without a doubt that at the UN, some member states are more equal than others. The concept of vetoes is outdated and is tarnishing the good name of the UN.
The African Union has been pushing for a seat on the Security Council but it seems to be unable to agree on which country would occupy such a seat. What’s your comment on this?
I support Africa’s demand for an AU permanent seat on the Security Council. The question, however, is whether we are capable of nominating one of our own to represent us. You will recall that there is Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and others who want to join the Council. We should be advocating for a permanent seat for an African country that will take its mandate from all the AU heads of states.
How do we balance a country’s sovereignty with the right of outsiders to intervene particularly in times of economic failure, humanitarian crisis or internal conflicts?
As with everything else, it is always the difficulties at the margins. Even if a country is well governed, it could still face unprecedented levels of unemployment as we have here in Botswana. But that should not justify outside intervention. However, if a country starts to experience inter-ethnic conflicts, the international community could feel they cannot sit on the sidelines and watch people being butchered willy-nilly by those who once vowed to protect them. Sovereignty has limits like any other right. A leader cannot kill and harass his people and hide behind sovereignty. A true leader does not kill but protects his people. We still have leaders in Africa who think they are indispensable, larger than life and more important than their countries. That must stop. If a leader loses control, the world will and should intervene to save the people.
You are regarded globally as a champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In your travels throughout Africa, how do you assess this fight?
We have fought a good battle but we are still experiencing new infections. I think our worst enemy is complacency. You will recall that after the virus was first discovered in the 1980s in Africa, people were dying on a massive scale. We entered into a state of panic and too much stigma and discrimination was attached to the deadly virus. All that has since changed. But the biggest mistake will be to think we have won the war. In Botswana, we declared the virus an emergency. I took the HIV/AIDS fight from the Ministry of Health to the presidency for close and more authoritative monitoring, and it paid off. The situation has greatly stabilised, according to statistics, and I have learnt that the same has been happening in other countries.