Besigye wrong on Museveni HIV/Aids fight initiative

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By Moses Byaruhanga

Posted  Saturday, December 28  2013 at  02:00

On December 4, the Daily Monitor published an article by Dr Kizza Besigye on Aids in Uganda. In the article, Dr Besigye credited President Museveni “for supporting early openness and transparency in our national response”. He added that “some other countries tried to cover up the epidemic for fear of affecting tourism and other economic benefits”. He, however, criticised the President for having cultivated and nurtured Aids-related stigma and discrimination.

He wrote “Mr Museveni has always depicted HIV/Aids as self inflicted, a result of reckless indiscipline, immorality, etc. He gave the imagery of HIV infection as similar to being beaten by a snake if you poke your hand in every hole you see; because snakes are known to reside in holes!” He goes on to criticise the President that to be recruited in the army and the police, one had and even now one has to undergo an HIV test, and that if one is in the army and is infected they are not deployed effectively.

Dr Besigye raised many other issues in what I think has been his first public engagement on HIV. If, however, he had ever come out public, then I must have missed him. For a leader at his level, I think this is too mean. He ought to have come out publicly to advise Ugandans on HIV much earlier.

It’s true that President Museveni has been credited world over for his openness on HIV. In the early 90s, he came out publicly to talk about HIV while, like Dr Besigye wrote, other leaders feared to do so. He used to tell Ugandans that he came to know about the danger of HIV in Uganda when he received a report from Cuba where he had sent soldiers for training.

On arrival in Cuba, they were subjected to various medical tests, including HIV test, and 30 per cent of them were found positive. As a leader, he had to come up and warn Ugandans on the dangers of this incurable disease on how it is spread and how it could be avoided since it was not like flu which one could catch by simply shaking hands or sitting near one with flu.

The most vulnerable group were the young people. So the President went to schools. I recall that when I joined the Presidency in 1991, that was the time the President went around the country addressing students in schools on the dangers of HIV and how it is spread. It is also true that the President in his poetic language used many metaphors and imagery, including the one Dr Besigye referred to above of poking ones finger in holes carelessly, hence getting bitten by a snake.

On keeping their virginity till marriage, he used the imagery of soda bottles. He would get two bottles of soda and open one of them. He would then ask the students that if they found two bottles of soda, one already open and the other with its lid still intact, which one would they prefer. The answer was always the intact one. He would then tell the young people to keep their bodies intact till marriage. He would also use messages from the Bible like the one on Time/Season for everything, Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8.

He would ask them to use their time at school for studies and not to engage in relationships. That after studies they would have time for relationships and families. These and other messages worked. The imagery of poking ones finger in every hole and then the poker gets bitten by a snake was not about stigmatising HIV but calling upon Ugandans to be faithful and avoid many partners (holes).

Ironically, Dr Besigye says that President Museveni’s openness on HIV worked. That openness was accompanied with the very images Besigye says caused stigma. The images the President used drove the message home. As a result, HIV/Aids prevalence in Uganda dropped from about 30 per cent at the time Cuba communicated to President Museveni in the late 80s to about 6 per cent by the late 90s. The president preached and continues to preach to people against being reckless with their lives in order to avoid contracting HIV. Dr Besigye, is that bad?

Definitely the President’s message on being disciplined and morally upright cannot be a cause for stigma. It’s also true that not all people with HIV got it as a result of being immoral, reckless or being indiscipline. For instance there are cases of child-mother transmission where a child finds him/herself with HIV. However, those who have been reckless with their lives many have died. So the President was right to caution Ugandans against this behaviour. With behavioural change, many people have avoided HIV and many will continue to avoid it.

On discrimination, Dr Besigye points out that requiring the army and police to test recruits for HIV is a form of discrimination and he blames this on President Museveni. It’s a known fact that army recruits undergo vigorous training. Other junior courses like cadet too require people who are fit enough to withstand the training. It’s against this background that the army checks the health of recruits.

It makes no sense to take a sick person for training which he will not finish due to ill health. I expect Besigye as a doctor and not a politician to be the one to advise the army to check the health condition of the recruits and those who are found with ailments like HIV to be asked to start on treatment. That would not be discrimination against a person found with HIV or TB. It would be in the interest of the infected person not to undergo the army training as it would weaken them further.

After all, churches and many parents encourage couples to test for HIV before marriage. Is that discrimination Dr Besigye or it is not because Mr Museveni is not a known church leader?
Let me end this treatise by assuring Dr Besigye that President Museveni has never retrenched or dismissed anybody just because they are HIV positive or are believed to be so. This has not happened in the public service or the army.

Mr Byaruhanga is the senior presidential advisor on political affairs.