Religion should not be the basis for government policy or legislation  

What you need to know:

  • One of the many ways that this provision has been repeatedly violated is in the provision of religious education grounded only in the Christian and Islamic tradition while ignoring the multiple other religious systems that Ugandans profess.

Politicians and religious ideologues often deploy the mantra “Uganda is a God-fearing country”. They cite the motto “For God and my Country” to tip the scales on controversial or polarising issues as if it is a substitute for reasoned and principled debate.
They want us to believe that religion should dictate and regulate our conduct. They go as far as suggesting that our laws should be informed or at least inspired by scripture. Indeed, contemporary religion has been a mainstay of Ugandan politics and society right from the religious wars of the 1880s, Christian-inspired colonial rule, former president Idi Amin’s Sharia-inspired decrees through to the raft of morality laws that have been proposed or enacted recently.
The latest iteration of this unholy blend is encapsulated in the attempts to legislate against sexual minorities in Uganda through the anti-homosexuality Bill currently being debated in Parliament.

Proponents of the legislation have consistently appealed to the defence of culture and religion as the motivation to pass the legislation. It, thus, begs the question as to what the religious character of the Ugandan State is or should be. In other words, what influence, if any, should religion have on the Ugandan State and its institutions, including Parliament, the Judiciary, and the Executive? 

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To hear some legislators say “Our culture and religion should be protected” is an indication that their cultural and religious preferences will heavily influence what law or policy they will enact. They refer to the national anthem and motto for justification. These two national symbols are often cited by those who seek to foist a religious character, particularly a Christian one, on the Ugandan State, it is important to understand their background.

Whose God and selected by whom?
However, neither the national anthem nor the motto are a good measure for ascribing a religious character to the Ugandan State. The men who sat on the National Symbols Committee that developed these symbols in the 1960s had been educated in missionary schools and had their own religious inclinations. The anthem is grounded in a Judeo-Christian ethos given that its composer was an educated Anglican Muganda, whose entry was selected as the best composition. One wonders what tune the anthem would have taken had its composer been of a different faith or none at all. In fact, the Daily Monitor has reported that the possibility of adopting a distinctly Ugandan tune was rejected because it could not be played by a jazz band. The Committee also rejected Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika, an anti-colonial and anti-apartheid South African anthem which Tanzania and Zambia had borrowed and adopted.

The national motto was developed by Busoga’s Wilberforce Nadiope, a member of the National Symbols sub-committee, who borrowed and adopted it from Busoga College Mwiri. For God and My Country is said to have been an anglicised version of Kulwa Katonda n’Eggwanga Lyaffe. With hindsight and given the importance of these two symbols and how they have been used and misused, the process of choosing and adopting them was distinctly undemocratic and could have been more representative.
The 1962 Constitution did not make any reference to the religious nature of the State. Neither did the Constitutions of 1966, and 1967. While they provided for freedom of worship, they did not regulate the relationship between church/mosque/temple/shrine and the State. It might have been the case that such regulation was not a priority during the negotiations and drafting of each of the documents given the need to address other delicate compromises that kept uneasy coalitions in power in the early years of post-independent Uganda. The misuse of the mixture of religion and the State was detrimental to the Ugandan society.

President Amin imposed government-endorsed religious edicts by requiring certain aspects of sharia law be applied to all citizens regardless of their religious affiliations. Pentecostal groups were also banned, and Uganda was admitted as a Muslim State to the Islamic Summit Conference in 1974, despite the fact that only five percent of the country was professing the Islamic faith. Amin’s overthrow would bring dire consequences. The report of the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights – commissioned by the National Resistance Army (NRA) government, found that “several Muslims had been killed by Christians, while the previous Apollo Milton Obote government had virtually done nothing to put an end to these atrocities.”

The implication of this finding suggests that these were religiously-motivated revenge-killings.
Today, the relationship between religion(s) and the State is an uneasy marriage of convenience and expedience. The government is one of the biggest benefactors of most religious groups through financial patronage and material donations. In turn, the church lends its voice or silence as when the government requires it. There are occasions when the interests of the church and the politicians align as with the spate of homophobia gripping the country today. It is especially now, as Parliament seeks to consign fellow Ugandans to second-class citizenship that we need to interrogate what role religion must have in the conduct of the Ugandan State.

Return to sanity
In 1995, smarting from the effects of the misuse and abuse of religion in politics, Ugandans agreed that religion should not be a basis for State policy. Under Article 7 of the 1995 Constitution, they decided that Uganda shall not adopt a State religion. In requiring non-adoption of a State religion, the Constitution demands that the government refrains from conferring any privilege to one religious group over another or imposing a burden over religious classification. It means the government is required to minimise the extent to which it encourages religious beliefs or disbelief. It is meant to protect all Ugandans from tyranny of the majority.

One of the many ways that this provision has been repeatedly violated is in the provision of religious education grounded only in the Christian and Islamic tradition while ignoring the multiple other religious systems that Ugandans profess. I have argued elsewhere that the provision of religious education in this manner violates Article 7 of the Constitution. We have witnessed the explicit endorsement of religion by high-ranking members of Cabinet, including the President, the Minister of Education, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of Parliament and certain members of the Judiciary using State infrastructure to push certain religious beliefs, values, and orthodoxy.

A study of the Constituent Assembly (CA) reveals that Article 7 was informed by the country’s turbulent past, and the misuse and abuse of religion to oppress, suppress and divide the country. This constitutional provision was debated by the CA delegates who professed different faiths and passed with little to no disagreement.
Today, Ugandans of like-minded inclinations must agitate for the State’s neutral stance on religion. Our history tells us that religion should not be the basis for government policy or legislation. As Parliament yet again decides on the anti-homosexuality law, we should be reminded that a religious neutral state is the best guarantor of freedom for all of us.

The author, Nimrod Muhumuza is a Ugandan lawyer and researcher