By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was once considered a dynamic new and relatively young leader in Africa when he came to power in 1996. He had been a leader in rebellions against the brutal dictator Idi Amin. He is 72 years old.
He made headlines recently in a speech he gave to an audience with Benjamin Netanyahu commemorating the Entebbe raid 40 years ago. In his speech he was mocked afterword for calling Israel, “Palestine.” In a world where many leaders give flowery, meaningless, speeches with lots of generalizations, the speech by the Ugandan leader, despite its drawbacks, actually made a few good points.
Articles mocking Museveni probably did not listen to the speech itself. It is true he said there was a bond between Palestine and Africa. He then referenced the story of baby Jesus, Mohammed, the Entebbe raid and the Queen of Sheba. Using the word “Palestine” may have been a good choice given the long history he was talking about, since Israel was only founded in 1948. He was not talking about the bond of the Jewish people to Africa, but rather the two regions.
He said in his speech that someone else had written it for him, noting that it made no sense that Jesus was a “baby” in 4AD when he was hidden from Herod. Regardless of the accuracy of the date or Museveni fumbling for an explanation, it is clear Museveni didn’t write all of the speech and his calling Israel “Palestine” was therefore added by some aid.
While mocking the “Palestine” issue those at Foreign Policy seem to have not bothered to listen to the speech either. Notice that at minute 9:22 of the speech Museveni returns to the issue of “Palestine” and says “Israel-Palestine” in discussing the bond between his region and what is now Israel. His central point is that there is a connection between the Bible and the land of Israel. Here he says he doesn’t know the pronounciation of Ur, Sarah, Hagar, or Cananites, in “your language”, referring to Hebrew. “We in Uganda cannot accept bigotry that holds that either of you [Netanyahu and his wife] do not belong to that area. When I meet my friend the Arabs or the Iranians, this is what I tell them.” Here Museveni has left his script behind and recalls his meeting with Iranian leader Ahmadinjed, who told him that the Jews are from Europe. “He was saying the Jews don’t belong to the Middle East, that they came from Europe, and he was telling me that, and I said, ‘no’, the Jews are here in the Bible.” Museveni then says he asked Ahmedinjed “in the Bible it talks a lot about the Persians and Midians, where are the Midians, we now know the Persians are you, and he didn’t know.” Museveni notes that the Iranians were confused. So they fetched a “very old man” from university who tried to provide an explanation.
“I could see that in some of these situations there is a lot of ignorance. So I was over there, and with my Arab friends and Iranians friends, that you are all mentioned in the Bible,” said the Ugandan leader. He then explained that many Ugandans don’t know that Israelis are not Christians, “they assume you are Christian.” He then pointed to some priests present, and noted that people see modern Israel as connected to the Bible and therefore to Christianity.
“We hear that Jews came from Sarah and Arabs came from Hagar, therefore we in Uganda cannot accept the bigotry that says that either of you don’t belong in that area,” said Museveni. He then condemned the Romans for “dispersing the Jews” in 66AD. This is around minute 16 of the speech.
Then Museveni made fun of the British imperialists.”You know our British friends are doing all sorts of nonsensical actions. Jewish leaders avoided the nonsense of proposing to bring you to Uganda [referencing a plan from 1903].” Now the Ugandan leader mocked Lord Balfour, for which the Balfour Declaration of 1917 supporting a Jewish state is named, and noted how insane it was to propose Uganda as a Jewish homeland. In this discussion of “rubbish”, he was connecting Jewish and Ugandan life under colonialism. If it hadn’t happened, Museveni said “we would be fighting you now,” had the British put Jews in Uganda to settle.
He concluded his speech by saying Arabs and Jews should live side by side in peace and “brotherhood” in two-states. He then said that when he attends international meetings he sometimes goes to sleep to withstand the idiocy of the anti-Israel sentiments in international forums. Interestingly he then brought up South Africa, saying that the situation was very different than in Israel, and offered his services as a mediator.
“The issues are very clear, a lot of time has been lost and trouble picked up, but I don’t see any other way, they spend so much time on the refugees, but this thing…” he made an unclear statement seeming to imply that Palestinians should not keep talking about the refugee issue. Museveni then reminded people that Idi Amin “hobnobbed” with terrorists and was supported by the West.
Mocked for no reason
People whispered about Museveni and made fun of his speech. That is because the media needs to have a “story”, and the story became a seeming mistake that he called Israel, “Palestine.” But a more careful reading of his speech will note that Museveni was more often not correct in his use of the term. Noting that many pilgrim from Uganda go to “Palestine”, he then mentioned Israel and Bethlehem, correctly pointing out that Bethlehem is in the area regarded by many as a future state of Palestine. He wasn’t negating Israel or being clownish, as some suggested, but trying to weave his way through the various polities.
Many would have preferred the leader to have made a flowery speech with generalized language. “A deep bond between our nations, vision for the future, a common past…peace…security…blah, blah.” That would have been a more EU-style speech. No humanity, no emotion, no fumbling for words of course. But why does everyone appreciate platitudes and well-crafted nonsense with teleprompters over something that is a bit confusing but at least has authentic human characteristics. It’s good Museveni called British imperialism “rubbish” and “nonsense,” instead of sugar-coating it. It’s good he mentioned the true exchanges he has had in Iran, rather than just provide a nice rendition. He may be wrong in some things, but at least he had something to say.