HIV/AIDS in Africa: Yoweri Museveni is a living icon in the struggle against this deadly disease

Tribute by Dr. Chinua Akukwe at the Luncheon organized by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Constituency for Africa, Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa, and, Church World Service, June 12, 2003, Washington, DC, for President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 17, 2003

President Museveni, members of Ugandan delegation, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, all protocols observed.

On behalf of Honorable Ronald Dellums, the Chairman of CFA; Honorable Jack Kemp, the Vice Chairman of CFA, and; Melvin Foote, the President of CFA, it is with a deep sense of honor and privilege that I pay tribute to the Guest of Honor of this Luncheon, His Excellency, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda needs no introduction to all advocates for comprehensive HIV/AIDS remedial efforts in Africa. For the past five years, President Musuveni has received numerous awards for the remarkable turnaround in HIV/AIDS prevalence in Uganda from 30 percent in the late 1980’s to 8 percent in 2002. A lot of people have repeatedly asked how did a poor but proud African country achieve such a feat without massive international assistance and sophisticated public health infrastructure. Recently, I gave a lecture to graduate public health students at the George Washington University on HIV/AIDS in Africa, and, these students from more than 20 nations and representing all the continents in the world, repeatedly asked me: “How did Uganda halt the spread of HIV/AIDS?” These students after extensive background readings before my lecture were still intrigued on how Uganda beat the odds.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Uganda beat back the deadly ravages of HIV/AIDS because of the courageous and principled stand of one individual: Yoweri Museveni. This president more than 15 years ago decided to buck the traditional African proverb that a tree cannot make a forest. Mr. Museveni became not only the proverbial tree in AIDS remedial efforts in Uganda but also constituted himself into a forest. President Musuveni may be the only human being that became both a tree and a forest, and lived to tell the story.

President Museveni decided during the early phases of the epidemic in his country that no effort will be spared to protect his beloved Ugandans from this deadly scourge. He worked very hard to co-opt powerful interest groups in Uganda to join the battle against HIV/AIDS. While some of his colleagues in Africa were busy maintaining a deafening silence on the emerging destructive capacities of HIV/AIDS, Museveni crisscrossed Uganda “alarming,” “scarring,” “shaming,” and “cajoling” Ugandans to adopt the famous HIV/AIDS ABC strategy of Abstinence, Be faithful to one partner, and then, Condom use when necessary.

In addition, Museveni made another dramatic presidential decision: to directly confront gender discrimination and inequities in Uganda. The president decided to end gender discrimination not by giving lectures, organizing conferences or writing lengthy essays or books. He took direct, specific action. Musuveni appointed the first female vice president in Africa who stayed in office for nine years, gave women numerous senior cabinet positions, appointed women to head strategic government agencies, and appointed women to senior ambassadorial posts. Our friend and the feisty and dynamic Ambassador of Uganda to United States, Edith Sssempela, is now one of the longest serving African Ambassadors to a Western nation, male or female.

Is Yoweri Museveni a saint? He is not. He is a normal human being who has done extraordinary things. More important, saints are often recognized when they are long dead. President Museveni has made mistakes like everyone of us.

However, no political opponent of this president doubts his abiding love for Uganda, his total and complete commitment to the welfare of all Ugandans, and his unfailing confidence on the ability of his people to overcome all odds. For a man who decided with a group of 27 individuals to give up the comfort of an upper middle class lifestyle to live in the bush and fight for the political emancipation of his people, his relentless fight in the struggle against AIDS should not come as a surprise.

Many of us will be happy to save one, two, three or ten lives in our lifetime due to our direct actions. President Museveni has literally saved millions of lives in Uganda. He has also saved millions more in other parts of Africa by his bold, courageous and principled fight against HIV/AIDS.

Please, ladies and gentlemen, join me in paying tribute to this illustrious son of Africa, an urbane but unassuming gentleman, and, a master political strategist. Yoweri Museveni is one of the few leaders in the world today whose love and dedication to the welfare of his people is never in doubt. The ultimate test of leadership is when your followers instinctively feel that you are looking out for their best interest, even when they may not necessarily share your opinion and strategies. President Museveni has reached such a status in his country.

President Yoweri Museveni, it is an honor for me to pay this tribute to you as a son of Africa and on behalf of CFA. You are without any doubt an icon and a living legend in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Thank You.

By Dr. Chinua Akukwe is a member of the Board of Directors of the Constituency for Africa, Washington, DC and former Vice Chairman of the National Council for International Health (NCIH), now known as the Global Health Council, DC.