Let Paul Makonda come to America

Should active enemies of freedom be allowed into free countries? In 2007, speaking at Columbia University in New York City, then-President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad memorably declared that there are no homosexuals in Iran, drawing derisive laughter from the audience. He also made similarly outrageous remarks about the Holocaust and women’s rights in Iran. Thousands protested, and the world saw him for what he is – an ignorant bigot who as president exhibited “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” as the university’s president put it in his introduction. Untrue and immoral speech tends to discredit itself, especially under scrutiny, and that is precisely why it should not only be permitted but welcomed.

Secretary Mike Pompeo last week declared Paul Makonda and his wife, Mary Massenge, ineligible for entry into the United States. In a statement released by the U.S. State Department, Pompeo said he was banning Makonda “due to his involvement in gross violations of human rights, which include the flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.” He did not state which right violations specifically led to the decision. I say, let him come, and treat him to some good old American free speech.

Makonda is the administrative chief of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and commercial center. He rose to international infamy in 2018, when he urged the public to report suspected homosexuals, so that they can be tracked down and arrested. The result was panic in the East African country’s gay community and a massive outcry, which eventually prompted the government to distance itself, if only halfheartedly.

Makonda’s crackdown on sexual minorities is part of a broader attack on civil and political rights in Tanzania. Since President John Magufuli took office in 2015, his government has arrested opposition leaders, shut down newspapers, and launched a legislative assault on free speech and political dissent. Makonda is regarded as a close ally of Magufuli, and the U.S. State Department notes in its statement that “he has also been implicated in oppression of the political opposition, crack-downs on freedom of expression and association, and the targeting of marginalized individuals.”

John Magufuli’s face on comedian Idris Sultan’s body

In addition to orchestrating an anti-gay witch-hunt, questionable highlights of Makonda’s political career further include proposing a database of married men to curb infidelity, instructing nightclub owners in Dar es Salaam to allow church leaders to preach at their venues, and his involvement in the police harassment of comedian Idris Sultan in a row over face-swap photos of Sultan and Magufuli. Makonda has long been a laughing stock among Tanzania’s intelligentsia, and has proven beyond a doubt that he has no business in governance.

Makonda is a human rights pariah, and Pompeo is to be applauded for not mincing his words and publicly naming and shaming him as such. The world’s democracies have a moral duty to make human rights a cornerstone of international diplomacy, and to take human rights violations seriously, wherever they occur. The Trump administration, to which Pompeo belongs, in fact has itself earned its fair share of being called out. Banning Makonda and his wife from entering the United States, however, betrays the very values the ban presumably aims to promote, and is plainly counterproductive.

Human rights protect essential human interests, and many such interests presuppose the ability to move freely, both within and across national borders. It is important to have the ability to move freely in order to achieve goals that are central to a meaningful life. For example, one may wish to visit loved ones who live in a different place, pursue cultural or professional opportunities that are not available at one’s current location, or meet and exchange ideas with people at international conferences. That is why there is a right to freedom of movement, and one thing about human rights is that everyone has them equally. That includes Makonda. A country is not someone’s house, to which you may be denied entry arbitrarily, and the U.S. government would be morally justified in banning Makonda from entering only if doing so was to serve an extraordinarily important purpose that cannot be achieved otherwise. But it does not. There is no reason to believe that Makonda would pose a threat to anybody if he were to visit, or that he would be a financial burden to the United States. The same is true for Massenge, who seems guilty only of being associated with her husband. If the purpose of the ban is to send a message about the importance of human rights, surely there are better and more credible ways than to infringe upon those very rights, without trial and without recourse.

Having Makonda come to the United States would be an opportunity for the U.S. government to further emphasize its stance, including by denying him the honors usually afforded to visiting foreign dignitaries, and for people there to protest him and challenge his views without fear, which is not possible in Magufuli’s Tanzania. The brave Tanzanians who are working to change that – and towards the day when people like Makonda will not be able to misgovern with impunity – deserve our admiration and full support.

Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Let Makonda come,” News Ghana (Ghana, 7 February 2020)
“Let Makonda come,” Voices 360 (South Africa, 7 February 2020)
“Let Makonda come,” Nigerian Tribune (Nigeria, 7 February 2020)
“Let Makonda come,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 10 February 2020)
“Makonda: Why US travel ban is counterproductive,” The Citizen (Tanzania, 12 February 2020)