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The torment of Ugandan writers, and Yoweri Kaguta’s last chapter

In these coronavirus-troubled times, you would think the Uganda state has no time for wanton repression, but apparently it has.

On April 13, 2020, security officers seized Kakwenza Rukirabashaija for his book The Greedy Barbarian, and he hasn’t been seen or heard from since (he was formally charged in court on Monday and remanded-Editor).

In an appearance requesting court to order the state to produce his client before it, Rukirabashaija’s lawyer said that the book is about a dictator, Kayibanda, who clings to power and is greedy and incompetent.

Kayibanda rules for 43 years and is succeeded by a new leader who appoints people on merit, quits power and hands over power peacefully. That bit has an uncanny echo of musician, opposition and MP, Robert Kyagulanyi’s (aka Bobi Wine) song, the controversial 2019 hit Tuliyambala Engule (We shall wear the victor’s crown).

The arrest of Rukirabashaija is a classic case of people and governments with baggage having their conscience worried even when their failures are not directly addressed but their excesses are being condemned. It is a familiar story, but not yet a tired one.

In February, activist, writer and academic Stella Nyanzi was released after serving 18 months for alleged offences resulting for “insulting” President Museveni. Those insults were a preview of the 2020 Oxfam/Novib PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression winner’s book No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison, which was published immediately after her released.

In June 2019, Police raided the home of a 24-year-old Norman Tumuhimbise in Kasubi. He was arrested and accused of writing a book, Behind The Devil’s Line, containing “defamatory content against President Museveni.”

In August 2015, journalist and writer Daniel Kalinaki spent a night at Malaba border police post, after he was stopped for driving across from Kenya with his book, Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution.

In early October 2010, a consignment of Besigye kin Dr Olive Kobusingye’s book, The Correct Line? Uganda Under Museveni, ran into a spot of bother at Entebbe airport. Parliament requested then Uganda Revenue Authority commissioner-general Allen Kagina to explain the circumstances under which the consignment of books was seized at the airport. Kirunda Kivejinja, who was Internal Affairs minister at the time, had told the House that the books were held for irregularities in the documentation.

What got some MPs’ goat was that he had earlier explained to the same Parliament that the book, which slates Museveni for preaching water and drinking wine, had been seized because it had “security connotations.”

The Museveni system is trying to hold back with a hammer a river that has burst its banks. It won’t work. It is worth appreciating what is happening to see the futility of it. The longevity of his rule and its high pile of missteps and excesses, has matured into a huge source of inspiration for creative mockery, satire, and critical writing.

It takes a while for creative enterprise to coalesce around an object that so overwhelmingly captures its gaze. That has happened, and because the creative mojo rises, especially in captivity as Stella Nyanzi taught us only a few weeks ago, there is no physical way, short of killing the creatives, to stop it.

And even that doesn’t work, because that only fires up more people to join. This is attested to the fact that the growing number of critical material is from younger creatives. If you track songs, memes, blogs, social media pages, books (at home and abroad), jokes, and cartoons, they double about every two years, and spike dramatically after elections, in which Museveni ekes out a disputed victory, and leaves his rivals battered, or in handcuffs, even before the counting is done.

This avalanche of critical materials crowds out Museveni’s narrative, but even more profoundly, undermines his legacy, precisely because with every other year he adds to his long rule, his legitimacy wears thin, and his Achilles heel looms larger.

But, as many leaders have taught us, it is never over until it is over. In politics, it is always possible to rebalance the scale, and ensure that the last chapter on your rule is, at best, mildly favourable.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided the crisis in which Museveni thrives, and he has covered himself in some glory, despite the brutality of Police and LDUs, which he criticised. He would help his story a lot if he didn’t revert to type.

Mostly, he needs to call his dogs off, stop brutalising the people, and repressing the Opposition and critical writers and journalists.

Then he needs to crack down on corruption.

Hold a fair election, and make visible and credible departure plans. Even if he comes close to Kayibanda’s 43 years, there will be a considerable constituency that will judge him well. After all, this is a country where quite a few people today speak well of Idi Amin.

This article was originally published on Ugandan Monitor.

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