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Oh Uganda, the land of Beauty and Beast

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Picture: ANA – Kakwenza Rukirabashaija’s crime was daring to speak out against the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (pictured) and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

By Kim Heller

“Kneel down,” he instructed me, while at the same time forcing me to do exactly what he had told me. My knees were swollen and painful. I felt like the bones were falling apart upon kneeling straight as I had been instructed, but any slight hesitation would call for severe beating. “Mr Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, today you are going to tell me why you hate Muhoozi Kainerugaba and his father, the president, the fountain of honour.”

These are the aching words of award-winning Ugandan author and lawyer, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. His most recent book, The Savage Avenger, is an agonizing account of his brutal arrest and torture in his beloved Uganda. Rukirabashaija’s crime was daring to speak out against the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. In December 2021, Rukirabashaija was arrested and charged with “offensive communication”.

In his recently published book, he describes his terror inside the torture dungeons.

“They beat me like a snake and my buttocks were burning. I wailed like a child. I could no longer kneel; I was ready to die.” He writes, “after the first two days in the dungeon all I was thinking about was to get freedom and then flee the country”. “Initially, I had vowed never to abandon the struggle and go to exile even after the past two arrests and grievous torture but this time, I could not wait to get out and run for my life.”

Rukirabashaija was brutally tortured; his entire body was full of deep wounds. When he was finally released, his wife cried that he was “wearing blood instead of clothes”. After his tortuous abuse, Rukirabashaija was forced to flee Uganda.

The experience of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is not unique. He is one of many in Uganda who have been tortured for expressing views hostile to the President. A fellow Ugandan writer, Norman Tumuhimbise, along with a handful of journalists, was arrested last year. Like Rukirabashaija they too were charged for “offensive communication”. Their sin was to express unfavourable views on President Yoweri Museveni. Tumuhimbise, the head of The Alternative Movement was accused of using his online platform “to disturb the peace and quiet of the President”. Tumuhimbise alleges that he and his colleagues were tortured in detention.

The Pearl of Africa has become a place of oppression and danger for writers, journalists, social activists, and government critics. For those brave enough to speak out against Museveni they literally put their lives at stake. Torture is well and alive in Uganda despite the slate of legislation, including the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act, 2012 which prohibits such abuse.

The beauty of Uganda has been marred by a deep fountainhead of attack on freedom of expression. There is no “fountain of honour” in the beastly silencing of criticism and contestation.

The Freedom in the World 2022 report by US based non-profit company, Freedom House discloses how journalists and authors face arrest, harassment, intimidation, and assault in reprisal for their work. The report also cites how authorities routinely raid and shut down radio stations and other outlets and remove accreditation from journalists in retribution for their reporting. Reference in made to how during the 2020-2010 electoral period, journalists covering the campaign of Presidential hopeful Robert Ssentamu (popularly known as Bobi Wine) events were harassed, assaulted, and detained on various charges. Security forces assaulted 10 journalists who had covered Wine’s delivery of a petition to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) in Kampala. Wine himself had been prohibited from speaking on 13 radio stations.

The 2023 Freedom in the World report records that journalists were more able to publish articles critical of the government than in previous years, although there is an acknowledgement of how self-censorship is common practice. The report notes that those who criticise the president and “his inner circle’ face intimidation including harassment, assault, and arrest.

Rukirabashaija, is determined to challenge the suppression of dissenting opinion in his native Uganda. In a recent interview on BBC, he said that he will continue writing even until his “last breath”. He is determined to ensure that the pen is mightier than the sword.

A serial offender in writing about the transgressions of the Ugandan President and government, Rukirabashaija has penned two previous books which led to detention. The Greedy Barbarian, is satire, vividly tells the sorry tale of high-level corruption in a fictional country. The title of his second book, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, says it all.

In the afterward of The Savage Avenger, Ugandan author and journalist, Professor Milton Allimadi wrote; “What Uganda’s rulers don’t get is that clobbering words is impossible. As long as there is a pen left on earth, anger, sorrow, laughter, and cries will slip under every doorway, and between the bars of every prison. They will escape every hammer, and cross every border, even if the authors are no longer around. In this way, they are truly supernatural”.

“Oh, Uganda, the land of Beauty” is the proud and stirring national anthem of the country. But for all its undeniable beauty, the beast of suppression and torture of critical voices is an ugly and deadly spill indeed.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.