A book so toxic none will touch it

The author’s telephone call, the result of a previous day’s introduction by a mutual acquaintance, came in at 2:34 p.m. on Tuesday, October 12. We agreed to meet at 3 p.m. to go over the programme for the next day’s event. The event was the launch at a swanky Kampala hotel of the book titled The Correct Line? Uganda Under Museveni. I was scheduled to chair the event, hence my meeting with Dr Olive Kobusingye, the book’s author, at a coffee house.

I got to the meeting at 3:14. But then something happened in the intervening 40 minutes. As Dr Kobusingye drove to the meeting with me, minutes after our telephone conversation, the hotel called to say they would not go through with hosting the launch event. Could she kindly go and pick her money. Thank you very much. She had paid about Shs4 million (US$1,800) earlier in the day and the hotel had happily received it and issued a receipt.

I found Dr Kobusingye and her assistant quite deflated although not entirely surprised because by that time customs authorities had been holding for nearly a week 500 copies of the book at Entebbe International Airport as they came in from the London publisher.

“Imagine the running around, writing and delivering invitations,” Dr Kobusingye, petite and polished, said. “Now I have to call all those I had invited to cancel. It is too late to find a new venue and print new invitation cards.”

The impounding of this book has once again shown how the insidious power of the present government has cowed people and businesses. The moment news broke on Sunday, October 10, that customs authorities had refused to release the book (books do not attract taxes in Uganda), it was clear no business in Uganda would touch it. To do so would mean the government coming after you, harassing you with all manner of tax claims, you would be denied contracts. Your business would get ruined. Not many businesses therefore have the heart to publicly not toe the (correct) line.

That is why a leading bookstore, initially welcoming, declined to sell the book. “They gave me no reason,” Dr Kobusingye told me. “They just said: come and pick the copy you left here.” Days earlier, they had asked her to not put the bookstore’s name on any of her promotional materials.

It is ironical that a government led by a man, President Museveni, who is himself a writer has started impounding written matter. The Correct Line? indeed juxtaposes the president’s writings over the decades with actual ugly incidents that have happened on his watch. The contradiction between soaring presidential rhetoric and his government’s actions is disturbing. The emperor is being shown to be utterly naked. Coming just ahead of the start of the current electioneering period, where Dr Kobusingye’s brother Dr Kizza Besigye will challenge President Museveni for power for a third consecutive time, it is not surprising the government fears that the book could remind voters in a coherent way of things it would rather they forgot.

As always happens in these circumstances, the government’s action has given the book and its author free international publicity. Yet there are smarter ways of undermining the potential influence books such as Dr Kobusingye’s, a government operative who does not support the impounding of the book told me on Tuesday.
“I expected us to have intelligence that the book was being published for sale in Uganda,” he said. “We would have got an advance copy and reviewed it just ahead of the launch. We would say in the review that the book is worthless because it is saying nothing new and is just politicking for Besigye. We would make sure our review is the first and we would put that review in a newspaper that is considered anti-government for the review to have some credibility. Finished. We would control, to a large extent, the message about the book. But we have blown it.”

For all that she describes in her book, Dr Kobusingye, who has lived in many parts of the world and is now in private practice in Kampala, was caught flat-footed with the confiscation of the book. She was braced for something else. “I expected that I would actually launch and sell the book but get attacked by Museveni’s attack machine – smear me, say I stole money from Mulago during my days there, call me a witch, etc.” It appears the government is in no mood to even smear anyone anymore. That is too much debate. There are ready blunt instruments to use.

About the Author: Bernard Tabaire is the ACME General Secretary. He is a former managing editor for weekend editions at the Monitor Publications in Kampala.

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