By Ivan Okuda
The East African Center for Investigative Reporting (EACIR), the publisher of the not-for-profit online publication, www.voxpopuli.ug is appalled by the continued detention and reported torture of writer and political activist, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. In no uncertain terms, we contend that kidnap, torture and inhumane treatment of a citizen of Uganda on account of their political views or even suspected infraction of the law, is despicable and reeks of creeping tyranny and assault on freedom of speech and expression in Uganda.
The award-winning writer landed in trouble when he published a number of tweets that were interpreted as critical, denigrating and inflammatory of the President of the Republic of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and his son, also, Commander of the Land Forces of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). The Uganda Police Force confirms it is holding the writer over his tweets on the person of the president and his dear son.
Whereas we recognise that the president and his dear son, as human beings with feelings have a right to get annoyed, irritated and disturbed by the nature of writings that the writer in issue publishes, we take exception with the attitude and mentality of the security agencies killing a fly with a sledgehammer in the name and spirit of enforcing law and order as and when the president or his immediate family has been the subject of social media vitriol. The president has the option of ignoring those who insult him, responding to them or enforcing his right to a good name by instituting civil action in the courts of law through such causes of action as defamation as Lee Kwan Yew, the former Great Leader of Singapore used to do during his tenure in office. Worst case scenario, to be or not to be on Twitter or Facebook is a personal choice and one has the option of exiting the platform if they cannot sustain the heat. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, rather than send the police and military to hunt after his critics on social media opted to leave the platform altogether. Therefore, there is an array of options available to the president. Torture, which the Commander-in-Chief himself has publicly condemned before, is not a desirable method of responding to a writer.
The use of the state to criminalise free speech and security agencies to gag citizens in the name of “offensive communication” does not augur well for our fragile democracy and is out of sync with the realities of a liberalised information and communication eco-system that the digital age presents in this day and age. Just how many can one arrest, torture or even kill over their tweets each time one is angered by those tweets? For how long and to what end?
Whereas one may take exception with the choice of words and sometimes overly colorful and disrespectful language of any author, we are of the considered view that Mr. Kakwenza enjoys poetic licence to deploy literary devices as he deems fit as a gifted writer. Sometimes, this may run afoul of established cultural norms, values and ethos of especially fairly conservative societies like Uganda where a history of authoritarian rule from colonialism, down to the Milton Obote, Idi Amin and now Museveni eras, makes questioning those in power akin to blasphemy.
Societies, however, evolve and adapt to change. In this day and age, it is out of fashion to expect that a univocal outlook of any one leader is achievable. Some will disagree and do so harshly, often-time with generous display of venomous language on social media which is free of the inhibitions of the old-school traditional media editors or debate moderators. Striking a balance between such people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression, in the interest of advancing the broader democracy project, on the one hand and the cardinal duty of the state to enforce law and order, including in digital spaces, is a mark and test of leadership. We note, with a heavy heart, that in the case of Kakwenza and many others before him, the Ugandan authorities have performed abysmally in this regard. In enforcing law and order, sometimes, they have instead, acted outside the law and violated fundamental rights and freedoms of their victims.
Indeed, writers before him, including Okot P’Bitek, Ken Saro Wiwa in Nigeria (1941-1995) and more recently, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, may have a tendency to arouse distaste among sections of the audience but that, we are deeply persuaded, is not reason enough to stifle their freedom of speech and expression, which, although not absolute, enjoys special protection in Chapter Four of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda and several civil and political rights instruments that Uganda, as a member of the community of civilized nations, is party to.
We further reiterate that if the Uganda Police Force and indeed any other security agency has reasonable grounds to suspect a citizen, of whatever professional calling or status, of criminality, the right thing to do is to accord the said suspect dignity and utmost observance of their fundamental rights and freedoms as per law established. We protest the fact that this did not happen in the case and circumstances of Mr. Kakwenza. This is the second time the writer has been subjected to such treatment.
This episode is a sordid reminder of the dark past as captured in the preamble of our country’s Constitution. In the Idi Amin era for instance, the writer of the book, The White Pumpkin,Dennis Hills, a British teacher in Uganda at the time, was kidnapped and tortured by the State Research Bureau in the same manner that Kakwenza has been cruelly treated. It took pressure from all quarters across the globe for the Amin government to release him. Similarly, in the Milton Obote (1 and 2) eras, several Ugandan writers and journalists found themselves in trouble for exercising their freedom of speech and expression. Since 1962, Ugandans cannot breathe as regime after regime keeps its knees on their necks!
The National Resistance Movement (NRM) and its leader, Gen. (rtd) Yoweri Kaguta Museveni raised the bar high and set a higher standard for itself/himself when it/he on the 26th day of January 1986 promised our nation and the world, “a fundamental change”. This pledge was understood as a departure from the past and a journey towards progress. He publicly labeled the leaders of the past governments, chiefly Amin and Obote, “swines” for the use of crude methods of resolving political disputes. It is, therefore, both disappointing and disturbing that the same government, under the watch of the same leader, is perpetrating similar human rights violations that remind Ugandans of the dark days.
Therefore, when we hold the NRM to a higher standard, we are not being unnecessarily hard on it but simply holding it to the high standards that it set for itself. It is in good faith. We expect better for this is a government run by fairly more enlightened men and women with capacity to intellectually engage and exercise better sense of judgement rather than evoke archaic and barbaric methods of semi-illiterates like Amin’s Isaac Maliyamungu who abused power with reckless abandon and impunity.
Accordingly, we call upon the government to reflect on our country’s troubled history and to listen to the cry of the people of Uganda, a people whose cry is that we do not return to the dark past and doldrums out of which this beautiful nation is supposed to have emerged and for which many in their thousands, paid the highest price with their lives.
We call upon the gallant men and women in uniform, charged with the noble duty of ensuring our collective safety as citizens, to follow the letter and spirit of the law. It is the right thing to do. It is good both for them and the people of Uganda. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Lastly, we associate ourselves with this passage from the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court of Uganda in Charles Onyango Obbo and Others Vs Attorney General:
A democratic society respects and promotes the citizens’ individual right to freedom of expression, because it derives benefit from the exercise of that freedom by its citizens. In order to maintain that benefit, a democratic society chooses to tolerate the exercise of the freedom even in respect of “demonstrably untrue and alarming statements”, rather than to suppress it. The point is well articulated in the following excerpt from an article by Archibald Cox in Society Vol. 24 p.8 No. 1 Nov./Dec. 1986 .
“Some propositions seem true or false beyond rational debate. Some false and harmful political and religious doctrines gain wide public acceptance. Adolf Hitler’s brutal theory of a “master race” is sufficient example. We tolerate such foolish and sometimes dangerous appeals not because they may prove true but because freedom of speech is indivisible. The liberty cannot be denied to some ideas and saved for others. The reason is plain enough, no man, no committee, and surely no government, has the infinite wisdom and disinterestedness accurately and unselfishly to separate what is true from what is debatable, and both from what is false.”
Ivan Okuda is the Managing Editor and Co-Founder, East African Center for Investigative Reporting (Publisher, www.voxpopuli.ug)