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Kanaabi: Sedition’s lone victim

By Matthew Stein

During a recent press conference organised by the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) in the wake of the Andrew Mwenda and Eastern Africa Media Institute sedition victory, Mwenda recalled his four days of detainment with pride and fondness.  ‘Going to jail for me was a very important milestone,’ he said defiantly. ‘My experience in jail was wonderful. I was able to stay with ordinary prisoners and see the challenge of the prison system in Uganda. The police were very nice to me, the president’s son came to see me, a sign that he also believes there should be democracy in this country, as did other ministers and the president’s brother, Salim Saleh.’

When Mwenda concluded, Kanaabi, the acting executive secretary for Independent Media Council and the only Ugandan journalist ever convicted of sedition, was asked how his time in jail compared to Mwenda’s. He dismissed the question initially, answering, ‘You want to write my biography?’ But days later Kanaabi agreed to sit down with The Independent to share his experiences, which we learnt were dramatically different.

Haruna Kanaabi has been charged with sedition on two occasions. The first, in 1993, occurred after the Shariat newspaper ran a front page opinion that derided several ministers from trying to garner support for Museveni from an apparently disinterested crowd in Tororo. The opinion argued the ministers would have been better served sharing their encouraging words with Museveni’s cows. Kanaabi, then sub-editor of the paper, says he was only responsible for the article’s headline, but it was enough to land him in jail for a week before being granted bail.

The second occasion took place in 1996 after Museveni toured Western Uganda and parts of Rwanda. Museveni was quoted in The Nation assuring the people of Rwanda that he was there to write a new history and to make sure the unprecedented violence of 1994 would never repeat itself. ‘He spoke as if he was president of Rwanda,’ recalls Kanaabi. As a result, Shariat ran an opinion that mocked Museveni for turning Rwanda into Uganda’s 40th district (there were only 39 at the time). The same afternoon that the story came out, Kanaabi was arrested on charges of sedition for a second time, except on this occasion he would be remanded to Luzira for a much longer period.

‘Mwenda never went to jail,’ Kanaabi says as he was re-presented the original question. ‘He was held in detention. Luzira is a very different place.’ In Luzira, Kanaabi explained, there were no visitors. With exception from 8am to noon, when Kanaabi and other ‘high class prisoners’ such as professors and accountants would congregate under a tree outside to exchange thoughts and experiences in what was referred to as the ‘school party’, he remained behind bars. By 3pm every day, the cell that would house Kanaabi and 70-80 other prisoners would be closed permanently for the night. ‘Once a man collapsed from a heart condition and they still refused to open the cell,’ recalls Kanaabi.

At Luzira, says Kanaabi, the food is simple’posho and beans’and is served only once daily. Prisoners are denied newspapers and are only allowed to keep one shirt. Cells are cramped, toilets don’t work and prisoners are forced to sleep on the ground. But the hardest part for Kanaabi was the communal showers. ‘That was the first real shock for me,’ he recalls. ‘I did whatever I had to avoid looking at other men naked and them seeing me naked.’ Consequently, Kanaabi would resort to washing himself with a jerry can over the toilet in his cell.

Kanaabi remained in Luzira for the duration of his four month trial. During that time he appealed to the Supreme Court to be granted bail, the first person to do so in Uganda’s history, but was denied. Although Kanaabi was found guilty of sedition at the end of his trial, the magistrate’s ruling was ambiguous and questioned the constitutionality of the charge and he was released by the officer in charge of the prison shortly afterward.

On the outside, Kanaabi’s and the Shariat’s problems continued. Harassment and intimidation of reporters and Shariat vendors persisted: ‘One time a Muslim vendor of ours returned to our office with all the papers,’ says Kanaabi. ‘He said an official had told him that he was against the government and if he continued he was going to cause himself trouble.’ The same message was spread to other vendors and eventually led to the demise of the publication.

The Aug 25 verdict was a huge victory for Kanaabi and his colleagues but it still can’t erase what has been stripped from him. ‘When I look back at the suffering I went through, the intimidation, the money, the energy wasted by police, prosecution, the courts, because somebody wrote something about the president that he wasn’t happy with,’ Kanaabi reflects at the end of the interview, ‘I ask myself what was the point of it all?’

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