Chilling effect of Kakwenza’s arrest
Kampala, Uganda | MUBATSI ASINJA HABATI | The arrest of novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija has laid bare what many political observers say are tactics from the playbook of leaders who have clung to power too long, lack legitimacy, and have resorted to using security operatives to arrest dissenting, critical, or contrarian citizens and holding them incommunicado with impunity and total disregard to the law.
Kakwenza, the 2021 winner of the international writer of courage award from PEN International which fights for the freedom of writers who are harassed, jailed, tortured, killed, was violently arrested from his home in Kisasi, a Kampala suburb, on December 28, 2021.
“Men with guns are breaking my door,” the 33-year old tweeted at the time. “They say they are policemen but are not in uniform. I’ve locked myself inside.”
He was detained in unknown places and allegedly tortured. His crime has not been stated as he has not appeared in any court. But he reportedly harassed President Museveni and first son Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba on his social media accounts.
Kakwenza’s continued detention is in breach of an order issued on Jan. 04 by the Makindye Grade One Magistrate Irene Nambatya directing his unconditional release.
“Every police officer should comply with the above order,” Nambatya ruled saying Kakwenza should not have been detained beyond the allowed 48 hours without being arraigned in court as it violates his constitutional right to liberty and fair hearing.
This is the third time Kakwenza has been arrested in a period of two years. He was first detained in April 2020 following publication of his allegorical novel `The Greedy Barbarian’ which describes high level corruption in a fictional country. He was arrested a second time after he published `Banana Republic’ which describes his incarceration at by military intelligence operatives.
Kakwenza was briefly brought out of detention on Jan.03 and driven to his country home in Iganga where heavily armed security officials ransacked his house for nearly three hours. His wife, Eva Basima, and three young children were terrified. His wife said he left behind a shirt and underpants with dried blood stains on them. His legs were swollen and he looked starved. She said she saw sharp piercings on the soles of his feet, leading her to suspect her husband was made to walk on nails.
The wife has since filed an application in Civil Division of the High Court against the Commander of the Special Forces, Brig. Gen. Peter Candia, the Director of Criminal Investigations Directorate, Grace Akullo, and the Inspector General of Police Martin Okoth Ochola, and the Attorney General. She wants court to order them to produce her husband dead or alive.
Analysts say the torture meted on Kakwenza and others is a departure from the relative tolerance of criticism that has for long been exhibited by President Yoweri Museveni that now seems to be waning.
Renowned journalist and political commentator Charles Onyango Obbo says repression under Museveni has become similar to that under the late dictator Idi Amin Dada.
“Though artists, writers, playwrights have endured repression in every period in Uganda, only in Idi Amin’s did they see the level of violence they face today: Byron Kawadwa, Dan Kintu, John Sebuliba, John Male etc. were all tortured/disappeared/executed in Amin’s time,” he tweeted after reading the narration of Kakwenza’s arrest.
Zziwa Zinabala, a poet and playwright, says “freedom in Uganda is a wrong dream”.
“No matter, how much we dream there will be a penalty meted to anyone dissenting in opinions in this country. It is not about writing. It is about hubris syndrome.
“It is only an insecure person, that would be so much scared of writers. It is only a low self-esteem person that can mete pain onto a body of another person just to cause a timid generation,” he says.
He says the arrest of Kakwenza is meant to intimidate writers.
“Will you be able to write again if Kakwenza throws in a towel due to torture? Writers in Uganda need to learn to step up and fight together because we all write to share ideologies about life,” Zziwa says.
Kakwenza’s arrest has also focused international criticism on Museveni’s government.
The European Union (EU) Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore, on Jan.05 urged the Uganda government to accord Kakwenza due process of under the law.
“Uganda: I’m alarmed by reports of alleged torture and incommunicado detention of author (Rukirabashaija Kakwenza). He remains in detention without trial, despite a court order for his unconditional release. I urge Ugandan authorities to uphold rule of law and due process,” he tweeted.
PEN International has called for his immediate release and described his arrest as unlawful and violent.