The story of Vincent Nzaramba’s arrest last month over a publication he had produced touched a nerve. As a writer and journalist, it hit me that the voice of free speech keeps deteriorating in the country and we are all at risk. The fear now is that we shall learn to self-censor the true stories that need to be told in order to survive. I wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe.
Originally published in the Boston Globe, Monday, 3 October, 2011
DON INNOCENT Wanyama, an editor with the Ugandan newspaper, Daily Monitor, wrote on Facebook, “I had never paid attention to who Vincent Nzaramba was. But our gov’t, as usual, makes me take note. I have just downloaded a copy of his book – which has caused security agents to detain him. Surely, with our poor reading culture why detain someone for writing a book? The regime should worry more about someone who sings. . .’’
Vincent Nzaramba is an activist who was arrested and detained by police for five days on charges of inciting violence in his book, “People Power – Battle the Mighty General.’’ Police also seized more than 200 copies of his book, which calls for President Yoweri Museveni to resign, demands the reinstatement of the presidential term limits, which were lifted in 2005, and rallies Ugandans to demand change, Arab Spring-style.
Referring to the program the National Resistance Movement used when it took power in a violent coup in 1986, the book highlights how Museveni’s government has actually turned into the dictatorial regime it was professing to fight. Key points of the program included restoration of democracy; security of persons and property; consolidation of national unity; elimination of forms of sectarianism; restoration and improvement of social services and rehabilitation of war-ravaged areas; elimination of corruption and misuse of power; and cooperation with other African countries.
Nzaramba’s book refers to the Arab Spring and how it can be reenacted in Uganda, a topic that has caused many African leaders unease. With the African Union belatedly recognizing Libya’s National Transition Council government, long-staying leaders, including Museveni, have reason to be concerned and will likely clamp down on any form of expression questioning the legitimacy of their leadership styles. The book talks of a possible coup d’état and details Uganda’s history of violent change, but emphasizes that Ugandans should turn instead to the non-violent revolution as seen in the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
This is the second time that the Ugandan security operatives have impounded books, inadvertently making the books and their authors popular. In late 2010, customs officials at Entebbe Airport impounded copies of “The Correct Line: Uganda under Museveni’’ by Dr. Olive Kobusingye, sister of Ugandan Forum for Democratic Change opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye, claiming it had security connotations.
Readers tend to stay in the safety of their homes, watch from the periphery and wait for the violence to end.
The confiscation of books shows just how vulnerable and critical to criticism Museveni has become. Sadly this is a familiar story in Africa, where liberators often turn into the very dictators they claimed to have ousted from power.
Police argue that both Kobusingye and Nzaramba incite violence in their books, but a reading shows otherwise. Both books analyze the two-and-half decade rule of Museveni, using information from existing books and newspaper reports, thus revealing nothing new.
Few Ugandans read, and the ones who read are not participating in the recent mass protests in Uganda. Readers tend to stay in the safety of their homes, watch from the periphery and wait for the violence to end. The Ugandans who have participated in recent protests are what Bishop Zac Niringiye refers to as the paradoxical classes, who are disenfranchised socially, politically, and economically, and form good fodder for riots.
This class is not reading books. It is listening to radio. After the 2011 presidential elections, political analysts in Uganda expressed fears that the next five years would see a Museveni less tolerant of criticism and would move to clamp down on media freedoms and spaces. The arrest of Nzaramba affirms these fears.