The challenges of being independent in Uganda’s increasingly polarised and toxic debates
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | In March of this year, President Yoweri Museveni invited me to speak to National Resistance Movement (NRM) Members of Parliament (MPs) then on a retreat in Kyankwanzi. The day before I could travel there, one of the key organising persons called me. He said many MPs were bitterly protesting that an “enemy” has been invited to speak to them. He advised me to keep away.
That same evening, I received calls from many friends among NRM MPs all of whom told me that there was resistance to my invitation. Leading the charge was Minister for Security, Gen. Elly Tumwine who, I was informed, had mobilised a large number of MPs to his cause. I was thinking of not showing up when State House called me late in the night to confirm the time I intended to arrive. They also told me the President wanted to be personally present during my presentation. I understood this call to have been instigated by the strong resistance to my invitation.
Apparently, Museveni had been told of the resistance to my invitation and had overruled the objections. During the meeting, it was Museveni who introduced me to the MPs and invited me to speak. The great communicator he is, he began by saying that he had invited “a friend” who acts like the proverbial snake with two heads (ekirumira habiri – which bites both sides). “When he bites us,” he said with a beaming smile in his characteristic humor, “we feel the pain deeply. But when he bites our enemies (I would have called them opponents), they too feel his sting deeply to our pleasure.”
It was a very brief but effective introduction, lasting a little less than five minutes. By the time I rose to speak, the audience had changed. But it was also an interesting moment for me since many opposition activists claim I am a spokesperson of the NRM. The party’s MPs see me as an enemy. This experience improved my understanding of Museveni. He is a much more liberal minded politician than many of his colleagues in the NRM and critics in the opposition in spite of his occasional dictatorial tactics.
The crux of my presentation (Fortune favors the bold) was not to praise NRM but to challenge it. However, in the preamble I highlighted where Uganda was in 1986 and the journey it has made since, which I argued, has been remarkable by all measures. Then I went straight to the main issue. I think our country needs to get bolder and more imaginative in its policy-making and implementation. I said two things are critical for our future: first we need increased share of local participation in the economy, something NRM has neglected at great cost. Second, we need to add value to the goods we export i.e. take manufacturing seriously. The NRM has been poor on these two issues even though Museveni personally has spoken loudest about value addition.
I was pleased that NRM MPs listened attentively and applauded my criticism including Gen. Tumwine. This sets NRM, but most especially Museveni personally, apart from a large cross section of Uganda’s chattering elites; especially the two dominant cults in the opposition: the radical extremists of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) led by Dr. Kizza Besigye and its bastard child, People Power led by Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine.
I have grown increasingly alienated from and, therefore, hostile to these two cults. I find their behavior a threat to the liberal democratic ideals for which they claim to fight. For them one has to agree with them in a fanatical, uncritical and unthinking way to be their ally. Any criticism of their actions or policies (actually a lack of them), however mild and well intentioned, is tantamount to betrayal of country and selling of one’s soul that is deserving of destruction by physical assault or character assassination. They subject critics to online insults, abuses, false accusations, blackmail and worse.
And so it was that on Friday July 12, I tweeted criticism of the arrest of journalist Joseph Kabuleta by the police defending his right to free speech. Kabuleta posts things that are blatantly false and in bad taste. His tweet against Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Keinerugaba was even worse because it was filled with lies, ignorance and excessively personal, abusive and an abuse of free speech. I met him that evening and spent hours explaining my strong disagreement to him.
The radical extremists, rather than see this as an alliance of values, came out attacking me, claiming either my account had been hacked or I was a spy sent to mislead them. Anyone who has read my articles or listened to me would know that I hold strong liberal democratic convictions – not just in words, but also in deeds. The Independent newsmagazine, which I own and manage, runs weekly criticisms of me. My Twitter and Facebook accounts are filled with criticism of me by these radical extremists whom I can easily block but I don’t. I have only blocked those who make insults, which add no value to the debate.
Beyond my values lies my self-interest: I make a living from the existence of at environment of free expression selling news and opinions. I have 13 criminal charges against me relating to free speech. I am in court challenging laws against free speech. For the radical extremists the issue is not the defense of a principle but the defense of a person. If someone defended the right of a powerful minister like Sam Kutesa to a fair hearing, that means such a person is a supporter of Museveni and is paid to do so. Only when one defends such a right for Besigye or Kyagulanyi do they see value in it. They cannot understand why, while I strongly disagree with what Kabuleta posted against Muhoozi (who is also a close personal friend to me) I would defend his right to say it.
I am fiercely independent. I applaud Besigye’s courage and tenacity in his political struggle even though I disagree with his embrace of radical extremism. I defend the right of Kyagulanyi to free speech even though I find his pronouncements empty headed. I appreciate the economic achievements of the NRM even though I disagree with the mercenary way it has handed our economy to multinational capital. The inability of many opposition activists to appreciate this exposes them as intolerant of divergent views and therefore a threat to the little democracy we have.