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The Ugandan state unlawfully detains a novelist

On December 27th, in a series of tweets, the Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija described the president’s son as “obese”, a “fool” and an “inebriated curmudgeon”. The following day he tweeted again—to say that “gunmen are breaking into my house by force”. He has been detained ever since, in defiance of court orders. His wife has seen him only once, when he was brought for a search of their country home; she said that he was limping, wore bloodstained underwear and struggled to hold down a glass of milk.

On January 11th, in the absence of legal counsel and family, Mr Rukirabashaija was charged with “offensive communication”. Eron Kiiza, his lawyer, was permitted to see him on January 12th and says he has been tortured. (A spokesman for Special Forces Command, an elite army unit which Mr Kiiza says was responsible, denied that it was involved in the case; a police spokesman said that “torture is not a policy” and “we don’t use it in any way”.)

Mr Rukirabashaija’s case suggests that Ugandan security forces are more concerned with protecting the family of Yoweri Museveni, the president since 1986, than with upholding the rule of law. This is the third time they have detained Mr Rukirabashaija, who was last year named International Writer of Courage by English pen, an organisation which promotes freedom of expression. Alongside other Ugandan activists he has developed a brand of satire, ridicule and insult that has proved to be peculiarly effective in exposing the hypocrisies of Mr Museveni’s regime.

Mr Rukirabashaija’s troubles began in 2020 with the publication of his satirical novel “The Greedy Barbarian”, which describes the rise and fall of Kayibanda, the dictator of a fictitious African country. Although the novelist denies that his characters are based on real people, much of the material will be familiar to Ugandan readers: at one point Kayibanda quotes verbatim from Mr Museveni’s most famous speech. The protagonist is portrayed as a thief, a womaniser and a warmonger, who can turn himself into a snake or a crocodile, and “look into a person’s eyes and change their conscience”.

The most incendiary part of the book is its account of the fictional president’s family and their intimate relationships. In real life, Mr Museveni has concentrated power among those closest to him: his wife, Janet Museveni, who is education minister; his brother, Salim Saleh, a retired general who acts as his fixer-in-chief; and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, another general, who many believe is angling to succeed him. They all have unflattering analogues in “The Greedy Barbarian”.

The publication of the novel provoked a furious reaction from the state, which detained and interrogated Mr Rukirabashaija for a week. A few months later he was arrested again after publishing “Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous”, a memoir in which he described being tortured. He is not the only author to be targeted after taking on the president’s family. Stella Nyanzi, a feminist academic, recently spent nearly 16 months in prison after writing a poem about the vagina of Mr Museveni’s dead mother.

In their writing, and on social media, the likes of Mr Rukirabashaija and Ms Nyanzi deploy insult as a political tool. The authorities’ attempts to curtail this tactic, including through draconian laws on “offensive communication”, highlight the point they are making. Carol Summers, an American academic, has described how Ugandan activists in the 1940s used “radical rudeness” to challenge colonial power. Ms Nyanzi in particular stands in this tradition: responding to Mr Rukirabashaija’s latest arrest, she penned a filthy ode to the president’s son in which she mockingly offers him sex to placate his ire.

The detention of a novelist is a symptom of deepening repression in a country where hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested and many tortured over the past year alone. Although Mr Museveni has always dealt ruthlessly with opponents, he once left some room for public debate. That space is now shrinking. “People insult because they are not left with any other option,” says Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, a lecturer and satirical cartoonist. Unable to protest on the streets, “they have to create for themselves another front.”

The persecution of Mr Rukirabashaija “sends a chilling effect down the spines of writers”, says Mr Kiiza, himself a part-time poet. But repression has only raised the novelist’s profile. His case has been front-page news in the independent press and the national bar association has called for his release. His detention has also been condemned by foreign diplomats, an American senator and the eu special representative for human rights. The grim events may even attract more readers to “The Greedy Barbarian”—the story of an intolerant ruler who “viewed those who often disagreed with him as enemies” and “wanted to be king everywhere he went”.


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