Above Photo: Fellow writer Stella Nyanzi protests with her family for the release of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. (Facebook / Stella Nyanzi)
The so-called ‘world’s friendliest people’ are finding power in vulgarity as they protest the brutal torture of a novelist for ridiculing the dictator’s son.
“Men with guns are breaking my door. They say they’re policemen but are not in uniform. I’ve locked myself inside.”
This was the final Facebook post by Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, 2021 winner of the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Award, on Dec. 28. Within minutes of his post, Rukirabashaija was abducted by Uganda’s Special Forces Command, a military outfit notorious for torturing nonviolent activists.
Rukirabashaija — author of a political allegory novel and an autobiographical book detailing his previous torture — has only surfaced once since his brutal kidnapping. When his lawyer Eron Kiiza summoned Rukirabashaija’s captors to present him in court, they violated the summons and brought their victim to his rural home in Iganga to search his home, much to the terror of his wife and children. Showering for the first time in eight days while armed men stood watching him, he removed his bloody clothes and boxers as men ransacked his house looking for “evidence” of the tweet he had posted. In a few short hours, Rukirabashaija was again whisked away to an undisclosed location.
Meanwhile, the court magistrate signed off on Kiiza’s orders for Rukirabashaija to be produced in court. Special Forces Command refused to adhere to the court orders, a blatantly illegal act to which Rukirabashaija’s spouse, Eva Basiima, responded with a lawsuit.
A fragile dictator and his fragile son
Nothing spells male fragility like torturing a writer for weeks on end due to a single tweet. Shortly before Rukirabashaija’s abduction, he had been blasting government-bankrolled trolls on Twitter with his characteristically dense vocabulary. Eventually, he took a jab at General Muhoozi Kainerugaba — the son of dictator Yoweri Museveni — who is attempting to inherit the presidency from his brutal elderly father. “Muhoozi has humongous hips and breasts,” Rukirabashaija tweeted. “He’s obese. How can a soldier who went to genuine military training and exercises everyday have such a sedentary figure? God punishes the corrupt in a good way with a badge of stupid figure.”
Before dismissing Rukirabashaija’s tweet as reckless body-shaming, a little context may be useful. Soldiers in the Uganda People’s Defense Forces are allegedly subjected to forced hunger and sleep deprivation during their training. They are famously in shape due to the demands of their work, coupled with their wretched living conditions. In Uganda, an overweight middle-aged man of a prestigious title is said to “eat money.” In other words, he is massively corrupt and uses money or other means of force to coerce those who work for him with impunity.
According to one of Rukirabashaija’s tweets the day before his abduction, “No one in their sense of mind can support such a plump moustached pachydermatous inebriated curmudgeon.” (At risk of mispronouncing words he did not know, one police spokesperson refused to read these tweets in his statement to the press on the extrajudicial arrest of Rukirabashaija.)
Kainerugaba reacted to this tweet swiftly by wrangling his armed men to forcefully enter Rukirabashaija’s home and whisk him away. The day after the abduction, Stella Nyanzi, a poet so vulgar that her Facebook posts have landed her in prison for years, published “Sex in Exchange for Kakwenza,” a graphicly incendiary poem directed at Kainerugaba, putting his atrocities in the spotlight for her hundreds of thousands of followers.
It is also worth noting that the very act of using social media to discuss matters of public concern — even when not directly attacking a member of the first family — is an act of civil disobedience by Ugandans. After placing a daily tax on social media use, Uganda’s government placed an outright ban on Facebook, a platform used by many small business owners to earn a living. VPN downloads in Uganda have skyrocketed since the tax and the Facebook ban.
Striking back against citizens circumventing the ban, Uganda’s government greedily imposed an additional 12% internet tax, even while children across Uganda were subject to the world’s longest school shutdown. Just as the most modest forms of peaceful dissent in Uganda are met with brute force, everyday use of the internet is also now effectively criminalized.
State co-optation and a baby’s arrest
The timeline of these events overlap with another national scandal. On the first day of the new year, NBS Television reported that the Uganda Human Rights Commission, or UHRC, denounced criticism of Uganda’s security agencies. UHRC boss Margaret Wangadya said that security agencies were being wrongly portrayed as leading human rights abusers. Public comments like these continue to reveal the co-optation of human rights institutions by the Museveni family.
In response to Wangadya’s remarks, the pressure group Friends of Kakwenza showed up to protest at the offices of UHRC, directly opposite the Uganda Police Force national headquarters. Activist Nana Mwafrika — who lost her uterus to police brutality and now walks with a cane — came to the offices with Rukirabashaija’s two-year-old son. Moments after her arrival, security operatives fully clad in anti-riot gear invaded the premises and arrested both Mwafrika and the young boy, who had offered his toy trucks in exchange for his father. The duo was forced into a police van and released on bond later that day.
The malfeasance of regime-captured human rights institutions like the UHRC illustrates an endemic challenge in Uganda. Even would-be allies caution the most modest forms of nonviolent action against Museveni’s brutal regime and insist on taking reformist action through state-controlled “proper channels.”
Unfortunately international bodies such as U.N. agencies and embassies are perhaps even worse than national human rights offices. Just as the U.N. deliberately suppressed media freedoms during a month-long 323-person occupation of one of their offices in northern Uganda, there is nothing but a loud silence on Rukirabashaija’s torture from most of the foreign missions.
A legacy of performative colonial courtesy
Such cynical apathy and regulation of the means of resistance is inherited through colonial history. “The colonizers used politeness to control and subdue us,” Nyanzi Explained. “This is why radical rudeness emerged. It was in defiance of this passively courteous subjugation.”
Academic Carol Summers has explored how Ganda resistance to British diplomacy in the 1940s took the form of disorderliness, insults and other forms of rudeness. Nyanzi sees her academic work, poetry and activism as a kind of appropriation of this tradition. If the Museveni administration has accelerated colonial policies of domination, she has also inspired a new generation of writers and activists to take up their pens and gadgets and spew hellfire upon those who are most greedy and bloodthirsty.
This radical rudeness has emerged despite the fact that Ugandans are highly religious and extraordinarily polite, in one survey being named the world’s friendliest people. But everyone has their limits, and for an increasing number of Ugandans, four decades of the same family in power is one such limit. Rukirabashaija and Nyanzi are not the only Ugandan writers to borrow a leaf from their vulgarly long-winded anti-colonial predecessors. Youth such as Ashaba Annah are honing their own courageous foul-mouthed power with lines like, “I want to be Museveni’s side chic. I want to kiss his ears, gently squeeze his nipples and whisper to him that that boy on Twitter [Kainerugaba] keeps embarrassing the family every time he gets into keyboard exchanges.”
While crude language may not bring the brave Rukirabashaija back to the land of the living, it has played an extraordinary role in shifting public perceptions of what is and is not acceptable. For the foreseeable future, “Fuck kidnappers” will continue to be Uganda’s protest mantra. “We welcome the world to join us in scathing Muhoozi,” said a member of Friends of Kakwenza. “Your abusive tweets can be directed to the gym-dodging drunkard at @mkainerugaba.”