Banning book could be a blessing in disguise

Friday October 15 2010

By Kiflu Hussain

On October 10, one of the headline stories in Sunday Monitor that pointed to the slow but sure death of freedom of expression was titled Government seizes pro-Besigye book at Entebbe Airport. It sent me into unsavoury philosophising that even questioned the wisdom of the “omniscient” God wherein he piqued Adam’s interest by pointing to that “forbidden fruit.”

The fateful fruit/aka the tree of knowledge/, might never have been noticed, had it not been pointed out to Adam. In an oversight inconsistent with omniscient power, God inexplicably/at least to my blasphemous mind/had forgotten that human beings whom he created in his own image, have the same burning desire to attain knowledge, especially knowledge that’s made inaccessible or hidden to them.

Whether the knowledge sought is worthwhile or not is beside the point.
During the absolute monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie, the works of an Ethiopian writer named Abe Gubegna, was banned while he himself was banished. That, however, fuelled the underground distribution of his book titled, I Shall Not Be Born, which catapulted the author to fame.

Instead of reforming his government by taking heed from the attempted coup in 1960, Haile Selassie continued to be more autocratic to the extent of seeking the banning of a publication of a book in the United States. Unfortunately, he drew more attention to Richard Greenfield’s Ethiopia; A New Political History published in 1965. I remember eavesdropping as a child on a discussion of this book in a hushed tone by his own trusted officers among who was my father.

Then came the tragic story of a renowned journalist and author who also happened to be a vice minister of information during the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The author, named Baalu Girma, who vanished in thin air right after the banning of his book titled, Oromai, in 1983 exposed the profiteering of high ranking officers on the war in Eritrea. He paid dearly with his hitherto unexplained disappearance. Yet, his work went down in the subterranean history of Ethiopia as one of the most widely circulated book.

In 2005, Dr Berhanu Nega, who was incarcerated for winning in the rigged election, not only wrote an earth-shaking book titled The Dawn of Freedom right there in the maximum security concentration camp. He also managed to smuggle out the manuscript whereby it apparently got published by MM Publisher in Kampala, Uganda, and was sent back for distribution in Ethiopia. Around 10,000 copies secretly became instantaneous hot sale.

The two remaining books that are still most sought after and are distributing widely were written by an insider named Tesfaye Gebreab, who fell out with his comrades in the Zenawi régime. The book’s titled, The Journalist’s Memoir and The Author’s Memoir depicted the scandalous nature of the present Ethiopian officials along with their excesses in corruption and abuse of power in the most hilarious and satirical fashion Amharic language can get to be which added to the universal appeal of the book.

To Ugandans and other non-Ethiopians who read this paper, the mere mention of The Satanic Verses authored by Salman Rushdie would suffice to illustrate how books that might have gone unnoticed on bookstores become instant bestsellers, thereby making their obscure authors overnight celebrities.

Thus, the seizure and probably the total banning that awaits Dr Olive Kifefe Kobusingye’s book titled, The Correct Line? Uganda under Museveni could be a blessing in disguise.

It is the best advertisement given for a book free of charge. Nonetheless, it’s saddening to see on display Meles Zenwai’s biography written by a sycophant or Yoweri Museveni’s own book titled Sowing the Mustard Seed while books written by ordinary folks are banned.

Mr Hussain is an Ethiopian refugee in Uganda
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