Last week, the police arrested outspoken Kampala pastor Joseph Kabuleta because he insulted President Yoweri Museveni in his weekly social media posts. In “Joseph Kabuleta Weekly Rant returns,” he slammed Fountain of Honour (President Yoweri Museveni) as “a Gambler, Thief and Liar”. The police deemed it an “offensive communication against the person of the President” and, for good measure, referred to Kabuleta as a “self-styled” pastor.
Kabuleta joins a growing list, including, most famously, Makerere University researcher, activist, and social media provocateur extraordinaire Stella Nyanzi, who has been held in Luzira prison since November 2018. The fierce Nyanzi, though, went where Kabuleta didn’t dare, making even references to body parts of the women in Museveni’s household and mother, in the fruity and colourful language made possible by the internet.
The fate of Kabuleta, and the torment of Nyanzi (who by the way will likely soon enter the record books as one of the people jailed longest for social media posts in East Africa) however, are the trees. They are not the forest. To see what is happening to the Ugandan political forest, we need to step back a little bit. The suppression of Nyanzi is different from any other of recent years in that it is against an individual standing alone, who is not part of an institution or movement (eg Kizza Besigye and FDC, or Bobi Wine and “People Power”,).
Unlike Nyanzi, Kabuleta is a pastor with a flock and church. However, in general, the Balokole (Born-Again), and independent churches in Uganda have mostly been an ally of State House, and more broadly the spiritual wing of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). While religious sects outside the mainstream have borne the wrath of the NRM government before, for example, in the bare-knuckled confrontation with the Tabliqs – seen as a radical Muslim fringe - in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this Kabuleta thing is the most serious break with the independent church and its cast of sometimes strange pastors.
Why it is happening is a hard question. For all my years as editor at The Monitor, and my continued writing, I would not consider describing Museveni in the way Nyanzi and Kabuleta did – although I probably consider him profoundly more anti-democratic than they do. And I would only have the most generous things to say about his now deceased mother Esteri Kokundeka.
Part of it is that I come from an old school that believes the children should not pay for the sins of their parents, nor should the parents pay for the sins of their children. The only exception is when the President practices nepotism, appointing an unqualified member of his family to a public office, or without reasonableness spends taxpayers’ money on them (flying them on the presidential jet to the end of the Earth at great cost to the Treasury to deliver his grandchildren).
That this has changed is down to the fact that, first, Museveni has now been President for donkey’s years. Secondly, it is an indicator of how much he has personalised the State. Many people do not see a difference between the Uganda State and Museveni’s household. Therefore, the “insults” of Nyanzi are partly an indicator of how some people measure the privatisation of the State by Museveni. Even his innocent mother, from her grave, is seen as part of its embodiment. Along with this, has come a decay in the prestige of Museveni’s government. The words Nyanzi uses, and Kabuleta calling him a “gambler, thief and liar”, I would never dream of. Partly because I think “Museveni leads a corrupt government” and “doesn’t keep his promises” are enough.
The other part is more complicated. It is generational. For any publicly spirited Ugandan over 50, the Museveni regime represents something different than for those who are younger than that. For the Ugandan baby boomers, our biggest shame and failure, were the Idi Amin era, the period after, the Milton Obote II period, and the bloody first decade and half of Museveni.
Handing over a country with a court system that works imperfectly, holds regular elections (even though they are rigged), an economy where the majority still suffer deprivation, but still better than in most of Africa and better than the period after 1972 to 1990, where water flows in the taps, there is electricity half the time, freedom to come and go, relatively low inflation and no shortage of goods, is a great deal – even if you had no role in making those things happen.
We have, in a way, atoned for our sins and past failures. Museveni is guilty of many missed opportunities, and embarrassing us with his excesses. Unlike for Nyanzi and, for that matter, Kabuleta, however he has not squandered our future, so we speak our grievances a little more gently. But damn, we fully understand their rage.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data.visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site. Roguechiefs.com.