What you need to know:
- Good leaders know that power ought to be exercised with restraint and responsibility; they don’t torture people who say things they do not like. They ignore the shit and smell the flowers.
It is a week since unidentified gunmen turned up late in the night, kicked in the door to his house and took away Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a 33-year-old writer with a penchant for satire and lampooning officialdom.
Kakwenza, as he is best known, is not a stranger to controversy – or to the high-handed ways of our increasingly fearsome “security agencies”. He was arrested in April 2020 after he published his novel, The Greedy Barbarian, and again in September that year when he wrote about his experiences in custody in Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous.
On both occasions no trials followed the arrests. But his tribulations were enough to earn him the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage prize last October.
Few people would have heard of Kakwenza two years ago; today he is a household name across the world, the latest symbol of a young country straining at the leash for freedom.
It is not clear what Kakwenza did this time. He has been held beyond the 48 hours allowed under the law, and both his family and lawyer say he has been tortured.
A spokesperson for the Criminal Investigations Department said he would be charged under the Computer Misuse Act, the latest weapon fashioned against critical voices online – but that is unlikely to go anywhere; the arrest and alleged torture is the punishment; the rest is detail.
And that is the problem; countering online abuse with abuse of the law and state institutions.
Article 29 of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression. This freedom is not absolute, and anyone enjoying it should not prejudice the rights or freedoms of others. That is why we have laws against libel and defamation.
The Constitution is clear; any restrictions to the enjoyment of any freedoms cannot go “beyond what is acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society”. And Article 44 spells out that there can be no justification for torture, detention without trial or the right to a fair hearing.
In his historic ruling in the case that struck down the law against the publication of false news, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Mulenga, now deceased, brought the argument home: the Constitution is not meant to protect people who say the things we want to hear; it is precisely meant to protect those who say those things we do not wish or want to hear.
The internet and social media are full of many nasty things, many of which are malicious, malevolent and mendacious. There are three ways to deal with them. The first is to counter the argument, if it is worthy of a response, with the facts. The truth is notoriously slow, but it always overtakes the lies.
The second, where it is less of an argument and more of abuse or ridicule, is to follow the law, identify the culprits and put them to task to prove their allegations in a competent court of law.
The point here is the rule of law. The person seeking justice must show that they are better than the person they are taking to court. It is a key tenet of civilisation. It is also a legal requirement that those who seek justice should come with clean hands. Bringing a suspect to court when you are covered in their blood and they are wincing in pain from torture you have subjected them to is not the done thing.
Neither, for that matter, is taking the law in one’s hands and handing out arbitrary punishment. Might is not always right.
But there is a third way which many leaders will find quite effective. It is called the ignore-and-do-nothing option. People in power or positions of authority should, overtime, develop the thick skins that allow them to withstand withering commentary and even insults.
This is not to say that leaders do not have feelings or are not allowed to catch them. The scented roses of leadership come with the prickly thorns of unfair judgement, intrusive scrutiny and even abuse. Good leaders know that power ought to be exercised with restraint and responsibility; they don’t torture people who say things they do not like. They ignore the shit and smell the flowers. Free Kakwenza.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.