Repression: The slippery slope of donor support

Police officers drag an Opposition supporter into a “drone” after the security forces thwarted a planned a planned joint Opposition prayers at Nsambya Sharing Hall in Kampala on December 30 last year. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • Whereas civil society activists and leaders describe feeling disempowered by what they describe as the “propping up” of the regime by the West through donations,  they also fear that the few services the public in Uganda can access would be the first to disappear if donors pulled out, writes Emmanuel Mutaizibwa.  

“How do you remove a dictator from Amsterdam?” asks a tweet, posted after an audience of 2,000 in the Royal Carré Theatre in the Netherlands is fired up with anger at the actions of Uganda’s leader, Gen Museveni. It is November 12, 2022, and the crowd has just seen a documentary about the thwarted presidential bid of Ugandan Opposition leader and Afrobeat star Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, who attended the screening. 
The film portrays the ongoing Oppression and torture of political opponents in a country whose president has been in power since 1986. 

The movie, titled The People’s President, is declared a “gripping story of resilience, sacrifice and courage in the face of great injustice”, according to a review on a Dutch news site, which went on to add that “people cried, got angry and were shocked at what happens in Uganda.” 

The screening in Carré prompts dozens of tweets from the Netherlands and elsewhere, expressing outrage about the Ugandan situation and solidarity with the Opposition, embodied in this case by Bobi Wine. 
One of 30 children of a veterinarian,  Bobi Wine, who was raised in Kamwokya, a Kampala City suburb, rose to fame by styling himself as ‘the ghetto president’ and singing songs in Luganda about politics and the plight of those in the “ghetto.” 
Some tweets from Uganda express hope at the sentiments coming out of Amsterdam. 
“Through this film, the world is getting to know the criminal enterprise which rules over our country Uganda!” writes one. 
But after the question, “how do you remove a dictator from Amsterdam?” is asked, spirits are somewhat dampened.

An ageing resistance movement
In Uganda, repression by Mr Museveni’s 37-year-old National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime is only intensifying. 
The country is home to one of the world’s youngest populations, with 77 percent of citizens below 25 years old. 
They are increasingly urbanised, disaffected and resentful, chafing under a securocratic state that has delivered little in terms of services such as healthcare and education. But protesting is risky, as the movie shows; dissidents live under the threat of abduction by state agents driving unmarked vehicles known as “drones”. 

Once captive, they face torture, potentially indefinite detention and even death, and according to Bobi Wine, more than a thousand of his followers have been abducted, detained and some tortured. 
Bobi Wine himself has also been arrested and tortured, while his driver was killed in 2021 and recently, on November 5 last year, his bodyguard, Mr Jamshid Kavuma, vanished. 
He was released after spending a month in prison where he alleged he had been tortured. 

Insulting the person of the President
For increasing numbers of social media-savvy youth, however, simply shutting up is not an option. Access to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and other platforms means seeing what life is like in more developed parts of the world. 
Meanwhile, the deference formerly granted to powerful figures has been replaced by instantly accessible information and memes about their age, corruption and incompetence. 

Hence the crowds of thousands who follow the rebellious academic and poet Stella Nyanzi as she unapologetically refers to Museveni as like “a pair of buttocks that just jiggle, fart and shit”, or the audiences who read the writings of novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, with their evocative titles like Banana Republic and The Greedy Barbarian. 
The two have both paid a high price for their outspokenness, however. 
Ms Nyanzi spent repeated stints in jail and faced a lengthy trial for the crime of “insulting the person of the President.” 
Mr Rukirabashaija made an ill-advised tweet in which he mocked Mr Museveni’s son and presumed heir, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, describing him as “obese”, “with humongous hips and breasts”, and asking how “a soldier …can have such a sedentary” body before stating that “God punishes the corrupt in a good way with (..) a stupid figure.” 

The tweet led to his detention and severe torture, during which he described having been beaten for days and flesh ripped off his legs with pliers. Both writers have since gone into self-imposed exile and taken up residence in Germany.
Torture is officially illegal in Uganda, but while Mr Rukirabashaija faced a speedy trial for his insults, his countersuit for torture has yet to be heard in Uganda’s High Court. 
President Museveni appoints all judges. 
The Opposition say this makes the Judiciary partial. 
They cite incidents where members of the security forces, who are implicated in illegal acts, are given light penalties even when there is compelling evidence against them. 
Commenting on such cases, Mr Museveni has stated that torture is not widely used in Uganda, and is the preserve of a few old officials with “colonial mindsets.” 

Phone hacking
A broad policy of repression has also been granted new tools in recent years, especially in the field of social media surveillance. 
In December 2021, diplomats at Kampala’s American embassy found that their phones had been infiltrated with the notorious Pegasus hacking software, which had been sold to the Ugandan state by Israeli arms manufacturer NSO. The programme can infect iPhones without the user’s knowledge, snooping on everything from voice calls through location data to encrypted chat messages. Eight months later, in August 2022, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that another Israeli company, Cellebrite, had sold the Uganda Police Force technology that would allow them to hack into cell phones. In a statement, Cellebrite did not deny the sale but claimed to be ‘scrupulous’ about the legal and ethical use of its products.

Police arrests then presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, during campaigns in Luuka District on November 18,2020. PHOTO / ABUBAKER LUBOWA. 

The Ugandan authorities are also buttressing their digital eavesdropping with an ever-widening suite of legal options to be used against those critics unfortunate enough to come to their attention. 
While Mr Rukirabashaija’s tweet was enough to have him charged with “disturbing the peace of a person”, in October 2022, a charge of “impersonating a soldier” struck a relative of US-based Ugandan journalist and pro-democracy campaigner Remmy Bahati after appearing in a group photograph alongside Ms Bahati while wearing an olive-and-black shirt. The charge formed the pretext for abducting and detaining a group of five of Ms Bahati’s relatives for several days. They were only released after Ms Bahati leveraged her large social media presence to coordinate a publicity campaign against the abductors.

Banning Google search
A relatively new legal instrument used for muzzling the Opposition is the recently amended ‘Computer Misuse Act’, which Ms Nyanzi’s expletive-laden rants were charged under. Minor TikToker Teddy Nalubowa was imprisoned under the same law after she recorded herself cheering the news of the death of former Security minister Elly Tumwine. New amendments to the Act bring social media more explicitly under its auspices, with up to 10 years in jail awaiting those convicted of spreading “unsolicited, false, malicious, hateful and unwarranted information.” It also outlaws “without authorisation”, accessing “another person’s data or information, voice or video records” and sharing “any information that relates to another person”, which effectively criminalises Internet searches into individuals.
On January 10, the Constitutional Court in Uganda nullified Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act. It is a victory for human rights activists Andrew Karamagi and Mr Robert Shaka, who had filed a petition to this effect. This specific section had been used to charge and detain activists Nyanzi and Rukirabashaija. Draconian sections of the law, however, can still be deployed against activists.


The Kingdom of the Netherlands
Undeterred, the Opposition, nevertheless, managed to continue to organise protests demanding an end to Mr Museveni’s reign, culminating in marches in central Kampala in November 2020. Caught on the back foot, the Ugandan security forces responded with unprecedented violence. Battle-hardened units of soldiers brought back from a deployment in Mogadishu, Somalia, unleashed tactics normally suited to controlling an insurgency. In the city’s narrow streets, they killed about a hundred citizens. 

At the same protest, police vehicles could be seen marked “with funding support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” The image, so shocking that it made headlines in the Dutch Volkskrant newspaper at the time, perfectly illustrated the bind in which Uganda’s Western ‘development partners’ find themselves. While they remain committed to supporting pro-democracy civil society movements, the West also retains a pragmatic relationship with the Ugandan state, which is seen as a pillar of stability in an otherwise volatile region. It thus finds itself forced to extend aid that, though earmarked for health, education and other public services, also frees up funds that the government can then spend on tanks, vehicles and weapons. Unsurprisingly, despite their frequent nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric, Mr Museveni’s government appears to have few qualms about accepting such aid. 

Mr Godber Tumushabe, the associate director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), said in an interview that it is vital for donors to support democracy more than repression, and that “aid for health and education” cannot be the only criteria. 
“Already, the health sector is ailing and education is less than first class,” Mr Tumushabe said. “You can only improve on these if you have a functional government.” 
He suggested donors should put funds “directly in the hands of the private sector and citizens rather than spending these on a corrupt government.” As another alternative, he suggested placing sanctions on “individuals who are abusing human rights and spending their corrupt loot roaming the world and giving a good education to their children abroad.”

Civil society activists and Opposition leaders in Uganda describe feeling disempowered by what they describe as the “propping up” of the regime by the West, demanding that development partners “stop paying our oppressors.” However, they also fear that the few services the public in Uganda can access would be the first to disappear if donors pulled out. This is why a previously absolutist position demanding the full suspension of funding was recently revised to explain that the Ugandan government aid should be stopped “in all but the most basic humanitarian sectors.” 
Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists suffering financial strangulation by the state continue to request funding for their activities. “Because even when you do your community work voluntarily, you still need money for transport and data,” said one. 

This article was first published in Zam Magazine