"The Torturers Have Humiliated Him" Opposition Figure Describes Detention of Ugandan Writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija

Uganda's perpetual president, Yoweri Museveni, is grooming his son as his successor. When satirical writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija went after the scion on Twitter, he was arrested and tortured. His opposition ally Stella Nyanzi spoke with DER SPIEGEL about the situation in her country.
Interview Conducted By Susanne Koelbl
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija holding up a copy of his bestselling book, which describes the torture he received during a previous stint in prison.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija holding up a copy of his bestselling book, which describes the torture he received during a previous stint in prison.

Foto: Kakwenza Rukirabashaija / Facebook

Lawyer Eron Kiiza was finally allowed to visit his client, the writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, fully two weeks after his disappearance. Rukirabashaija was carried into the meeting at Kitalya Maximum Security Prison by four fellow inmates, his arms and legs covered in bruises, his ankle apparently broken and his back an "open, festering wound," as Kiiza reported following the visit.

Rukirabashaija’s crime: He insulted the son of Ugandan perma-President Yoweri Museveni on Twitter, calling him "obese" and "pig-headed" and saying he has "humongous hips and breasts."

On Tuesday morning, a court ordered that the satirical writer be released on bail after 28 days in prison until the continuation of his trial. However, shortly after leaving the court, henchmen of the president's son kidnapped Rukirabashaija and took him away in a car, his lawyer confirmed a short time later.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986

Foto: Tiksa Negeri/ REUTERS

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, a close confidant of Rukirabashaija, the poet and feminist Stella Nyanzi, talks about how activists in Uganda are threatened when they publicly criticize the country’s ruling family.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Nyanzi, how is Kakwenza Rukirabashaija doing today?

Nyanzi: Rukirabashaija is in urgent need of medical care. I am in daily contact with his lawyer. Rukirabashaija's back is nothing but raw meat and the wound has become infected. In court, the trial had to be postponed last Tuesday due to the poor health of the accused.

DER SPIEGEL: What has Rukirabashaija been accused of?

Nyanzi: Rukirabashaija has "disturbed the peace of His Excellency the President of Uganda," the police protocol officially states. He is charged under the Computer Misuse Act, which was introduced in 2011 and which, in our view, serves solely to suppress freedom of expression.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the real reason for the brutal treatment he clearly received?

Nyanzi: Rukirabashaija publicly exposed the incompetence of the president's son. He denounced the injustices, the corruption, the nepotism of the ruling family, and this while Museveni is polishing his son's image as his successor.

A police document outlining the charges against Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.

A police document outlining the charges against Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.

Foto: privat

DER SPIEGEL: What role does Museveni’s son play in Uganda?

Nyanzi: Muhoozi Kainerugaba is already in command of Uganda's land forces, including the notorious Special Forces Command, which abducted Rukirabashaija from his home and tortured him. We do not want another 30 years of Museveni! We are not a monarchy where the power of kings passes to princes.

DER SPIEGEL: How can a writer be dangerous to those in power in Kampala?

Nyanzi: Rukirabashaija belongs to the educated elite. He is fighting to get rid of Museveni. The torturers have humiliated him, crucified him, stuck his head in the toilet. They are making an example of him for all of us. But he simply refuses to be silenced. He does not submit. Instead, after a previous stint in prison, Rukirabashaija immediately wrote his next book, "Banana Republic," in which he relates precisely how they tortured him. The book became a bestseller.

DER SPIEGEL: Where does his tenaciousness come from?

Nyanzi: Rukirabashaija’s stories encourage the frustrated to join him in raising their voices. Our pens threaten entire battalions. He knows that if there are more courageous people like him, it would definitely be a threat to the rulers. The president's legitimacy is fragile.

Rukirabashaija's lawyer Eron Kiiza (right) and PEN representative Konrad Hirsch at the Kitalya Maximum Security Prison, where the writer was given honorary membership in PEN Germany.

Rukirabashaija's lawyer Eron Kiiza (right) and PEN representative Konrad Hirsch at the Kitalya Maximum Security Prison, where the writer was given honorary membership in PEN Germany.

Foto: Kampala Lookman
"He will not allow himself to be humiliated."

DER SPIEGEL: Two visitors to the prison tell the same story of how Rukirabashaija was kidnapped from his home in late December and then severely tortured for several days. How does a person endure such a thing?

Nyanzi: When I was first arrested in 2017, four masked men abducted me. I was pregnant. They beat me for days in a place the location of which I didn’t know. Then I went to prison. There it continued. I lost two teeth and then the child. Lawyers and journalists were not allowed to visit me until the swelling had subsided. If we keep silent about these brutalities, we are no longer human beings, otherwise we die inside. We can't stop opposing it.

DER SPIEGEL: How strong is the opposition in Uganda today? You hardly hear anything about the singer and ex-presidential candidate Bobi Wine, for example.

Nyanzi: Bobi Wine is still allowed to sing about cars and love. But as soon as he sings about politics, he is the enemy and is muzzled. Since Bobi Wine challenged the president in the elections and so many young people followed him, they are cracking down even harder on the opposition.

Opposition figures Nyanzi and Rukirabashaija: "His back is nothing but raw meat."

Opposition figures Nyanzi and Rukirabashaija: "His back is nothing but raw meat."

Foto: Derrick Matte

DER SPIEGEL: What kind of support do you hope for from the international community?

Nyanzi: The country’s leaders need to know that the case is being watched internationally. PEN Germany has just accepted Rukirabashaija as an honorary member, and German PEN representative Konrad Hirsch presented the certificate to his lawyer in Kampala. That was important! For the prisoner, it means better treatment. The Red Cross should ensure Rukirabashaija's medical care and the European Union and the U.S. must demand Rukirabashaija's release!

DER SPIEGEL: You're packing your bags to start a fellowship with the PEN organization in Germany in February. What's next for Rukirabashaija?

Nyanzi: Rukirabashaija is a friendly, humorous man. But he will not allow himself to be humiliated and, if he survives this stay in prison, he will immediately write his next book. And it will be about who broke his ankle.

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