Uganda: Cartoonists wonder how long they can criticise without attracting Museveni’s ire

By Musinguzi Blanshe, Chris Ogon
Posted on Thursday, 14 April 2022 10:20

Cartoon caption: “If you touch the anus of the leopard, you are in trouble" Museveni warned in 2015. But writers such as Kakwenza Rukirabashaija continue to dare touch the leopard’s anus. Cartoon by Atukwasize Chris Ogon.
“If you touch the anus of the leopard, you are in trouble," Museveni warned in 2015. But writers such as Kakwenza Rukirabashaija continue criticise the powerful. Cartoon by Atukwasize Chris Ogon.

As space to criticise the government continues to shrink in Uganda, political cartoonists, whose drawings are often unsparing, have not attracted the anger of President Yoweri Museveni's government.

Many cartoonists, say it is surprising that they continue to poke fun and draw attention yet still walk free. Some say it will be a matter of time before the security agencies come for them.

The government is cracking down on activist writers. When arrested, they are usually charged with cyber bullying or disturbing the peace of the officials they target.

The most recent case of limiting freedom of expression that drew international condemnation was that of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, an author who was arrested, tortured and later charged with disturbing peace of Museveni and Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the President’s son and commander of land force of the Uganda army. Kakwenza escaped to Germany for treatment after his release.

Others with problems with the government include:

  • Stella Nyanzi, an activist and writer who has been jailed twice for criticising Museveni using social media also left Uganda for Germany in January. She was accepted on a writers-in-exile programme run by PEN Germany.
  • Lawyer Male Mabirizi is serving an 18-month jail sentence for criticising a judge using social media.
  • Norman Tumuhimbise who has also written books criticising Museveni was last month arrested with other journalists and charged with offensive communications.

Drawing what you think

While those writers are in prison or exile, the authorities have not been going after cartoonists.

“It’s surprising for any observer,” says Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, a university lecturer, author and cartoonist. “I get so many comments from people asking why I am never touched and others saying I could be working for the system.”

Ssentongo, whose cartoons are often published by The Observer, a weekly newspaper in Uganda, tells The Africa Report that he does not draw cartoons with the thought that he might be charged for it. But in the current environment, he says “You would have fear.” And the fear is due to the fact that he not know how his cartoons will be received.

Cartoonist for an independent

Atukwasize Chris Ogon, an editorial cartoonist for The Daily Monitor, the only independent daily newspaper in Uganda, tells The Africa Report that he receives anonymous calls and messages of people threatening to harm him if he does not stop drawing cartoons of some people. He once received a summons from a person claiming to be from the investigations unit of the police. “They said a prominent politician had lodged a complaint about my work,” he says.

Atukwasize says he also receives messages from concerned friends who advise him to take it easy. On social media, Atukwasize’s followers often joke about collecting bail money in anticipation of a possible arrest wherever he posts some of his unsparing cartoons.

Atukwasize says his cartoons are sometimes rejected for publication at The Daily Monitor. Editors tell him that rejected cartoons are too sensitive. “Most of my rejected cartoons nevertheless end up on my social media platforms where I am the chief editor,” he tells The Africa Report.

Debate time?

Ssentongo works in academia, which he thinks is a subdued environment, with people focusing their attention on group interests such as salaries. He sees cartoons as an opportunity to promote activism, contribute to national debates and reach a wider audience. “Many of my cartoons are activist in nature,” he says.

Atukwasize says he has the same motivations. He says his cartoons are supposed to provoke thoughts by highlighting society’s problems.

Cartoons, Ssentongo says, are effective at initiating and sustaining debates. They can reach a wider audience because, if drawn with simplicity, they can be understood by the educated and the uneducated, he argues. He tells The Africa Report that he gets feedback on his cartoons shared in places such as State House and WhatsApp groups. When Ssentongo meets politicians he has drawn, they sometimes give him commentary.

But do cartoons have a real-word impact? “Sometimes, people simply laugh at these cartoons and it ends there,” he says.

Not taken seriously

Rukirabashaija, the author who fled to Germany, is fond of cartoons and two of his books had cartoon covers. He says government is not taking criticism through cartoons seriously. He argues that government thinks cartooning is comedy, and some government officials take pride in seeing themselves caricatured.

A regime as insecure as ours will finally come for and after everyone.

“I have seen several government people, once their cartoons are out, they even reach out to these cartoonists for the portrait of their cartoons to hang in their houses,” he tells The Africa Report.

Beyond humour, Rukirabashaija says the message that cartoonists communicate can be hard to comprehend for common people. As a result, the government might not want to be seen torturing cartoonists whose work has little tangible effect, he argues.

What lies ahead…

Space for criticism is diminishing fast, Atukwasize argues. “A regime as insecure as ours will finally come for and after everyone,” he says. Rukirabashaija argues that that there will eventually be more freedom. “I don’t think that we shall remain with Museveni forever,” he concludes.

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