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Ugandan Activists Put Their Politics on the Printed Page

A Ugandan policeman holds up a newspaper, just before police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstration in downtown Kampala, Uganda, May 28, 2013. Some local activists are writing and distributing books that they hope can be as effective as placards.
A Ugandan activist who criticized President Yoweri Museveni's regime in writing was arrested and had his home searched as a result, even though his work had not been printed or distributed. But he is now going ahead and has released a book he had written about the president. Several Ugandan activists have taken their struggle to the printed page in recent years, although many are harassed by police and find their books refused by bookstores or impounded by the government.

When 27-year-old Norman Tumuhimbise was arrested by Ugandan police last June, it was because of a suspicious object they had found in his backpack. But it was not a bomb. It was a book, one the young activist had written himself, and it had not yet been published.

The book, Behind the Devil’s Line, criticizes the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 27 years. Museveni has ruled for so long, said Tumuhimbise, that many Ugandans are too young to remember what he promised in his early years. That, he says, is why he had to write.

“When he was promising what he promised, I was four months old. I just found some of these things on record and tried to compile now what he promised, and ask my age-mates, ‘Is it this that he promised then that he is doing now?’ That’s what my book is all about,” said Tumuhimbise.

In recent years, many Ugandan authors who criticized the government in print have been harassed by the authorities here, or wound up under arrest.

Tumuhimbise was held and interrogated by police for 24 hours, and his home was searched. He was charged with publication of inflammatory matter and released on bail. A government spokesman says the book is “propaganda” that does not deserve to be read, but Tumuhimbise insists he did nothing wrong.

“There’s no law that bars anyone from writing a book in Uganda, as far as I know. My book does not incite people to come and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the recruitment center and begin a rebellion.’ It talks about what this man was promising and what he has done wrong,” explained Tumuhimbise.

Earlier this week, the Ugandan parliament passed a tough new Public Order Management Bill, making it illegal for three or more people to discuss politics in public without informing police. Olive Kobusingye, sister of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, said this could well change the nature of political debate.

“I think and hope that people will maybe write more, read more, be less complacent about how things are done, and less accepting of their rights being taken away by a regime that is bent on doing that,” said Kobusingye.

Kobusingye’s own book, The Correct Line?, published three years ago in Britain, was impounded by Ugandan police when she tried to ship it into the country. She was forbidden to launch the book, and major bookstores turned it away.

But, she added, even before the new bill passed, writing was still a relatively safe way to criticize the government.

“You haven’t put your life at risk going on the street. All you’ve done is write ideas, and they are accessible to any and everybody that will pick up a book. And try as they might, the government is not going to find it very easy to push away these ideas. I can vanish today, and my ideas will be there,” he said.

Alternate forms of protest are nothing new in Uganda, Kobusingye points out. Singers have been working politics into their lyrics for years. But in light of the government’s recent crackdown on public demonstrations, she says, activism may well take a more literary turn.