While events to mark 50 years of Uganda’s political independence, were going on, two prominent theatre companies, Afri-Talent and Bakayimbira Dramactors wrote and staged a play; ‘The State of the Nation’ (Ejjirikiti), which was an indictment of the government for its failure to curb corruption and sectarianism among many other ills. The play attracted the ire of government, which through one of its agencies unsuccessfully attempted to ban it, URN writes.
Ironically Uganda’s immediate post-independence era witnessed a cosy relationship between the government and artists. Artists produced works lauding those who had successfully fought for independence, among them was ‘Ye yekka Obote waffe’. (It is only Obote, the clear leader).
Unfortunately, the honeymoon did not last long because between 1965 and 1971, Obote’s government became increasingly intolerant of dissenting political views. Those who expressed opposing views ended up in detention without trial under the infamous “Detention without Trial emergency law of 1966.
The emergency laws followed the usurpation of power by Obote following the ouster of President Sir Edward Muteesa and the attack on Muteesa’s main palace at Mengo. Muteesa was then also the Kabaka of Buganda.
Thereafter artistic compositions critical of the prevailing political and social atmosphere were cleverly crafted and disguised as social commentaries. Many were camouflaged in idioms and symbolism. Among them was Robert Serumaga’s “Majangwa ne Nakirijja” a play that portrayed a lunatic musician couple who earned their living from entertaining crowds on Kampala’s streets.
Their musical and dancing antiques climaxed into sexual acts to the amusement of many and disgust of others. The bold critics like Rajat Neogy the editor of Transition magazine and Abu Mayanja a prominent politician ended up in detention for publishing Mayanja’s article critical of Obote’s excesses.
In 1970 Dan Mugula a kadongo kamu (single guitar genre) musician released Enkomerero Etuuse (The end is near) in which he implored people to repent because according to him the end of the world was at hand as predicted in the Holy Scriptures. It turned out to be prophetic because the following year 1971 Obote was deposed by General Idi Amin making the song even more popular.
Musicians who had been silent found their voices and released numbers condemning Obote’s rule of terror while pouring praises on Amin for ridding them of the tyrant.
The Cranes Band released Twawona Okufa. Loosely translated; ‘we survived death’. Christopher sebadduka released Kyaali kyetagisa a song criticizing the common man’s charter which Obote had launched as a move to the left (Socialism). Traditional musicians also composed songs in praise of the regime until Amin’s excesses became apparent and unbearable so much so that any slight detection of dissent resulted in the suspect’s incarceration or disappearance without trace.
Among the victims was Byron Kawadwa then Artistic Director of the Uganda National Theatre for his play Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko that was performed at the Lagos Festac. It is alleged; Kawadwa’s professional rivals told Amin that the play was a disguised criticism of his regime, which incensed Amin. Others claim that it was a rivalry over an affair with someone well connected. Curiously, no artistic voice to date has been raised to protest his disappearance or demand for an inquiry to establish his fate.
Robert Sserumaga another seasoned playwright who was increasingly becoming world famous through his theatrical productions had to flee Uganda in 1977 after being tipped off that his plays Renga Moi and Amayirikiti were creating unease within Amin’s circles.
Although performing arts appear to be more prominent in the crusade for freedom of expression by virtue of their traditional appeal to wider audiences, visual arts too have had their contribution albeit in a limited measure due to the nature of their products, which has a limited scope of distribution. One song when played on the radio can be heard by more people than one mural in a public place.
The post bush war era (1986 – 1996) saw the ascendancy of more bold freedom of expression tendencies among Ugandans especially those in the media and the arts following the liberalization of media practice through the licensing of privately owned media houses artists are able to reach a wider and diverse audience unlike before.
The FM Radio, T.V Stations whose editorial policies are not determined by bureaucrats, who are always mindful of “orders from above” have somehow emboldened artists to express themselves freely. Market forces have also influenced some artistic productions which appeal to a particular target audience. As a result, artists have become increasingly bold and purposeful in addressing issues that affect society negatively.
Ronald Mayinja’s Tuli ku Bunkenke (We are on tenterhooks) resonated well with the opposition politicians who exploited it to the maximum. The song illustrates the tension in the nation occasioned by the economic crisis and other institutionalized injustices. Another of Mayinja’s compositions “Ani Agula Africa” attacks rulers and their cronies who have mismanaged and squandered Africa’s resources and sarcastically suggests that Africa is partitioned into several parts and sold to the highest bidder.
He followed it with Ssebo Land Lord, in which he amplifies the feeling that indigenous people are being disenfranchised by those who have amassed wealth fraudulently and are using it grab tranches of land and displacing bona fide occupants.
However, artists in Uganda have not only been in trouble with the government but have also faced the wrath of business moguls too. A prominent Kadongo Kamu musician was recently imprisoned for his song, which de-campaigned a wealthy businessman’s products. It is alleged that the rivalry was caused by a shared lover. Fortunately, the matter was resolved through the mediation of the Buganda Kingdom leadership but the song remains banned on public media.
Recent bold artistic outbursts were directed at Executive Director of Kampala Capital City Authority, Jennifer Musisi evicting hawkers and traders working from makeshift structures in the City. Singer Robert Kyagulayi aka Bobi Wine composed Tugambire ku Jennifer, (Tell Jennifer to use less harsh methods of evicting the poor). The song referred to the anti-people approach of demolishing small income earners’ structures and confiscating their merchandise in the guise of streamlining city operations.
His latest collection of music includes songs like, Ndi munna Uganda, Carolina, Bikwase Kyagulanyi and Situka Tutambule, some of which bear political connotations to highlight government excesses.
While musicians have done their part in voicing out people’s grievances, dramatists and visual artists too have made their contribution. The nineties experienced a host of political plays among them: Omuyaga mu Makoola by The Black Pearls, which depicted a head of state who assigned conflicting tasks to his ministers with the intention of making them fail.
Order (Kiragiro) by Afri-Diamonds gave a soldier’s point of view and highlighted the dangers of genetically manipulated promotions in professional armed forces because it undermines the institution’s ability to operate efficiently. Bukedde Bannyanike by Bakayimbira Dramactors addressed corruption and wondered why it should not be legalized after all since little was being done to curb it.
Visual artists have expressed themselves through various media such as paintings, sculptures and cartoons that have been used to caricature people’s complaints against government albeit in a subtle manner to avoid possible victimization. The most prominent one being Ekanya cartoon strip in the 1990s which blamed the silence of a prominent opposition politician after joining government on table manners where you are not expected to speak with food in the mouth.
Although it is widely believed that artists have outshone the mainstream media in the crusade for freedom of expression by audibly articulating the people’s grievances to those they believe have the mandate and means to address them. It is important to take into consideration the circumstances under which these two professions operate.
Many times, a media house is run as a business entity with the intention of making profits while serving the community. Many of them are answerable to their shareholders and boards of trustees. Besides government is either the owner or majority shareholder in major media houses.
Professional journalists who own media houses are mindful of the fact that running a successful and sustainable media house, revenue from advertisers is more important than individual subscriptions and street sales. In Uganda’s case, the Government happens also to be the biggest advertiser followed by big businesses who in most cases are keen not to offend government for obvious reasons.
Yet artistic creations in Uganda are individually conceived and produced with the help of others who may not significantly influence the outcome. Since most artists are not corporate entities they have less red tape to contend with although some have sponsors who in some cases may impact on the final product. Suffice to mention that artists depend on the media to generate and disseminate their ideas to the public.
While artists may have been credited with championing the freedom of expression they have on many accessions been at the forefront of praising governments, which governments have been a major obstacle to freedom of expression.
Their roles, therefore, are complementary and the issue of one doing more for freedom of expression than the other should not arise, as long as they are both championing people’s rights.