Who is Uganda’s enigmatic leader Yoweri Museveni? Since seizing power 33 years ago, his army has profoundly reshaped the politics of central and eastern Africa, and yet few outside of this region have even heard of him.
To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers and foreign aid programs, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.
I’ve been reporting on Uganda for almost 25 years, and I still find Museveni fascinating. As a rebel leader during the early 1980s, his shape-shifting exploits were legendary. Again and again, his small band of rebels would menace and outwit Uganda’s much larger national army and then melt away into the bush. Ugandans joke that Museveni could turn into a cat and walk through roadblocks.
William Pike, who served as editor of Uganda’s government-owned New Vision newspaper from 1986-2006 has almost certainly had more contact with Museveni than any other non-Ugandan writer. Pike’s gripping new book Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda provides an insider’s view of the Ugandan leader and his movement.
By all accounts, Pike is a highly effective editor and manager. Former employees have described him to me as a gentle boss who ran a productive, disciplined newsroom. He wasn’t afraid to go after cases of corruption involving senior cabinet ministers and even sporadic cases of torture and extra-judicial killings carried out by Museveni’s security forces. Under his leadership, the New Vision soon became Uganda’s most popular publication. I’m personally acquainted with Pike and have always found him kind, intelligent and extremely likeable. His book is also very well-written.
Unfortunately however, Combatants presents an overly flattering image of Museveni’s regime that belies reality, overlooks recent scholarship that challenges Pike’s version of events and sometimes contradicts the findings of Pike’s own New Vision reporters.
Pike first met Museveni in 1984, when the young reporter snuck behind enemy lines during the so-called “bush war” against Uganda’s then-president Milton Obote. By then, Museveni’s rebels known as the National Resistance Army, or NRA– controlled a significant part of the Luwero Triangle, an 8000 square mile area northwest of Kampala that had been the site of intense fighting. Until then, the bush war was viewed internationally as a minor skirmish, but Pike’s articles for the UK Observer and Guardian newspapers helped bring Museveni’s struggle to the attention of western policymakers.
The Luwero Triangle is the rural homeland of the Baganda people—Uganda’s largest ethnic group. Soon after launching his rebellion, Museveni, a Munyankole from western Uganda, promised Baganda leaders that if he managed to take power, he’d restore their traditional kingdom, which Obote had violently crushed in 1966. In return, the Baganda allowed Museveni to base his forces in their villages. When Museveni’s men attacked army and police posts, Obote’s undisciplined and brutal soldiers responded with disproportionate force, killing anyone, including innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the rebels. During his visit, Pike was shown areas littered with human skulls. Quoting Museveni, he estimated that Obote’s forces had killed some 300,000 people—roughly half the population of the Luwero Triangle at the time.
The UK government, which supported Obote, was claiming that some 12,000 people had been killed on all sides of the fighting. If Pike was correct, Obote was responsible for genocide, and Britain’s support was unconscionable. By then, the Reagan administration was already distancing itself from Obote. While Pike was in Luwero, then Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams told a congressional hearing that Obote’s regime had killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people.
Normally such a huge figure would be referenced by a reputable source, ideally a forensic investigation, but like Pike, Abrams cited no independent source for those figures. When asked by Congressman Don Bonker where his source for the Luwero death toll came from, Abrams equivocated. “You wouldn’t be able to document those numbers,” he said. “There is no way of measuring directly, but there seems to be some kind of consensus that that is the order of magnitude.” Around the same time, the Washington Post also published a brief article on Uganda. Citing unnamed refugee monitoring groups and “official US sources” the author, who had not visited Uganda, also wrote that Obote’s forces had killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.
Since then, a more complex narrative about the Luwero skulls has emerged which Pike does not explore in Combatants. Not only is there no evidence that the death toll was as high as Pike and Reagan Administration officials claimed, Obote’s army, though undisciplined and brutal, may not have been responsible for all the casualties that did occur. Most deaths probably resulted from disease and hunger as a result of mass displacement. In 1983, the government launched a counter offensive against the NRA, and in the process rounded up more than 100,000 villagers into squalid camps without adequate food, water and medicine. The NRA then ordered the evacuation of those who remained in the area. As thousands of peasants trudged north with the NRA, more reportedly died. When the NRA retook those areas, the bones of the casualties of these operations could have been among those shown to Pike.
Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters.
The NRA was also probably not blameless. Shortly after Pike’s visit, a journalist for the London Daily Telegraph visited one of the villages where the army was alleged to have massacred hundreds of people a year earlier. He found “nothing to support [these] claims.” The army had withdrawn to allow the Telegraph reporter to freely interview the chief and villagers. “The surprise these people showed when asked about a massacre could not have been an act,” he wrote. However, they did mention that Museveni’s rebels had recently killed three men and four children. Some of the rebels came from the area and locals recognized them, even though they were partially disguised in army uniforms. “They were dressed halfway,” the chief said. “I mean they were in army and civilian clothes, all mixed up.”
Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters. In his 2011 memoir Betrayed By My Leader, former NRA Major John Kazoora describes an NRA massacre of Obote-loyalists belonging to the Alur tribe. “They would dig a shallow grave,” he writes, “tie you [up] and lie you facing the ground and crack your skull using an old hoe called Kafuni.”
In some cases, the NRA may even have killed its own. At first, Museveni mainly recruited from his own Banyankole tribe and Buganda, but after Obote brutally forced Uganda-based Rwandan Tutsi refugees into camps where many starved and died, some of them joined the rebellion as well. They grew close to Museveni, whose Hima people are closely related to the Tutsis, and soon began to dominate the force. Toward the end of the war, Baganda NRA soldiers began dying mysteriously and some suspected foul play. “We were fighting tribalism,” one Muganda NRA veteran told The Monitor newspaper, “but it was growing in the bush.” In 1983, Museveni warned all Westerners, including aid workers and diplomats, to leave Uganda at once. “We don’t possess the power to prevent accidents,” he wrote in a signed letter issued by his representatives in Kenya. Three weeks later, a Canadian engineer was gunned down on his doorstep in Kampala; four other European aid workers were killed a few months later. While the killers were never definitively identified, the NRA had kidnapped and released four other Swiss hostages and a French doctor around the same time.
In July 1985, Obote was toppled by his own army. The NRA continued to battle for power as desultory peace talks dragged on in Nairobi. Eventually, the NRA took Kampala from the disorganized, weak Ugandan government forces, and Museveni was sworn in in January 1986.
Back in London, a series of glowing tributes to Museveni appeared in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, many of them written by Pike. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen Years of Torture and Killing,” read one headline; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again,” read another. According to his admirers, Museveni was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled into one.
As the war was winding down, Pike and Times of London journalist Richard Dowden toured NRA held areas, where villagers unanimously told them that all the atrocities were the fault of Obote’s forces; none were committed by the NRA, they said. However, both journalists were being escorted by NRA officers. Under the circumstances, it’s conceivable that villagers might have been afraid to report NRA atrocities, if they knew of any.
In recent years, opposition politicians including Kizza Besigye who served as Museveni’s doctor during the bush war, have called for a forensic investigation of the Luwero killings. Museveni has refused. Such an investigation would be very difficult in any case, since the NRA ordered locals to rebury the bones or gather them in memorial sites after the war.
Whatever the reality, the Luwero skulls provided Museveni with political capital early on. Shortly after coming to power, he escorted diplomats around the Luwero Triangle, pointing out the scattered remains and mass graves that Pike had seen. This helped bolster international support for Museveni, who came to be seen as Uganda’s best hope for a way out of the quagmire of its bloody history. Billions of foreign aid dollars would soon flow into his treasury.
According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns
During the 1996 presidential campaigns, the New Vision reported that Museveni’s main challenger, Paul Ssemogerere was planning to invite Milton Obote back from exile and appoint him to his cabinet. Ssemogerere vigorously denied this, but Pike insisted it was true. The article was published alongside a Museveni campaign ad with images of Luwero skulls heaped up in a pyramid and the following slogan:
“Don’t forget the past. Over one million Ugandans, our brothers, sisters, family and friends, lost their lives. YOUR VOTE COULD BRING IT BACK.”
According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns. After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”
More recently, Uganda’s tourism board has proposed creating a museum to commemorate those killed by previous regimes, including the Luwero dead.
Combatants also covers the early years of the war in northern Uganda that would give rise to the terrifying warlord Joseph Kony. But here, again, Pike paints an overly rosy picture of the NRA’s role. After Museveni was sworn in, his troops continued to pursue soldiers of the former Ugandan army, most of whom came from northern and eastern Uganda. In March 1986, former government soldiers in Acholiland—comprising the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum—finally put down their guns. When the NRA arrived in Gulu they were “disciplined, friendly and respectful,” according to New Vision journalist Caroline Lamwaka. They requested the former army soldiers to surrender their weapons and some did so. Then in late April, the NRA began conducting raids on villages where they suspected guns were still being hidden. Property was looted, women were raped and unarmed people were shot and killed. Some Acholi ex-soldiers who surrendered were taken to Western Uganda and never seen again. As political scientist Adam Branch puts it, the NRA appeared to be launching “a counter-insurgency without an insurgency.” In August 1986, a few thousand former members of Obote’s army who had escaped over the border to Sudan invaded and attacked the NRA. In turn, NRA attacks against Acholi civilians escalated, and more rebel groups, including Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army soon emerged. Uganda’s twenty-year northern war was soon underway.
After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”
In Combatants, Pike attributes the NRA atrocities to a few bad apples in the ranks or to poorly integrated former rebel groups, including one named FEDEMU, that weren’t mainstream NRA. But the New Vision’s Caroline Lamwaka disputes this. “I do not agree with the common argument advanced by some NRM officials, as well as some Acholi,” she writes in her posthumously published memoir,
“that it was the actions of FEDEMU soldiers that caused the rebellion….the NRA proper is equally to blame for the mess. If it were only FEDEMU, war would not have broken out in Teso and Lango, or in the whole of Acholi. The government’s argument that the war was due to former [government] soldiers fighting to recover “lost glory” or the “soft and easy life” or that they were “criminals” who feared to face the law, also misrepresents and oversimplifies the complex causes of the conflict.”
Throughout Combatants, Pike emphasizes how Museveni’s government respected media freedom, and insists that he was never prevented from printing stories critical of the government. However, he does not mention that many journalists have received bribes and death threats from the regime, and some have been tortured, including his own employee Lamwaka, quoted above. In 1988, she was assaulted by a Ugandan army officer after reporting on cattle thefts by government forces. In her memoir, she writes that what she experienced was so humiliating she could not describe it in print.
Pike also downplays NRA abuses in eastern Uganda, where another rebel group emerged after the NRA, which was at first welcomed by locals, committed atrocities similar to those in Acholiland. He downplays Museveni’s involvement in arming the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, setting the stage for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. Pike also downplays Museveni’s responsibility for the Congo war which claimed over five million lives. According to Pike, Museveni ordered his troops not to engage in business on Congolese soil. He nevertheless fails to explain how Museveni’s own brother and son came to be linked to a company that traded in smuggled Congolese diamonds during this time.
During the 1990s, Pike and other western journalists helped create a new narrative about central Africa. By then, many of Africa’s independence movements were a mess–in part because of western Cold War meddling, but also because of the limited capabilities of some African leaders. But Museveni, along with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, would be celebrated in the Western media as Africa’s great new hope. All had come to power by the gun and distained democracy, but made well-spoken promises to keep their countries in order and concentrate on development.
Western leaders from Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the President of the World Bank quickly bought into the idea that Africa needed “strong leadership” –a wiggle phrase which could mean anything from a firm stance on corruption to outright tyranny. Foreign aid and military hardware flowed into the coffers of the “new leaders”. But even as the chorus of praise was rising around them, they were using Western largesse to escalate wars with their neighbors, giving rise to an orgy of violence that would claim millions of lives from Eritrea to Uganda to Congo and southern Sudan.
In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents….”
Pike never questions whether Museveni’s harsh repression, not democracy, might have been the source of these problems; nor does he ask himself whether this repression might help explain why Uganda was so riddled with rebel groups in the first place. There is something tragic about Pike’s Combatants, which could have been a much more powerful book. Where it falls short is in the matter of empathy, like the half-hearted white religious leaders who supported civil rights in the southern United States in principle, but chastised Martin Luther King for what they considered his “unwise and untimely” civil rights activism.
In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents.
“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner,” wrote King in frustration,“but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
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Removing a Dictator
How did popular music become the battlefield of Uganda’s future? And what are the consequences?
In the campaign for Uganda’s presidential election, 2021 has started where it left of in 2020. The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, His Excellence Ghetto President Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as well as his team and supporters, are being harassed, arrested, violently deterred and blocked from campaigning by Ugandan authorities bent on ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, stays there.
Bobi Wine and his People Power Movement are not unlike other youth-driven protest movements across Africa that are making their voices heard by organizing through digital media. But while the international community celebrates the emancipatory potential of these new young voices, the complexities of their political engagements as well as the consequences of the abuses that participants face seem to fade from view. In Uganda, specifically, the emergence of cultural figures in politics is rooted in how the role of popular musicians changed in the elections of 2011, which coincided with the height of Bobi Wine’s musical career.
Bobi Wine rose to fame in the mid-2000’s Kampala, as an Afro-pop star inspired by global icons like Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Bobi took on the title Ghetto President and his Firebase crew jokingly became the “ghetto government” of Kamwokya, the neighborhood was where he was from. Though Bobi released socially conscious songs advocating for “the ghetto people,” the crew considered formal politics in Uganda as dangerous and would warn ignorant friends, like me, not to “get mixed up in politics.”
The more than 100 artists and music industry professionals that I interviewed throughout the 2000s were, with a few exceptions, not into politics. They had grown up in the 1980s war-time Uganda, and saw the emerging, largely informal, music industry as a chance to cast off the burdensome ties of kin and ethnicity that seemed to rule politics. They rather saw themselves as entrepreneurs and brand names in a global market for music; as individual stars lighting up the skies above Kampala. Wine and his fellow superstars like Chameleone and Bebe Cool instead politicked in diss-songs and beefs about being the biggest name, the most famous artist, in the country. Not many would have imagined that beef would one day challenge President Museveni. But as anthropologist Kelly Askew duly warned, in Eastern Africa “economic and political practice need not be conceptualized as distinct from aesthetic principles.” New forms of “bigness” and power emerged around the young musicians with digital means of production and the aesthetics of entrepreneurship.
On July 7, 2010, the extremist group Al Shabab, which had been operating in East Africa, attacked several night-time venues in Kampala. Insecurity and cumbersome new security measures meant empty concert halls and night clubs, and this was bad business for artists. Around the same time the election campaigns for the 2011 elections were taking off, and musicians now found work performing at rallies and allowing politicians to use their hits as campaign songs. “After all, I am a business man, and there’s too much money in politics,” said one of my friends who was on the campaign trail for the ruling NRM of Museveni. But this did not mean that singers were now the clients of the “big” men and women of politics. Rather, they framed their relationship with politicians as a market transaction, as just another sponsored show. The Firebase Crew too performed at rallies for candidates of opposed parties in 2010, and one crew member commented: “If I go for his [the politician’s] show, then he has to pay me. Then voting is something else.” In this way, they enforced their status as street-wise, self-made men and women, hustling the old, political elite without being caught in their patrimonial networks of political allegiance.
While career politicians in Uganda usually emphasise belonging and legitimacy with voters in election campaigns through direct exchange and by engineering relations of mutual dependence to gain influence, pop artists make their livelihoods and fame through mediated connections to fans and consumers. The relational form of their “bigness” can neither be characterised as relations of political activism, nor as patronage, nor as pure market relations. Rather, young musicians here operate as kind of cultural brokers within the tensions of all three forces at once.
A second way that artists brokered between music, market, and politics in the 2011 elections was as candidates for political office. As the industry grew, artists and celebrities in Uganda were beginning to show the same material properties as the more traditional elites. They built mansions and drove cars more extravagant than any politician; they owned businesses, as well as the means for the production of their “bigness”—studios, night clubs, and concert grounds. One of these candidates was Eddy Yawe, musician, producer, studio owner—and Bobi Wine’s older brother. As a candidate for Member of Parliament, he remarked that musicians had so far been considered as bayaye (hoodlums, hustlers) only to be used by the elite as entertainers in formal politics, but this was about to change:
In the eloquent imagery of what the political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart referred to as the “the politics of the belly,” Eddy explained how artists could broker their fame beyond the kitchen, where power is cooked, for a seat the dining table and a bite of the national cake. He was neither singing praises, nor protesting an increasingly authoritarian regime, but rather sought to extend his sphere of influence as an artist by entering into politics. Though Eddy Yawe had a big turnout at rallies, he did not win the election, according to some, because of electoral fraud.
While musicians brokered their fame in the field of politics, some politicians also sought to extend their power through the field of music. If there had been any doubt about the political elite taking the music of the new generation seriously as an effective means to mobilise voters, it was put to rest when President Museveni launched his own campaign rap song, “Do You Want Another Rap?”
In early 2017, a parliamentary seat opened up in Kyadonddo East. Wine shaved off his dreadlocks and ran as an independent candidate, with a campaign based largely on music and social media. His stance was clear: he was not a politician, but had come to politics as a musician to represent the young generation, the Ugandans whose interests were being ignored by the government. He won. When the political platform, People Power – Our Power, formed by Bobi in the struggle against the removal of the presidential age-limit which allowed Museveni to rule for life, it was not a political party but a movement. He released the People Power anthem “Freedom” and continued to host shows at his concert grounds One Love Beach. When his driver was shot and Wine himself arrested and tortured in August 2018, protests broke out across Uganda and fellow artists came out to support People Power in songs and social media. In the following months the Ghetto President started hinting at a run towards presidency in both interviews and quite direct diss-songs against Museveni.
People Power launched the party the National Unity Platform as their political wing in July 2020 and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu as their leader and presidential candidate. Using social media and beef tactics from the music industry to gain traction in politics, Bobi Wine successfully insisted on his integrity as an artist. But this also drew the music industry into politics in ways that made music the battleground for the future of the country.
As the 2021 elections approach, the Ugandan government has used a progressively more violent repertoire of strategies to repress Wine’s run for president and stifle the music industry. On one hand they confirm Wine as a legitimate candidate and the political power of music, but they also point to the limits of the cultural brokerage and “bigness” of artists in the face of state repression and violence.
One strategy is the use of legislative power to block political opponents. Since 2018 the police have systematically denied security clearances to venues and shows that include Bobi Wine, the Firebase Crew as well as other singers associated with People Power. While Bobi Wine flew abroad to perform, less known singers now effectively became clients of People Power as their livelihoods as artist-entrepreneurs had been undermined.
In early 2019 the parliament sought to update the “Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act Cap 49”—hitherto a legislative, colonial leftover from 1943. The act requires all music, stage and film producers to be licensed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), limits touring and number of performances by singers, and requires them to submit their lyrics, music, and visual material for approval at a government censorship board. The enforcement of such a law would, naturally, devastate the cultural industries in Uganda. Further, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in 2020, the authorities have weaponized the emergency for repressing political opposition and militarizing public space.
A second strategy was co-optation. In the second half of 2019, music stars and celebrities who had been People Power supporters and critical of NRMs politics were invited to visit personally with Museveni and were gifted large sums of money to change sides. For some, the switch seemed voluntary, while the musicians I interviewed in December 2019 described being both cajoled, intimidated, and threatened into publicly accepting money “gifts” and entering into a patron-client relationship with the president. At the same time Museveni attempted to appropriate the imagery of the Ghetto Government, when he hired former Firebase Crew member Buchaman as his special “ghetto” advisor, launched new initiatives in Kampala’s slums as well as a paramilitary group of crime-fighters, the “ghetto army.”
Thirdly, the violence that the Ghetto President’s campaign has been subjected to demonstrates that beefing with the president of Uganda is no joke. Bobi Wine was arrested minutes after submitting his presidential nomination forms, and this led to riots across the country, with more than 50 civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, in November 2020. Members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team have been shot with rubber and live bullets, knocked by cars, killed, ambushed, and arrested. On December 30, 2020, the entire campaign team of more than 90 people were arrested and their cars impounded. Firebase Prime Minister and signer Nubian Li, Producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddy Mutwe and 46 other civilians were court marshaled on January 8th based on dubious evidence collected four days after their arrest.
These violations have been documented by Facebook Live and YouTube channels run by young men with cameras, at times just mobile phones. The daily streams allow both Ugandan and international audiences to participate in the campaigns, but is also a strategy to Bobi Wine and his team safe from harm.
The NRM government has a history of controlling Ugandan media and shutting down the internet during elections and protests. But in December, the Uganda Communication Commission reached all the way to Silicon Valley and requested Google and Facebook to shut down eight of the social media channels for inciting violence. Meanwhile, both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been injured and their credentials revoked. “We don’t have guns to fight, but use the camera as our weapon,” Bobi Wine said as a reaction to this in a press conference on December 15, 2020.
While his entire campaign and security teams are incarcerated and his campaign suspended by the country’s Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Courts against Museveni and Minister of Security Elly Tumwiine (also an artist), among other officials, for crimes against humanity. During a video call with international press about the ICC case, he was assaulted by police officers. After returning to the video call a visibly affected Bobi Wine, with running eyes from the tear gas, commented: “I am a presidential candidate. But as you can see, if I can be harassed like this, you can imagine what is happing to Ugandans who don’t have a voice.”
Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”
The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.
If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.
So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.
The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.
At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.
“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”
The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.
“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.
Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.
“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.
Then, another surprise.
“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.
“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.
Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.
“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.
So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.
On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.
“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.
Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.
“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.
The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.
“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.
“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”
Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense. So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.
John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”
John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.
Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.
“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.
After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.
James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”
Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in
There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.
Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.
James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.
Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.
“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.
Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.
Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:
“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”
“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.
Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.
Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.
In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.
The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.
Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.
The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.
In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.
Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.
News and their social epidemics
With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.
In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.
A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?
Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.
Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.
News and confirmation bias
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.
To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.
Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.
Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.
Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.
Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.
Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).
Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.
The worst must be reported
Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.
Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.
An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.
A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.
“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”
“So why look here?” asks the officer.
“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.
It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.
There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.
The Anatomy of a Stereotype
A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.
There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.
Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.
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