28 October 2010

Uganda: Forgive Me If I Don't Celebrate CBS Reopening

A few hours after CBS and three other radio stations were shut down last September, I asked an official close to the Buganda radio whether they intended to seek a court injunction against the closure.

CBS was one of four radio stations shut down for allegedly inciting violence during riots that month in which over 30 people - some of them rioters - were shot dead, including some shot at point-blank range.

In validating the closure, Broadcasting Council boss Godfrey Mutabazi said the radio stations, CBS in particular, were "inciting Mengo Kingdom loyalists against the government and airing sectarian messages aimed at bringing hatred against the Kampala authorities" but it felt draconian and I thought the radio station owners were well within their rights to seek judicial interpretation. "No," the Mengo official said, naively. "This is a small matter which we shall resolve after talking to government."

The next day, I spoke to a friend who is deep in the "system" and asked when the radio was likely to be reopened. "I am not sure," he said, "but certainly after the nominations or elections." Events that followed thereafter indicated that the closure of CBS was a long-term tactic to defang the Buganda Kingdom in the run-up to the elections.

Three of the radio stations were reopened within a few months and CBS was last week set free, more than a year after it was shut down. This time my friend Godfrey Mutabazi, whose bloodstained hands had wielded the axe, was nowhere in the picture. Like many things in the country, from public toilets to hybrid goats to jigger epidemics, the decision to reopen CBS had long been taken over by State House/President Museveni.

President Museveni, who always does a dry campaign run to "eradicate poverty" before every election, had, according to State House sources, been shocked to be asked about CBS' closure in many parts of the country, particularly in Buganda.

With the official campaigns set to kick off, the President summoned Cabinet for a special sitting last week and, we are told, said he had listened to the voices in favour of CBS reopening because the closure has since affected "many people who are not necessarily anti-NRM".

Your newspaper, quoting sources in the meeting, said Mr Museveni had been approached by prominent but "very staunch" NRM Baganda elders who begged him to reopen the station "as one last favour" and had agreed, like a father who forgives an errant son.

The CBS employees, in particular, must be glad to have their jobs back, having spent more than a year on forced, unpaid leave but excuse me while I rain on this parade.

The CBS saga is a worrying reminder, if any was needed, of how the interests of the State are being fused with those of the NRM party, and of how institutional autonomy is being destroyed.

President Museveni has become the King of Kings; it is he who giveth - even inalienable rights to life and property - and it is he who taketh away from those who criticise him.

If it is true that the radio incited violence, why has it not been taken through a judicial process to hold it responsible? Why haven't we had a full-scale public inquiry into what really happened before, during and after the riots of September 2009?

Did those 37 or more Ugandans die in vain?

Societies are kept together by laws that are clear and applied fairly and consistently. We are slowly degenerating into a society that is ruled by laws but has no rule of law. We have been here before, in regimes past, when leaders turned into rulers and their whims became the law. How many fundamental changes do we need to go through before we learn?

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