Arts & Culture

Uneasy times for artists

Uneasy times for artists
  • PublishedJune 25, 2019

Creative artists, including singers, playwrights and authors have always had an uneasy relationship with those in power in Uganda. Given their ability to influence large segments of the population through their work, they are both courted and hated by the powers that be. Report by Epajjar Ojulu in Kampala.

In Uganda like elsewhere in Africa, artists and politicians are never good bedfellows. This is because “artists dare say what other members of society are afraid to say,” says Dan Kisense, a retired head of the Department of Dance, Music and Drama at Uganda’s Makerere University.

Uganda’s history shows that artists have been critical of their society and dared regimes of the day to respond, even brutal ones such as that of dictator Idi Amin (1971-79).

While some artists and writers, such as Robert Serumaga, John Ruganda and Okot p’Bitek fled to exile in neighbouring Kenya, one of them, Byron Kawadwa, a playwright and artistic director of the Uganda National Theatre, paid the ultimate price of death. He was murdered by Idi Amin in 1977 soon after returning from Lagos, Nigeria, where he led his team to the second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. The first was held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966.

There are conflicting theories about the reasons for Kawadwa’s murder. One theory suggests that while in Lagos he visited Erisa Kironde, a prominent Ugandan politician opposed to Amin’s regime. Amin’s spies got wind of the visit and suspected Kawadwa to have been recruited by the opponents of the regime as a spy.

Another school of thought says Oluyimba lwa Wankoko (‘Song of the Cock’), a play written by Kawadwa and staged during the festival, was a satire on the regime. Whatever the reasons, Kawadwa’s murder has left an indelible scar in the hearts of Ugandans in general and artists in particular.

“We were meeting at the Arts Club within the National Theatre to review our performance in Lagos, when someone beckoned Kawadwa that some people wanted to see him outside,” recalls Sarah Birungi, a retired secondary school teacher, who was part of the drama group, Kampala City Players, which performed in Lagos.

“Shortly after, there was wailing and a stampede outside the premises. Eyewitnesses said Byron had been bundled into the boot of a salon car and taken away. We never saw him alive again,” she says.

Kawadwa’s body was dumped in Namanve forest near Kampala. While the majority were afraid to do so, a handful of mourners were brave enough to attend the burial in Kisasi, a village on the outskirts of Kampala city, says Birungi.

Unlike Kawadwa, other artists had read the signs and had long fled into exile. Okot p’Bitek, a poet and author of the renowned Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, fled to neighbouring Kenya to teach at the University of Nairobi.

So did John Ruganda, the author of Black Mamba and The Floods, among other plays. Robert Serumaga, the author of Return to the Shadows, a novel critical of the Obote regime, also fled into exile. Serumaga also wrote The Elephants, Majangwa, A Play and Amayirikiti.

As was the case with Kawadwa, says Dan Kisense, Serumaga’s literary genre was the drama of the mind or psychological drama. It later metamorphosed into the Theatre of the Absurd. Unlike in conventional drama, the plot is not clear, nor are the characters, whose actions reflect the state of their minds. This genre echoes the unpredictability of human nature.

According to Kisense, Serumaga and Kawadwa’s works were influenced by the works of European artists of the 1950s such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – a play about two characters who wait for someone who never comes. In effect, the play explores the themes of existentialist philosophy reflected in the emptiness during the waiting, leading the reader to wonder if there is anything in the waiting or in life itself.

Showers of money

Ugandan musicians have traditionally composed songs that praise the rulers of the day, who shower them with money.  Besides, in more modern times, no musician had the nerve to sing anti-establishment songs because of the brutality of the regimes. In the midst of his excesses, Idi Amin was showered with praise. He was described as a hero, a liberator, and a patriot by, among others, Christopher Sebaduka in his song ‘Ani Yali Amanyi’.

The song praised Amin for toppling the Milton Obote regime with a military coup in 1971. Sebaduka’s song reflected the ire in his native Buganda over Obote’s violent removal of their king, Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa II in 1966, and his abolition of the Westminster constitution, which recognised kingdoms. Obote had ordered his then army commander Idi Amin to storm the king’s palace. The king fled to Britain where he died in 1969.

President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement party have been offering musicians millions of shillings to win their support. During the 2016 Presidential elections, the ruling party dished out Ush400m (approx. $120,000) to local musicians to compose songs supporting Museveni.

However, some of them, including Bobi Wine, rejected the offer. The President also paid an undisclosed amount of money for the treatment in the United States of Bebe Cool, a prominent musician, for the injuries he suffered in a night club brawl. Bebe Cool is the son of Bidandi Ssali, a veteran politician who formerly supported Museveni but abandoned him after he changed the constitution to remove the Presidential term limit.

One artist, John Nagenda, author of The Seasons of Thomas Tebo among other works, has been Museveni’s adviser for three decades. Others have assisted him, such as Prof. Timothy Wangusa, author of Upon This Mountain, who has served as the Presidential adviser on culture.

This perhaps explains the reasons for the dwindling number of poets, novelists and playwrights during the three decades of Museveni’s rule, save a few women writing about women’s rights.

Anti-establishment music

Unlike the old crop, Bobi Wine has brought a new face to Uganda’s music industry. A Makerere University graduate of music, dance and drama, Bobi Wine’s songs are critical of the regime of the day. His song ‘We are Fighting for Freedom’ urges Ugandans to unite against what he claims is injustice, police and military brutality against the opposition and the manipulation of state institutions such as parliament to entrench the regime. Although the song was banned and cannot be aired on radio or television, it has gone viral on YouTube.

On the other hand, his song ‘Tuliyambala Engule’ (‘We Shall be Crowned’) gives Ugandans hope that at the end of the struggle, which he claims will come sooner rather than later, they will celebrate victory. The song literally lists what he claims are the failures of the Museveni government. Among these are poor schools, health services, corruption, the plundering of national resources by politically connected elite figures and the social and moral decay.

Bobi Wine has paid a high price for his anti-establishment music. Many of his concerts have been blocked by the police, which has weakened his financial position. “I have been turned into a pauper. My source of earning has been cut,” he told a church service at the start of February. He was lamenting his inability to contribute money to a church project.

Because of his popularity, especially among the youth, Bobi Wine always draws crowds of supporters whenever he appears in public. As a result, the police have restricted his movements. During the Easter holidays, he was stopped from staging a much publicised music concert at One Love Beach on Lake Victoria’s shores. Bobi Wine owns the beach resort.

The police smashed his car windscreen and bundled him into a police van before driving to him to his home in the outskirts of Kampala, where he was placed under house arrest. This triggered running battles between Bobi Wine’s stone-throwing supporters and the police.

Two days later, Bobi Wine managed to evade the police cordon around his residence to attend a funeral of a prominent politician 160 kilometres away. On his way back he was arrested and charged with an offence he is alleged to have committed when he led a demonstration against social media tax. He was freed on bail after three days in custody.

Bobi Wine is not alone in his sojourn. He has been joined by Mathias Walukagga, whose song, ‘Bakoowu’ (‘They are tired’) criticises the regime for allegedly condoning and promoting social decay, police brutality, corruption in the judiciary, hospitals and other public institutions.

Analysts allege that unlike Idi Amin who could kill at will, President Museveni is using state power, which gives him leverage to control state institutions such as the police and the military, to silence Bobi Wine. For example, although the law does not give the police the right to allow or deny permission to hold concerts, they have flouted it to block performances by Wine.

At 37 years of age, there is no doubt that he represents the aspirations of the young generation, and while he has many years ahead of him to fight for those hopes, Museveni has few years ahead of him to resist those demands and aspirations. NA

Written By
New African

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