‘Humour is highly effective’: Cartoons tackle Uganda’s repressive authorities


Ugandan cartoonist Jim Spire Ssentongo didn’t know what he was beginning final April when he despatched out a tweet encouraging individuals to publish photographs of the ever present potholes throughout the nation’s capital.

“A buddy of mine is organising a mega KAMPALA POTHOLE PHOTO EXHIBITION” he wrote on X, the platform previously often known as Twitter, on April 15 final yr. “Share right here photographs of potholes in Kampala metropolis, with: location, depth, circumference, and estimated age of the pothole.” He requested his followers to tag the Kampala Capital Metropolis Authority (KCCA) and their counterpart chargeable for the nation’s roads.

Again in 2005, there have been efforts to stage bodily exhibitions of the nation’s notorious potholes – what locals name “ponds” within the roads due to their measurement. However these makes an attempt have been thwarted by the police, recollects Ssentongo.

So the thought to carry an exhibition on-line got here to thoughts, says Ssentongo, 45. He comes throughout as a deep thinker, taking time to contemplate his responses earlier than talking. Ssentongo admits that the tweet calling for pothole photographs was “partly joking, partly sounding out how it could be obtained”, including that he didn’t “plan to show it right into a grand initiative”.

Cartoon from January 2023 calling consideration to potholes in Uganda (Courtesy of Spire Ssentonga)

However that’s precisely what occurred. Ugandans began importing their photographs instantly. In response, Joshua Mutabazi, added no less than 5 photographs to the thread, together with one which exhibits a 30-centimetre (12-inch) pothole with a 3.5-metre (11.5-foot) circumference that he estimated was two years outdated. By the top of the day, there have been greater than 13,000 tweets with the hashtag the #KampalaPotholeExhibition, posted by fed-up residents within the pothole-plagued nation.

With bodily protests all however barred within the nation, this was a possibility to carry the federal government accountable. And, to Ugandans’ shock, there have been outcomes. Inside a day, KCCA’s government director, Dorothy Kisaka, made a public assertion concerning the pothole state of affairs, saying that the authority was constrained by insufficient authorities funding.

The identical day in Parliament the deputy speaker, Thomas Tabeywa, requested the minister of Kampala capital metropolis and metropolitan affairs concerning the state of the roads. Lower than every week after the web outrage started, ageing President Yoweri Museveni, 79, ordered the nation’s Ministry of Finance to instantly launch six billion shillings ($1,538,784) to restore the roads. The subsequent month his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba inspected a few of them.

This was the delivery of a brand new type of protest within the East African nation, the place those that have taken to the streets to display are inclined to languish in jail.

Almost a yr since that first exhibition name, Ssentonga has been concerned in six extra: about hospital circumstances, international recruitment scandals, corruption and nepotism inside non-governmental organisations (NGOs), human rights abuses, and extra. Every marketing campaign has used a particular hashtag equivalent to #UgandaHealthExhibition and requested individuals to publish “proof” – photographs, movies, audio, paperwork – of neglect or abuse by authorities. Some Ugandans have likened the protests to the Arab Spring.

Cartoon by Spire Ssentonga
Cartoon makes a remark about hospital building in Uganda (Courtesy of Spire Ssentonga)

What’s exceptional is that the soft-spoken and unassuming cartoonist has been in a position to proceed demonstrating on-line when different bodily occasions, equivalent to local weather protests and what was dubbed the Stroll to Work marketing campaign in opposition to skyrocketing meals costs, have been shut down by police or fizzled out.

Different on-line protests have been tried. In 2020, Persistence Ahumuza, a digital communications skilled, began the “Put on that Mini” marketing campaign, geared toward preventing on-line physique shaming. She posted a photograph of herself in a miniskirt and invited different Ugandan girls to do the identical. Tons of of photographs have been uploaded.

Despite the fact that it died out, feminist actions like this laid the inspiration for Ssentongo’s campaigns, notes human rights lawyer Gowdin Toko, who now helps spearhead the web exhibitions.

A well-drawn historical past

Ssentongo says that he’s motivated by “the will and keenness to see issues finished higher within the nation or (have) issues finished extra justly.” He explains that this “caring for the opposite, being aware” displays his coaching in two non secular seminaries – though he was expelled from one establishment and dropped out of one other as a result of he “didn’t have the calling”.

Nevertheless, Ssentonga did discover a calling as a political cartoonist whereas he was educating ethics at an area college.

Ugandan newspapers started printing political cartoons within the Nineteen Sixties. In the course of the Seventies, within the period of the late dictator Idi Amin, they have been used to parody social points, Ssentongo says. “They prevented political discussions however by the ’80s had moved to cowl political issues,” he explains. Nevertheless, there hadn’t but been teachers, philosophers or writers who have been additionally cartoonists, says Ssentongo. This was a bonus for them in “increasing modes of speech, particularly on uncomfortable points, plus triggering public debate via the hard-to-ignore vessel of humour”, he says.

Regardless of no formal coaching, he tried his hand at it – taking inspiration from Ugandan cartoonists equivalent to Fred Senoga Makubuya (“Snoggie”), well-known for an illustration within the late Nineties portraying a military main normal as a rooster and the president as a rooster proprietor deciding what to do along with his animals.

In 2005, Ssentongo walked into the workplace of native newspaper The Observer and handed then-Deputy Managing Editor Pius Katunzi a portfolio of labor. Katunzi was impressed with one in every of his illustrations mocking the ability cuts that have been going down in Uganda. Within the cartoon, one native marabou stork is poking his beak immediately within the face of one other as they dangle on an influence line. “I let you know it was fairly harmful to face on these wires,” the primary stork says. “Hmm,” replies his buddy.

Cartoon by Spire Ssentonga
Ssentonga’s cartoon mocking energy cuts in Uganda, revealed in The Observer in 2006, helped get him a job on the newspaper in 2005 (Courtesy of Spire Ssentonga)

Ssentongo has been working for the paper on a contract foundation ever since.

“He’s not somebody given to pleasure, however he cares,” says Katunzi, now managing editor of The Observer. “Usually, he’s a quiet particular person. You don’t assume all these sorts of issues will come out of him. However he’s a deep thinker.”

Ssentongo, who can be a columnist and has revealed a number of books, is understood for his satirical writing. Folks subsequently simply relate to the crossover between his cartoon topics and his different work, says the cartoonist. “However I’m additionally facilitated by my philosophy background,” Ssentongo provides.

Nonetheless, he didn’t count on his on-line campaigns to resonate with so many. “The deployment of humour within the exhibitions has been disarming – particularly within the pothole exhibition,” says Ssentongo.

“What might they (the federal government) do about individuals merely making enjoyable of the horrible capital metropolis roads? They’d have seemed silly had they tried to make use of violence on us. Humour is highly effective in repressive environments.”

Triumphs and tragedies

Social media is unsure terrain in Uganda, the place President Yoweri Museveni has dominated since 1986. In 2021, he banned Fb within the lead-up to elections, which pushed many Ugandans to Twitter, now X.

The president and his son are prolific customers of the platform, making it exhausting to dam it, Ssentongo factors out. That is one purpose why his digital protests survived. “Partly it’s as a result of they can not shut down all of the channels and so they know from the expertise of shutting down Fb that you just simply shut the door and folks use the opposite,” he says.

However there have been extreme repercussions for some who used social media to criticise the federal government. Almost two years in the past, satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was detained, tortured and arrested for “offensive communication” after calling the president’s son Kainerugaba “an incompetent pig-headed curmudgeon” and “overweight” on X. Activist and tutorial Stella Nyanzi was jailed for labelling the president a “pair of buttocks” on Fb and convicted of cyber-harassment in 2017. Each sought refuge in Germany.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who charges that he was tortured for weeks while in detention, appears before a court in a failed bid to have his passport returned so he could seek medical treatment abroad, at a court in Kampala, Uganda on Feb. 1, 2022. The prominent writer and government critic who accused Uganda's security forces of torture has gone into exile ahead of his looming criminal trial, his attorney said Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda, File)
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who says that he was tortured for weeks whereas in detention, seems earlier than a court docket in Kampala, Uganda on February 1, 2022 in a failed bid to have his passport returned so he might search medical therapy overseas (Hajarah Nalwadda/AP Photograph)

Many in Uganda now use a pseudonym on social media, says Isaac Tibasiima, an assistant lecturer within the Division of Literature at Makerere College, who has taught with Ssentonga. “However Jimmy was the form of man that stated, ‘No, I’ll use my deal with and I don’t care what’s going to come back out.’”

Social media made him so common that whereas as soon as reluctant to name himself a political activist, he now embraces the time period. At present, some need Ssentongo to run for president, however he humbly shrugs it off.

He thinks the web exhibitions have been common as a result of they function a type of remedy – “just a few avenue to vent, to get some short-term reduction”, says Ssentongo. “However it’s actually encouraging that it has made so many extra individuals lively, even these which have been quiet.”

Many voices – greater than 10 million throughout YouTube, Twitter and Reddit – spoke to the #UgandaHealthExhibition marketing campaign, launched simply after the pothole protest. A number of the responses, that are nonetheless being posted, present sufferers sleeping on hospital flooring and flag medical and provide shortages and rundown tools.

Cartoon by Spire Ssentonga
This Ssentonga cartoon calls consideration to the #UgandaHealthExhibition (Courtesy of Spire Ssentonga)

The most recent protest, the #UgandaParliamentExhibition, which has been operating since late February and highlights problems with suspect authorities, could be the most contentious but. It has thus far led to the nation’s Inspector Common of Authorities (IGG), the Ugandan authorities arm that investigates corruption, to open a probe into Parliament after allegations of misuse of public funds. Nationwide police spokesperson Fred Enanga and Kampala metropolitan police spokesperson Patrick Onyango referred Al Jazeera to the IGG, which didn’t reply to requests for remark.)

That is uncommon in Uganda. Well being ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona — whom many journalists accuse of dodging their questions — responded on to a number of the posts on the Uganda well being exhibition final yr. He tells Al Jazeera that lots of the points flagged on X “have been addressed” and so they’ve tackled well being employee shortages, amongst different measures.

The protests have been profitable in exposing nepotism and corruption in Uganda, the place the media are restricted, intimidated and bribed, says Agather Atuhaire, a Ugandan journalist and activist who was just lately recognised with the Worldwide Ladies of Braveness award. She can be co-founder of Agora, an area platform for citizen engagement. Impressed by the pothole marketing campaign, she approached Ssentongo in June about main an exhibition “concerning the rotten NGOs”.

“The digital activism revolution has been large,” says Atuhaire. “It’s a brand new factor. I feel that’s why the authorities should be anxious about it – there’s nothing they will do about it.”

‘Smear campaigns’ and threats

Amid the success of the general public exhibitions, there have additionally been worries. The primary time that Ssentongo realised his campaigns could be placing his life in peril was final April, after a second healthcare system protest.

An acquaintance alerted him to a potential risk to his life and suggested Ssentongo to go away the nation quickly. He didn’t after which tweeted, “Ought to they arrest me, proceed with the exhibition. They’ll’t arrest the exhibition.”

Quickly afterwards, he was summoned to a police station for cyberstalking. Nevertheless, the case was dropped.

Atuhaire says that she has additionally been threatened “immediately and not directly;” she’s been adopted and was warned that her cellphone had been tapped.

There’s additionally been what Ssentongo calls a “smear marketing campaign” with tabloids operating tales about alleged affairs with college college students and claims of sexual harassment – all “clearly geared in the direction of silencing me”, he says.

Rukirabashaija says, “It’s troublesome to foretell with certainty whether or not he can find yourself like me – tortured and exiled – however generally, I pity and fear about him”.

“Given the unpredictability of authoritarian regimes like this one in Uganda, their responses to dissent generally come not directly within the type of monetary harassment, unexplained knockdown or assassinations, poisoning, trumped up fees amongst different brutal issues,” he says.

Nyanzi expects that Ssentongo shall be arrested quickly. “The threats (have) already began,” she says. “That’s the way it began with me.”

In this photo taken on Monday April 10, 2017, Makerere University researcher Dr Stella Nyanzi, left, gestures in the dock at Buganda Road Court in the capital Kampala, Uganda. The Ugandan academic Nyanzi, who was imprisoned after insulting the president was freed Thursday Feb. 20, 2020, by a judge who said she had been wrongfully convicted. Frank Baine, a spokesman for the prisons service, said Stella Nyanzi was driven back to the maximum-security prison to collect her belongings after the high court ordered her release. (AP Photo)
Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan tutorial, who was imprisoned after insulting the president however freed by a choose who stated she had been wrongfully convicted gestures within the dock at Buganda Street Court docket within the capital Kampala, Uganda on April 10, 2017 (AP Photograph)

Ssentongo has evaded the authorities thus far, says Toko, as a result of he has “a critical profile with the academia, within the diplomatic circles and even with quite a lot of abnormal Ugandans now … From what occurred with Rukirabashaija (the federal government) is aware of that touching him could cause critical points.”

However it’s too early to declare Ssentongo secure, the lawyer stresses. “He’s been an outright activist for lower than a yr,” says Toko. “Nevertheless, his profile retains rising so this may occasionally imply it’s exhausting now and shall be even tougher with time.”

Ssentongo says he can’t clarify why he hasn’t been arrested but, nor the motivation and strategies of the federal government. “Hybrid regimes don’t simply render themselves to prediction and clarification,” he says. “How they select their targets you’ll be able to’t inform. You solely pray that you just survive.”

For now, he needs to stay in Uganda. “If I’ve a tipping level … there are particular issues I wouldn’t need to occur. I wouldn’t need to lose my life, definitely, my job, be harmed in any approach bodily or mentally, psychologically, by the stuff you undergo whenever you undergo character assassination. However … it’s the present state of affairs that’s taking place on the time that determines your psychological state.”

Does he have an escape plan? “Perhaps I’m naive or foolhardy, however I need to inform myself that I gained’t should run,” he says thoughtfully. “I’ll cross that river once I get to it. I don’t assume Stella or Kakwenze deliberate earlier to flee.”

Today, Ssentonga’s cartoons keep away from topics like individuals’s private issues, together with these of presidency figures — until their privateness is entangled with accountability. “There are some individuals it’s a must to critique fastidiously and sure subjects that it’s a must to be very cautious … about equivalent to LGBTQI associated points,” says Ssentongo, referring to an anti-gay legislation that Uganda accredited a yr in the past. However he has broached even this topic, drawing just a few cartoons concerning the new act and even a number of of the president’s son.

Cartoon by Spire Ssentonga
Cartoon targets attitudes in the direction of homosexuality in Uganda (Courtesy of Spire Ssentonga)

Ssentongo can’t say how lengthy the exhibitions will final. And for all of their success, he finds it unsettling that digital protests might develop into the norm in Uganda as a result of the liberty to take to the streets doesn’t exist. “I discover it uncomfortable that many individuals need to take a look at that as the brand new resolution,” says Ssentongo.

“They need to take a look at that as an strategy that we should always use to run away from different conventional strategies. These totally different approaches ought to solely be reinforcing one another however not be seen as alternate options or substitute the opposite.”

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