Blogger Flees Uganda After Threats

Ugandan blogger and radio personality Dennis Matanda's provocative opinions on African culture, Idi Amin and recolonization have been covered on Global Voices before. Dennis caused another stir last month when he posted on his blog under the title “How to Be Dead.” The post chronicled the radio show, ensuing threats and frightening act of vandalism leading up to his flight from Uganda, a decision met with a mixture of support, bemusement and skepticism by his fellow blogren.

Writing about her latest dating escapades, Tumwujike tells readers, “If you want to read a post about ‘real’ drama, Dennis Matanda’s blog is the place to go.” Tandra addresses Dennis in her post about September's Uganda Bloggers Happy Hour, saying, “pity we cldnt hang before some ignorant peeps just run mad and u had to play dead.” But Degstar had the strongest reaction:

We had this discussion eons ago — in your old car, the one that had a toy Beretta in the glove compartment? — where I pointed out that for your being less than reserved about your feelings on things of national import, you could, should, expect to pay a price. And you, in that — some would say arrogant — devil-may-care way of yours said, “f— that. I mean really!!” me, I just said “kale.” Indeed you went on to say exactly what you wanted when and where you wanted. Then as it turns out — if I’m getting this right — your views on other people’s sexual preferences were what finally broke the camel’s back and resulted in the late night visit to your house.

Chief, what did you expect? A formal protest note delivered to your lawyer? A picket of your Nakasero hill office? A boycott of your radio talk show? Public burning of your newspaper articles? Or perhaps an invite to the Media Centre to share your divergent views in a bid to “reach a consensus and chart a common way forward?” dude please, I think not.

Now living in the United States, Dennis is working on his
first fiction piece: a novel titled Master of the Sagging Cheeks, which he hopes will bring a change in the way the world views African leaders. He agreed to share his story with Global Voices:

Dennis MatandaQ: Can you describe the events leading up to your decision to leave Uganda?

A: There are basically three things that led me to leave Uganda. The first is that I was getting nasty phone calls from unidentified people threatening me about a radio talkshow I did each week. The calls became nastier when we discussed homosexuality on the 24th of August. I basically did not agree with the pastors and colleagues about homosexuality. I said homosexuality was not welcomed with open arms in the West and so we did not have a right to assume that it was imported into Uganda. Because I had just returned to Uganda from a holiday in the UK and the US, I got a phone call that night telling me to go back where I came from if I wanted to see the light of day.

The second is that I was not too sure who these people were and could not pinpoint if they were government agents or not. I brought up the topic of harassment with my colleagues — not necessarily divulging the fact that these calls were coming in — but seeking information on who would be behind these things. The basic information I got was that because there are so many security operatives and many arms competing for the President's ear and so many power centers, it was almost impossible to know who was behind the calls.

And lastly, I did not know if I could trust the police with my life considering that they are obviously against anyone who says anything against the government — which I did all the time.

Q: You have a reputation as provocateur — your articles on African leaders and colonialism in particular have garnered much heated discussion. What would you cite as the single most controversial point of view you've publicly taken?

A: I think that the Call for Recolonization has been the most unpopular. I remember getting a call from an influential person in the government asking me to put them down considering that they touched on some really sensitive issues on leadership and President Museveni. He said that although I was right and making a lot of sense, in his opinion, “the people who run the country were past sense and were now into destruction of anything that stood in their way.” Interestingly, after I run away from town, I called him and in our discussion, he said something to the extent that those articles could have been the main reason I was targeted, as they were discussed across the African continent and beyond.

Q: Do you believe the attack on your compound is related more to your blog or to views expressed on your radio show?

A: To be honest, I cannot put a finger to it. I still do not know who was after me — and this was the scariest part.

Q: How would you respond to the accusations Degstar made claiming that you “ran”?

A: Degstar’s accusations are spot on. I ran away from things I should have “stood like a man” and fought against. I guess he is personally disappointed that I ran away yet he watched me do battle with some important people while I was managing the [Ugandan public relations firm] TERP Group, which is owned by the President's son in law. The thing he forgets is that I would rather do battle with an enemy I can see — and at least know. I ran because I did not know who was after me. Maybe I ran away too fast, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Q: What's your opinion of the current state of the Ugandan traditional media? Do you believe Uganda has a free press?

A: For the moment, the traditional media are basically safe… at least until the end of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. But the cracks have already started to appear with upcountry radio stations in places like the Toro region in Western Uganda being harassed for all kinds of things.

The other element in the temporary safety of the traditional media is in the fact that there is not a single institution capable of managing the rapidly expanding and basically free media. The Media Center which was supposed to do this does not have the credibility and the Uganda Broadcasting Council has been known to take lackadaisical decisions (including taking Gaetano off the Capital Radio over homosexuality comments he did not make; and of course, working with the Media Center to get Blake Lambert deported).

And the biggest safety is in the fact that if the President himself has not seen the news item, there is a chance that there will be no direct reprisal on the media outlet. Besides, most of the media house do not really appreciate some of the President’s actions. About five months ago, he summoned owners and managers of the big media houses and, after making them wait at his office for over 7 hours, came in to lecture them on how to do their jobs. They did not take it well — and he seems to have created rebels in his midst — instead of making them his allies.

The Government itself, like its leaderm has also so alienated itself from the mainstream media houses that they would not necessarily toe the government line out of choice. That is where I think Uganda has a free press. They are currently getting away with things many countries would not dream of. This, and this is something to worry about, is bound to change with very big, bad consequences.

Q: What role do you think blogging plays in this situation?

A: In the middle of the 2006 presidential elections, the 27th Comrade and Ernest Bazanye are going to become points of reference. They will step into their new roles and will become news leaders. Through satire, jokes and barbed comments — like the ones Ivan makes — the bloggers will reach the bone of many a great audience. Blogs will become like valuable missives or illegal drugs which people will go out to look for and get.

Q: Do you have plans to return to Uganda?

A: Yes. Definitely. I still have plans of becoming Uganda’s President! But between now and then, I have a couple of novels to work on, a PhD to pursue, a Health and Education foundation to introduce to Ugandan villages — and especially, a Washington Lobby to garner. So — now that I'm here, I might as well finish Master of the Sagging Cheeks. I have another 15 chapters to go, so I'm going to spend the next six months writing.

Dennis, thank you for your time.

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