Uganda’s political cartoonists have sharp pens, producing work that is often highly critical of the government and state of the country.
And yet, unlike the rest of Uganda’s media, they have largely managed to avoid the government’s tightening grip on freedom of expression. This, despite “often controversial depictions of senior political figures, including the president,” writes Richard Ssewakiryanga, executive director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, in Controlling Consent a book on Uganda’s 2016 elections.
That’s allowed cartoonists to pen some of the most strident media criticism in the country right now.
The media environment in Uganda has been in steady decline for the last decade, with 2017 a particularly bad year. At least six journalists were arrested as they marched in Kampala to mark World Press Freedom Day. In September, television outlets were threatened by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) for broadcasting live coverage of a parliamentary debate that descended into a brawl. Eight staff members at the tabloid Red Pepper were arrested and charged with creating “offensive communication” and publication of information “prejudicial to security” in November. They were pardoned by president Yoweri Museveni and released from prison on Jan. 23.
This followed on from an election year during which Uganda dropped 10 places to 112th in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Some of the most controversial cartoons of Museveni have been drawn by Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, who has worked for The Observer newspaper for 11 years. “In that time I only can recall two occasions where the editors expressed reservations about my cartoons,” Ssentongo says. “But I am also aware of the boundaries of my operational space; sometimes I choose to run my ‘delicate’ cartoons on my Facebook page and not with the paper.”
A graphic and striking depiction of Museveni raping the Ugandan constitution was one example of a cartoon he decided not to submit for publication. The image was a commentary on the president’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to have age limits removed in Uganda, paving the way for a continuation of his three decades in power. Ultimately, Ssentongo deciding not to submit it because equating a serious crime like rape with legal chicanery may have been viewed as disproportionate, he says.
But even after publishing the cartoon on Facebook, Ssentongo faced no backlash. “I have never received any threats from the government, not even from its over-ambitious supporters who are potentially a bigger threat.” While he does not think Ugandan cartoonists are yet seen as a threat to power he is concerned that might change. “I can’t presume that what happens to other critical journalists will never befall me,” he says.
The country’s cartoonists have always been a probing voice. When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement first took power in 1986, “the regime was very sensitive to caricatures,” says Peter Mwesige, a former newspaper editor and now executive director of the Kampala-based African Centre for Media Excellence. “Cartoonists were often harassed by state operatives.”
Mwesige believes cartoonists have broadly avoided censure in the last two decades as the government has paid more attention to critical newspaper stories and curbing debates on local radio stations (radio is the main source of news for the majority of Ugandans). But that is changing. “[With] the growing reach of social media we are most likely going to witness more harassment of cartoonists and other commentators such as bloggers and musicians,” Mwesige believes.
Cartoonists haven’t completely escaped scrutiny. Chris Ogon is a cartoonist at the the Daily Monitor, which frequently criticizes the government. Since turning his pen to politics in 2013—he started out drawing cartoons of Ugandan socialites for the Kampala Sun—Ogon says he has twice been threatened for his depictions of some senior political figures by unnamed individuals using private numbers. On both occasions “I was ‘invited’ to the CID’s [Criminal Investigations Department] headquarters in Kibuli by a person who introduced themselves as a police officer [but who was unable to produce any evidence to prove it]” he told Quartz Africa by email. Ogon believes that working for the Daily Monitor puts him and his work on the government’s radar.
Ssentongo believes that cartoonists must, as best they can, resist that pressure from governments, detractors, and even editors, so as to continue speaking truth to power. For example, his frequent depiction of Museveni as wearing a drip irrigation bottle on his hat has an important double meaning. It symbolizes the bankruptcy of ideas and innovations that has come to characterize the ageing president, who has been in power since 1986. The bottle also serves to show what he believes is actually being irrigated: politicians’ pockets, his grip on power and corruption.
Ssentongo cites South African cartoonist Zapiro, and his battles with current President Jacob Zuma, as an inspiration for his work. Famously, Zapiro also gave the president an accessory—a showerhead protruding from his head—in reference to a comment he made about showering after sex during his 2006 trial for rape.
Across the continent, cartoonists are offering stinging critiques of those in positions of power, but often not without consequence.
In Ghana, Bright Tetteh Ackwerh has been hailed for his takes on China’s rising influence. And despite his dismissal from the Daily Nation for a cartoon of then-Tanzania president Jakaya Kikwete, Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado, continues to produce provocative work. Illustration can be especially risky in places where freedom of speech is heavily curtailed. Ramón Esono Ebalé, a cartoonist whose work aims to highlight injustice in Equatorial Guinea, has been imprisoned since September without formal charges being brought.
Ogon is worried that the space for his critical work is shrinking in Uganda, the result of “an increased desire and pressure from the government to control news and to control the space for news.” The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has long sought to shape the narrative about how it brought peace and development to Uganda. But with over 70% of Ugandans having been born since Museveni took office, the story of its ‘success’ needs retelling to a new, more urban and connected audience.
It is not just conventional media that the government is seeking to control. UCC Director Godfrey Mutabazi announced at the end of 2017 that the government plans to launch homegrown versions of social media platforms like Twitter. Although unlikely to replace international messaging platforms, this move would allow the government much greater access to track and monitor online discussions
For Ssentongo, these efforts merely provide further ammunition for his pen—a tool he believes will be increasingly important in holding public officials accountable as the space for critical opposition in Uganda is further constrained. “Perhaps we can ridicule them into seeing sense” says Ssentongo, or at least “generate citizen anger towards the abuse of office though our depictions.”