Uganda Cracks Down On Dissidents During Pandemic

Apr 25, 2020
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Uganda has implemented one of the harshest lockdowns in Africa in response to the coronavirus. But now the government is also using it to silence its critics. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Eva Basiima says she got a call around noon. It was her mobile phone provider with a free offer.

EVA BASIIMA: Of sanitizers, gloves and masks.

PERALTA: She was, of course, suspicious. But she gave the man her address. And in less than an hour, Basiima says armed plainclothes officers were in her house. She protested. She told them...

BASIIMA: What is wrong? In someone's house like this - what is wrong? They told me, madam, we need your husband.

PERALTA: Her husband, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, just published a short novel, "The Greedy Barbarian." It's about a fictional dictator, a, quote, "morbid bedwetter" whose life tracks that of President Yoweri Museveni. The armed men says Basiima immediately took hold of her husband, who tried to comfort her.

BASIIMA: I was so confused - so confused on what to do because, as he was going, it was, like, all will be well. Please take heart.

PERALTA: Since the lockdown began at the end of March, Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent human rights lawyer, says the government has arrested opposition members of parliament and prominent journalists.

NICHOLAS OPIYO: The pandemic has been the most timely gift to many autocrats and authoritarian leaders like President Museveni.

PERALTA: The president has ordered courts to suspend normal operations and banned anyone but his government from distributing food aid. On live TV, Museveni told his security services to stop beating people. But that hasn't happened. As Opiyo sees it, Museveni is using the crisis not just to exact revenge but to also expand his already vast power.

Novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija has criticized the government's pandemic response on Facebook. He was charged with posting messages that could lead to the spread of COVID-19. His wife, Eva Basiima, says military men returned with him a few days ago and searched their house. She says they looked everywhere for copies of "The Greedy Barbarian."

BASIIMA: They asked me, when you're reading this book, do you enjoy it?

PERALTA: Her husband wasn't allowed to talk to her. But before he was taken back to prison, he did change clothes. And his boxers, she says, were bloodied. Her 6-year-old fell silent for two days after the search. And Basiima is terrified.

BASIIMA: The whole night I don't sleep because I don't know what is next. I don't know who is outside listening when I'm talking.

PERALTA: And because of the lockdown, no one, not friends nor family, can come to comfort her. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.