"I never change," Andrew Mwenda told me when I reached him by phone last week. "I am as constant as the Northern Star."
Andrew Mwenda in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2001.
Mwenda's troubles began on Aug. 12, after he said on his radio program that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government deserved some blame for the July 30 death of Sudanese vice-president John Garang, who was returning in from Uganda when his helicopter crashed. Museveni had warned local journalists against making speculative statements about the death, just hours before Mwenda went on air. The government arrested Mwenda, and he spent a weekend in jail before being released on bail; his sedition trial started earlier this week.
After a quick trip to meet with his bosses in the Nation Media Group's offices in Kenya, Mwenda went right back on air with controversial topics. Last week, he again discussed Garang's death, repeating his argument that "the government of Uganda should take responsibility." His reasonable but now dangerous logic: Garang took off from Uganda at dusk, in bad weather, to embark on a route that would take him over rebel-controlled territory. Surely Ugandan authorities deserve some blame for letting that happen.
Mwenda is aware that continuing to state these views on air could endanger his case. "I prefer to live with my feet in jail than to live on my knees out of jail," he told me.
Andrew Mwenda is my friend. I met him in Uganda when working there as a freelance journalist in 2001, I have seen him since in New York, and I admire his work. I also fear for his safety. He acknowledges that he often uses immoderate speech; his bosses told him as much after the arrest. "You have an angry bull in front of you; be careful," Mwenda says he was told. "You can speak your mind, but use measured language." Listeners have also called in frequently to tell him to moderate his incendiary words, though not his message.
Mwenda is a policy geek who has studied economics and is a strong believer in processes and meritocracy. He collects National Geographic DVDs about the politics of ancient cities and takes notes as he watches them on Sunday mornings. This is the same Mwenda who will have spent the previous night partying at Ange Noir, Kampala's biggest night club, where his charismatic nature and high profile make him one of Uganda's biggest celebrities. It's as though Jeffrey Sachs were also a rock star.
Mwenda sees his country ruled by a government that is beloved by foreign donor countries and organizations and yet wastes aidin March he wrote a column for the International Herald Tribune entitled, "Foreign aid sabotages reform." He claims that Museveni is corrupt, governs via patronage, and stifles free speech and property rights. Though Mwenda and Museveni used to speak over the phone regularly, their relationship has soured as Mwenda continues to speak out against the president. Mwenda credits Museveni, once a military commander, with helping to liberate the country from Idi Amin, and with not much else since then. Of course, his arrest has done nothing but feed that perception; he told me the government was a "dictatorial regime" that "shuns due process."
Given his attitude and fiery style, Mwenda is surprised that he wasn't arrested earlier. "I have been expecting it for years," he says. "It's funny that it has come so late." He says he psychologically prepared himself for jail and enjoyed meeting his fellow inmates; more than that, he enjoyed the freedom from emails and phone calls. "When I am in jail I have no responsibilities. I was just relaxing." He also had to soothe his mother's nerves. "I told her my life would be meaningless" if he didn't say what he believes, he says. He also had been telling his girlfriend for several months to prepare herself for this possibility.
But the arrest was never aimed at silencing Mwenda, he says. Its intentlike that of a previous crackdown on Mwenda's newspaper, the Monitor, for which I have written in the pastwas to intimidate other journalists, and by his reckoning, that goal has been achieved, regardless of the court's decision. He says that when he has appeared on other journalists' talk shows to discuss the case, they told him, "Please don't speak too much; you will lose our job."
I asked Mwenda about the political opposition, to which pro-government forces often try to link him. He responded dismissively that the opposition is "very, very weak." This stance puts him in an odd spothe's a critic of two of his potential allies: the opposition and international-aid groups. (The international media is more supportive, with both the Economist and the New Republic Online having printed favorable pieces.) And yet he says there is a groundswell of support from individuals in Uganda, saying he's received emails, text messages, letters, phone calls, even comments in the street, and they've nearly all been positive. Even the police who arrested him, Mwenda says, "told me they were behind me and agreed with my cause."
Does this indicate that conditions are ripe for political upheaval in Uganda? Mwenda waves off that possibility, saying that the country lacks "social dynamite." He adds, "There's no supply of political leadership nor organization to catalyze the feeling of oppression and resentment."
Mwenda at times sounds more like a political activist than a journalist, and I thought he might see himself as holding social-dynamite potential. I asked him if he'd consider a career in politics. "I can't rule that one out," he said, though he added, "In Uganda, journalism gives me a very important platform to express my views and support causes I believe in."
David Goldenberg contributed to this article.