Injustice Musings Uganda

Of subversive t-shirts & the making of absurd history

As we live out our lives, we are – wittingly and unwittingly – writing history. And it so happens that sometimes (and increasingly so), this history is etched down permanently for future generations to read. And learn from. And wonder at. And laugh at. Or shake their heads. Those who arrested Sam, Asia and Ismail have written their bit of history

I got to know Samson (known to most of the world as Samwyri) a few years ago after I got onto Twitter and sought like-minded tweeps to engage with. In those days, it was pretty easy to identify the kind of people whose 140 character bursts of content you’d want to consume on a regular basis – they’d somehow bubble up through the TL almost magically. Nowadays, it is a little bit more complicated because of the sheer numbers even though Twitter keeps on tweaking it’s algorithms to counter this. However, I only really took serious note of him when he and his friends launched SchoolPlus – a school management software solution and a direct competitor to my company’s school management solution. Obviously, anyone would be a bit concerned if someone came along to take away their bread and I recall being upset with some of their marketing pitch material. However, despite this, my primary reaction back then was actually not despair and worry. Instead, I was quietly impressed by the fact that he and his team had put together a working solution and I found myself wondering how he’d find the journey. See, I know exactly how hard it is to actually develop a product from scratch to market release and I also know how the development is just a fraction of the effort required to make it a market success. I especially know what the education sector market is like – extremely conservative, low margins (by necessity) with a healthy dose of skepticism towards local solutions. When we started marketing our solution back in the day, one prominent Head Teacher asked us how he could trust “young men of no fixed abode”. That quote still tickles us to this day.

And so I found myself recalling those days and thinking about all the changes that have since happened in the sector (mostly positive – more schools than ever have decent computers and they’re not running Windows 95 :-), teachers are now largely computer literate etc). Of course, it was a good wake up call for us to ‘pull up our socks” but as a great believer in competition (of the fair variety) and knowing well that the local/regional market is big enough for a few solution providers to compete and all thrive, I knew we’d survive. Plus, this country needs a lot more people like him – people that create home-grown solutions for our local problems and it will be interesting to see what new stuff his company will come up with. It’s even more impressive to see him working on ICT solutions yet his background is actually Law.

Despite our status as competitors, we continued engaging on social media with our interaction fuelled by our shared passions (IT & governance issues). We eventually got to meet physically a couple of years later and worked together on some interesting data analysis. This was the time I also got to meet some other very interesting people for the first time: @amgodiva, @Snduhukire, @rukwengye, @qataharraymond, @HaggaiMatsiko@spartakussug and @JackyKemigisa. All really, really great lads and lassies… For those that think social media is a waste of time, you may want to reconsider – is there any other medium/forum/club that can bring people with common interests together on such a scale? Except Alcoholics Anonymous (maybe).

Fast forward to the end of May 2016. On Saturday 28th May, I was in Amuria attending a giveaway/introduction ceremony and enjoying a colourful display of our rich Ugandan culture in a somewhat bittersweet context (the bride that was being given away had tragically lost her father about two months prior). Given the twin challenges of poor connectivity (sadly, LTE coverage isn’t as widespread as adverts would have us believe) and limited battery life, I was offline most of the day. Later that night – while catching the Champions League final in a local kafunda – I took a glance at my timeline (TL) and, to my eternal bewilderment, learnt that Sam had been locked up ostensibly for wearing a t-shirt with a portrait of Dr. Kizza Besigye. At first glance, it seemed too absurd to be true and bearing in mind that sometimes falsehoods do propagate rapidly in cyberspace, I refrained from commenting and waited for further information. In the morning, I checked the TL again and it dawned on me that the impossibly absurd could actually be true. That’s when I tweeted the following:


Afterwards, I reached out to someone I knew would have the full story and he confirmed that indeed Sam had been arrested for possessing t-shirts deemed “subversive” and was still in police custody. And here is what the criminally offensive t-shirt looks like.


It’s hard to explain what went through my mind at that point. Shortly thereafter, we embarked on the journey back to Kampala and the need to concentrate on the road meant I could put the matter to the back of my head. Still, at every stop, I did a quick TL refresh to (disbelievingly) check on #FreeSamwyri…

I’m not going to recount the full story of what transpired from Sunday to Wednesday when Sam finally regained his freedom thanks to the incredible folks at Chapter 4 (thank you so much Nicholas, Anthony ) and Pamela who helped a great deal too. As a matter of fact, two other persons got arrested as well as part of t-shirtgate (Asia Nanyanzi and Muyinda Ismail). I actually took a break from my phone on Sunday evening simply because I was getting a little hot under the collar. In case you’re not familiar with all this, I’d recommend you take a look at the #FreeSamwyri hashtag on Twitter. And then, do take a look at Raymond’s brilliant piece that happens to be a rebuttal to one of the most brainless articles ever posted on the world wide web.

Instead, I’d like to reflect on a couple of things arising from this sorry episode.

First of all, how can it be that – in 2016 – being a supporter (just a supporter mind) of a particular political camp in an ostensibly democratic country can land you behind bars? Make no mistake – Sam was locked up simply because he dared to openly & loudly display his support for FDC’s Presidential Candidate. Answering the simple question “Why did you buy this t-shirt?” [allegedly] earned him a hot slap (By the way Sam – was it a backhand or forehand? Or both?). How dare we claim to have opened up the space for political parties when such incidents happen on a regular basis and it is business as usual? Why do we even bother with all these lofty ideas (democracy, freedom of expression/association, political plurality etc) when all we’re actually going to do is pretend to understand them?

Secondly – how can it be that it is normal that the authorities find it fit to routinely violate that key tenet of justice as enshrined in the law: No detention without charge beyond 48hrs. And while they are at it, why do they shamelessly issue statements that not only make no sense but also reveal that they hold our laws in absolute contempt. For instance, when the Police Spokesman says they arrested some people for planning to organise a demonstration and distribute t-shirts, does he have any idea that planning a demonstration is completely legal even with the obnoxious POMA? Does he know that making and distributing t-shirts is also completely legal (unless they bear content promoting illicit activities. A portrait of a major political figure WITH NO WORDS is hardly illicit, is it?). And when an official statement mentions the date “Friday 28th May 2016”, are we supposed to laugh or cry? Don’t these officers have calendars hanging on their walls or residing on their mobile phones? And then you claim that the arrested persons distributed 120 t-shirts and yet all the evidence you’ve collected up to that point indicates that nothing like that number of shirts had even been produced. Why do they do this? And repeatedly…

Third – does anyone feel happy with the blatant misuse of resources on display in this case and in many similar cases? Here are three young people with absolutely no case to answer but somehow, state resources were utilized in apprehending them and detaining them for days. I don’t know about you but I’d really prefer that the portion of our taxes that goes to the security agencies be used for fighting actual crime and locking up actual threats to our individual and collective security. How depressing is it to see that some of that money is being spent on investigating and prosecuting cases such as this and the famous case of the mysterious CMD (Chapati of Mass Destruction)? I don’t think the selfless lawyers that step in to offer legal representation to these innocent victims particularly enjoy spending their valuable time on these baffling cases either but they simply have to lest we witness nasty examples of miscarriage of justice.

Fourth – and most puzzling – the answer to the question posed at the start of the previous point is actually yes. Yes, some people are actually happy that Sam went through this ordeal and are not shy about revealing their feelings. Here is what a Presidential Assistant had to say:


And a few other people weighed in:



How on earth can this be? How can there be people (some of them young) that actually jubilate at this blatant abuse of power and violation of one’s liberties? What exactly goes on through such a person’s mind when they’re posting such? I know the internet is one large playground for trolls but I thought such trolls live in strange faraway lands like North Korea. It transpires that some of them – an unhealthy number of them – live among us, breathing the very same air and eating the same rolexes and gonja… Fortunately, most of my ruling party subscribing friends didn’t react like this (at least publicly). Indeed, they too were perplexed by the development.

Finally, the bit about writing absurd history: History is a fascinating field simply because learning what our forefathers (and mothers) were up to in their day reveals so many incomprehensible, mind-boggling absurdities that make me marvel while shaking my head in disbelief. For instance, did you know that there was once an execution method in England called “hanging, drawing and quartering”? History is littered with stories of routinely normal happenings then that we cannot comprehend right now (except that every now and then, we astonishingly repeat them). Some of them are horrific beyond belief while others are so comically absurd that they’d make great comedy fodder. However, at the time – all this was considered absolutely normal by the actors of the time. Thus, those that would gather to watch gladiators take on beasts in the Colosseum were no different from modern day fans in Namboole. The busybodies that came up with the regulation that all horseless carriages had to be preceded by someone waving a red flag were not very different from the committee members that decided that the speed limit on the Northern Bypass should be 70kph. And so on. As we live out our lives, we are – wittingly and unwittingly – writing history. And it so happens that sometimes (and increasingly so), this history is etched down permanently for future generations to read. And learn from. And wonder at. And laugh at. Or shake their heads. Those who arrested Sam, Asia and Ismail have written their bit of history. Unfortunately for them, this bit of history is no Kitty Hawk or iPhone or Kiprotich moment. This is a patently absurd bit of history. One can only hope that those who did it manage to conceal their names unlike a certain Mr. Arinaitwe. Sadly, as a nation, we are writing far too much of the same of late. Keeping citizens off major roads for the benefit of visiting dignitaries, increasing Parliamentary headcount way beyond the capacity of their physical facilities, giving those same MPs UGX. 5M each for pilau and suits, taking years to build bunkers to house critical medical equipment despite “buying” said equipment, looting trillions of road infrastructure funds, a minister assaulting a journalist on camera and getting away with it and so on.  The tapestry of history that we’re writing continues to incorporate all sorts of miserable narratives. Of one thing I’m certain – those that read it decades and centuries from now will surely be shaking their heads.