Defiant Ugandan novelist breaks silence with award

Sunday June 25 2023
Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija

Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. PHOTO | COURTESY


Author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is in the limelight again, this time for winning the 2023 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.

Rukirabashaija, a fierce critic of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, has shown defiance despite being imprisoned and tortured three times since 2020 for his books, including The Greedy Barbarian, a satirical political fiction novel about corruption and dictatorship in a fictitious African country, and Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, an account of the torture he was subjected to while in detention in 2020 for the publication of his first book.

“In the face of oppression and stifling silence, this year’s laureates have chosen to speak the unspoken, echoing Václav Havel’s creativity and courageous spirit,” said Human Rights Foundation Chief Executive Thor Halvorssen during the award ceremony.

In December 2021, Rukirabashaija was picked from his home and taken to an army base, where he was allegedly detained for one month because of his tweets criticizing Museveni and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, until he was released on medical grounds after he alleged torture.

He had been charged with “offensive communication” under Uganda’s repressive Computer Misuse Act before the law was quashed.

Read: Uganda issues arrest warrant for author Kakwenza


In February last year, Rukirabashaija fled to Germany.

The Havel Prize was established in 2012 by the New York City-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) to celebrate those who, with bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth.

The prize is named after the late Czech president, poet, playwright, dissident, statesman, and former HRF chairman, Václav Havel, who led the non-violent revolution for Czechoslovakia’s independence.

HRF launched the prize with the support of Dagmar Havlová, Havel’s widow. Laureates receive a bronze sculpture depicting the “Goddess of Democracy,” the iconic figure erected by Chinese students during the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989.

This year’s laureates were recognised during a ceremony on June 14, at the 2023 Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) in Oslo, Norway. Each of the laureates received $50,000.

Rukirabashaija, also a journalist and lawyer, was recognised by English PEN in 2021 as a Writer of Courage.

“Creative dissent, at its core, is a powerful force that drives positive change, ignites the flames of justice, and inspires others to question, to imagine, and to act. It is a reminder that the world is not confined to the way things are, but rather shaped by the audacity of those who dare to dream of a better tomorrow,” Rukirabashaija said in his acceptance speech.

English PEN is one of the world's oldest human rights organisations, championing the freedom to write and read.

The second prize went to the Nicaraguan political cartoonist Pedro X Molina.

Molina was forced into exile on Christmas Day 2018 after Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega’s political police killed a journalist, jailed two others, and ransacked the offices of El Confidencial — the digital newspaper that featured Molina’s biting caricatures of Ortega and his tyranny.

Molina published his first two cartoons in Barricada in 1995, later becoming a cartoonist for the digital outlet El Confidencial.

Read: ʻThe Greedy Barbarian’ opens people’s eyes and wins award

In 2019, he received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, awarded by Columbia University. The same year he was recognised by Americas Quarterly as one of its Top 5 Latin American political humorists.

Four Ukrainian artists took the third position.

Yuriy Kerpatenko was a renowned Ukrainian musician and principal conductor of the Kherson Regional Philharmonic.

In October 2022, Russian troops assassinated Kerpatenko in his home at point-blank range after he refused to conduct a concert under the rule of Russian invading forces in Kherson, Ukraine.

The concert was meant to portray an “improvement of peaceful life” in the occupied city, but Kerpatenko “categorically refused to cooperate with the occupants,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy later confirmed. Kerpatenko led his hometown’s orchestra for more than 20 years before he was murdered.

Previous laureates include the late Rwandan gospel musician and activist Kizito Mihigo, Saudi women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif.