Ugandan writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was definitely not in the 2021 Christmas season spirit when he expressed his freedom of expression by going on a three-day Twitter tirade against long-serving (some may say self-serving) Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
And more so against his son Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerubaga, Commander of Uganda’s Land Forces, whom the writer described as “obese and obscene”, and who is seen in some quarters as the Ugandan strongman’s preferred successor.
Eventually the police, who have twice before arrested writer Rukirabashaija, took him just after Boxing Day, and — in direct violation of his Constitutional rights — kept him detained for a week, which Ugandan CID police spokesman Charlie Twiine blamed on the “festive season with [CID] workers away, and courts closed, leading to delay in processing him”.
The first time Ugandan police arrested Rukirabashajia was in April of 2020, just after Covid-19 had struck Uganda’s shores. At the time, the author claimed it was over his self-published book The Greedy Barbarian.
This book reviewer was eager to read the current Ugandan best-seller.
Unfortunately, for the professional book critic, The Greedy Barbarian, satirical though it is, has too much “tell and not show”, where the protagonist is explained in word instead of demonstrated in art.
Sentences like “his cantankerous demeanour, vulgar and harsh, would haunt him all his life” are many and cumbersome, and the reader lumbers through this dense dictionary-word world of bombast throughout the book.
The line between the artful writer and the Twitter activist are blurred, at least in terms of literary style.
“Muhoozi bum-lickers! Dare attempt to bully me again and I show you fire,” Rukirabashaija tweeted just before his arrest. “I have more verbal artillery in my toolkit to bludgeon your empty heads and dirty mouths that spews hocus-pocus and balderdash!”
Unfortunately, if writing is a craft and a book the work of that craftsmanship, Rukirabashaija may have way too much verbal artillery in his writer’s toolkit, that then tends to bludgeon the reader (empty-headed or not) with big words. The Greedy Barbarian may equally be described as a hocus-pocus of a book in plot, whose writer has made a dash for the bold, but ended up in a world of Ballads of the Bad that end up in ribald.
The protagonist of the book, Kayibanda, born in fictional Muhemba (Rwanda) where his mother is a night harlot, is not even an anti-hero, but the outright antagonist of the novel.
Crossing over the border at six years of age on the back of his machete-maimed mother Bekunda, to Kalenga (Uganda), one can see how this could have started as a deeper story about the 1994 Rwanda Genocide against the Tutsi; but Rukirabashaija is not interested in any deeper historical analogies in his novel.
Kayibanda is truly a bad seed (from a rapist father) and the author has no interest in his character development in the book. Kayibanda’s is a linear trajectory of unadulterated evil that can come off as laughable to the seasoned reader.
He is that bad boy in school that goes from stealing pencils to straight heists in violent bank robberies.
In Kayibanda’s case, he goes from stealing chicken in his childhood to killing his son’s “baby mama” in college in a foreign country (a fictional Kenya), just to accommodate his new lover Miss Kembaga.
Never mind that he is on an Economics’ scholarship — for which the author says he has “no head”— but had been expelled from high school after getting caught cavorting in the school library with his schoolmate, Kamagoba, the baby mama whom he will murder later in the story.
In the interlude between the two incidents, he gets to work as a vigilante in the village, and spares neither his guardian Bamwine nor his adopted father in his vigilantism. Never mind that “Dad” is a wizard who can turn into a snake, or stone, very Aaron biblically speaking, at the drop of a rod.
Rukirabashaija’s imagination steams forward, uninhibited and loosely structured, making reading this book similar to trying to drive a car with an over-heated engine. His imagination is fevered, and the book is a frenzy of unmitigated violence and covetousness.
“Kayibanda becomes the political hitman of a military dictator!”
Again, we might have seen parallels to President Museveni’s "Operation Wembley" in 2002, where young Ugandan assassins were recruited and trained to take out organised crime figures in Kampala in extra-judicial killings of other young criminals; violent crime dropped by half when "Wembley" was done.
Instead we are rushed to the scene where Kayibanda wrests state control from the strongman, and with the reins of power in his hands, he can now grab, loot and kill at will, to sate his barbarous greed — as Rukirabashaija gives full and unbridled rein to his rather undisciplined authorial imagination.
With leaders like Milton Obote having been overthrown by henchmen like Idi Amin, complete with occult practices, who most closely comes to resembling Kayibanda rather than the Museveni most folks assume this book is about, one feels frustration that, again, no parallels are drawn.
In the end, devoid of any research and little in the way of craft, The Greedy Barbarian, with its gore, can still be a luridly entertaining read — if one was a subscriber to tabloids like the Red Pepper of yore.
In August of 2020, Rukirabashaija was arrested for what he claimed was his book Banana Republic (where writing is treasonous). This may be true, but it is hard to imagine that the Ugandan state earlier that April arrested him for The Greedy Barbarian.
It is more likely that the barbarians came to his gate for his Twitter tirades against Lt General Muhoozi.
Regardless, Rukirabashaija was named the PEN International Writer of Courage in 2021 by the Zimbabwean activist and writer, Tsitsi Dangaremba.
Dangaremba won the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for work that "defines the real truth of lives in our societies" — and who Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnagwaga’s regime has tried to gag on previous occasions.
Tony Mochama is PEN International secretary-general, Kenya Chapter