‘There is no difference between you and Dr. Besigye’, Henry Mutebe tells Andrew Mwenda

Dear Andrew Mwenda

My letter to you is in Dr. Martin Luther king’s spirit who once said that ‘a time comes when silence is betrayal.’ You have spoken; I have read, listened and heard. In your submissions, you raised very important issues which in all fairness deserve a response.
I will try my best, not to attack your character or person, because that is not the ethic of a civilized debate although, I will not shy away from pointing at examples of your own pieces, submissions and words well recorded in history that may be a good mirror for you to do your own self-appraisal on the way you put your ideas forward.

You are no doubt a man of great potential but like all elements of great potential, they can all in the same manner be elements of great danger. The beauty and burden of your gifts is that you can use them for good and bad. You are a man finely gifted in speech and argument. For this, you have been recognized and celebrated in many forums. You have used your gifts to mobilise resources and established great businesses that employ other Ugandans and you must be credited for this resourcefulness. There is no doubt that like many others, you are a useful and active citizen who is contributing to the development of your country.

More significantly, through hard work, exposure and good luck, you have established yourself as a public figure, who is not shy to let those you meet know it. In your famous resignation letter, you quickly reminded your former boss, ‘Almost every year of my work at Monitor, I won a certificate of excellence. I broke the biggest stories in the country, hosted the greatest names on radio, and in many cases even attracted the largest advertisements.’ Andrew, you are a man of great achievement. We thank God for such incredible talent. In a country young as ours, we need those voices that can always disturb the normal course to make us reflect on alternatives and refine our goals and targets. Your contribution in public policy discourse is well profiled and continues to extend the boundaries.

Andrew Mwenda, Founder of The Independent Magazine - Photo by Jeniffer Cheung

That said however, as I have commented on one of your earlier posts before, I need to remind you Andrew that you have gotten accustomed to being right, being the one with the last word, and the know it all person and Yes, you are the old man of the clan, yes you have the ‘Last word’, yes you are connected and have access to classified spaces where no one else reaches, but even then, you are still one human being born into a world with others who should equally have their opinion treated with respect and who do not need to be tagged as mentally retarded or ‘fanatical’ simply because they do not subscribe to your line of argument.

In recent days, you have been quoted as calling a certain section of people mentally retarded and ‘fanatical’ yet your own history is ripe with examples of a complete ‘fanatical’ in the real sense of the word. The words and tone you use to describe supporters of Besigye or other people who disagree with you is sometimes the real evidence of what may not be good with your form and delivery of ideas.

A couple of years ago, you wrote a stinging piece ‘isn’t Museveni fleecing us’ in which you sharply criticized the president for all manner of evil. Thank God the president is a cool headed man, who from his wisdom treated you differently and you can now pass for a business man around town because he can allow a government he leads to give you adverts and also access other opportunities which he has the discretion to have failed you. President museveni is indeed a calm person.

That attack on the President and his family also drew the attention of the usually silent people like Mr. Rwabogo Odrek, who in a response to your letter said, that years of mentoring at the Monitor had ‘…produced a rabid and reckless politician, not a professional journalist’ that he thought you wanted to be. I am sure he reflected very much before he wrote those words and I hope you have the humility to read that letter again and reflect more.

I ask you to read that letter again; because it should tell you so much about how some people genuinely feel about the way you put out your ideas. He added that the newspaper was producing ‘many kids like you who feed us with garbage every day on airwaves and in print and expect the nation to sit and listen’. Like he said years ago, I think it is unfair for you Andrew, to often put opposition supporters into one box and simply regard them as ‘fanatical’ and call others mentally retarded. Odrek called your submissions ‘the daily noise that pollutes the air on the radio.’ And that you have “have learned nothing like the Bourbons in France who ruled the country before the French Revolution.’

I have used those statements just to give you a mirror to look into the past and see how it is dangerous to simply keep peeing on people’s legs and think they are too dump to notice it or simply remain too nice to tell you to stop it. You are good at talking, and sometimes fail to listen to yourself or others. I have heard you on radio several times and many times, your own panelists struggle to find space to make their arguments, you just won’t allow them to put their ideas forward. We have also heard from the corridors how sometimes the studio is charged because you just won’t use appropriate language when referring to others’ views. This sort of behavior is totally unacceptable Andrew. You may have been used to being right and being told you are the sharpest tool in the box but you need to listen more to others and respect other people’s right to hold their views. I want to imagine you are naturally a fast speaker and that may give you problems holding back when you want to make a rebuttal but you need to learn the patience to listen to others and respectfully disagree using appropriate language.

I will now turn to the contradictions in your ideas. There is a sharp contradiction in your frames of analysis of issues that is recurrent throughout all your submissions. For example, earlier on, you suggested the order by chaos theory as a solution to the conflict in Congo. You have said the same of South Sudan arguing that these regions should be left to fight, kill each other until a winner emerges and establishes order. You are against external intervention but fail at the very beginning of the argument to recognize that there are no arms factories in these regions. Arms are ferried into these regions and the minerals being looted are sold somewhere. So there are already external forces animating the action. Your premise falls when you imagine a domestic solution when there is actually an external cause. You argue that the domestic solution is what will stop the conflicts when you know too well that there are external funders and mineral dealers who are fueling these wars.

Andrew, since 1996, close to 6 million people have died in the conflicts in the non-Democratic Republic of Congo. That is precisely about 800 people every day for the last 20 years and in your opinion, and in your righteous mind sir, you think the war should go on until a winner emerges? Really? 800 people should die every day until a winner emerges? Wow. Anyway, I can understand that for you as a journalist that is news and money. War is business and that will be extra money for you since you are always the first to get the news or ‘truth’ as you always say. On those grounds I can understand your argument. However, you need to put yourself in the shoes of those you report about and understand that like your family members at home, they want to live a normal life and not merely be statistics and stories in your newspaper. The death and suffering going in South Sudan is simply untold yet you have said the same for this country. The years selling nothing but words can not give you a slight idea what the heck happens when death violently takes millions leaving behind helpless children and women. You have been lucky not to get the feel of this situation in person but those who have do not wish, even for a minute, to hear the guns roar which for you is news to sell and money to make. I just think that as someone with opportunity and space to shape public opinion and interact with decision makers, it is very regrettable that you hold and defend such a destructive theory. However, it is your opinion and you are entitled to it.

But let’s even assume that such a theory is fine by any standard, order by chaos, why don’t you apply the same theory to the growth and development of FDC or the opposition in Uganda? You have described the opposition as disorganized and unable to take power. You have consistently argued that Dr. Besigye is the problem in FDC who is stifling its growth. By supporting the order by chaos theory, you fundamentally contradict yourself when you seem to suggest to the opposition to have a different growth theory. Why is the suggestion different from your usual line of thought in this one?

I thought your school of thought is that order and authority emerge from order by chaos theory? Why don’t you leave FDC to organically go through its own disorder and find its own growth? By extension of your argument, the disorder should be healthy for it re-invent and find what works. Loyalty to FDC as an institution or Besigye as an individual is a matter for the people to decide. They know what they want and will always decide. NRM has fielded president Museveni because he works for them. To the supporters of NRM, it is not a point how many times he contests, all they want is their party to be in power. In the exigency of circumstances, they find him the best player and he has always scored. So I am not sure, as a realist, you should find Dr. Besigye’s commitment to remain active in contesting for power problematic. You have taken Besigye as the principle problem and do not want him to contest for power. I find this very simplistic. To simply wish away one person and think the opposition will now grow and win is to say the least a very laughable idea. I find the contradiction quite interesting. I think as president Museveni has argued, the people decide. That is now the order. Whether is it chaos, it is the order.

In another opinion letter you wrote for Aljazeera, you castigated president Obama for lecturing Africa when the US itself has enough problems. In that article, you write that ‘Obama acted like a colonial headman lecturing the natives on how to behave as good subjects.’ Don’t you think you are doing the same for FDC and the opposition? You had some advice for Obama saying ‘If there are weaknesses in our governance they are ours to struggle against and overcome.’ In the same spirit, if there are weaknesses in the opposition there are theirs, and theirs to solve. You on one side castigate others who you say ‘Lecture’ Africa but forget your own intervention and lectures to others. The lesson we should learn from this is that we need to listen to each other. If you do not want to listen to lectures from the US or Obama, you should in the same spirit not lecture FDC, NRM or the opposition. Or else, you mirror the actions of the ‘colonial headman’ whom you brutally condemn. Like President Kagame advised you, ‘write your stories’ in the independent and leave matters of FDC to FDC (going by your theory of order by choas…they should be left to work it on their own). Fair deal? Your opinion is just but an opinion of Andrew Mwenda. There are 3.5 Million Ugandans who voted for Besigye despite how or what you think of them. You attacked president Museveni for years yet his support continued to go up. Does that tell you something about an opinion? Millions continued to support President Museveni despite the sharp criticism and attacks you laid on him in the years before. The lesson from this is that at the end of the day, the people decide and while offering our opinions, we must not label, demonise and put people into boxes making them look evil simply because they fall into a different political space.

You accuse Dr. Besigye of turning and not respecting his word, yet in your resignation letter to the MD of Monitor, you start by saying you had resigned from Daily Monitor and from the radio talk show and will not reconsider their request to go back or continue to write! Today, if I am not mistaken, you are back at the radio, what happened? Why did you turn back? What took you back to the radio? See? People change. You changed! The same reasons you had that changed your mind should be the same frames you should use to understand that ideas change, people change, contexts changes and strategies change and it okay for people to change. It is a sure constant in life

You are tired of seeing Besigye on the political stage, how about if we also said we are tired of seeing you on TV and hearing your voice on radio, would that be a good deal? You feel the right to occupy the public space but think others should not occupy it? What’s the name given to that kind of behavior? You ought to use the same to understand that Dr. Besigye and others who want to contest need to be left to compete for as many times as they want.You and Besigye are no different. You are all sellers of ideas or opinions. So there is no difference between you and Dr. Besigye. Why do you wish him away while you think its a good idea for you to remain in the public space? You all occupy the same space, the market place of ideas. In my view, as the president has always said, The people decide. The president espouses that idea and in my opinion, it is should be given some thought. The people decide. How they decide, what information they have to decide is a debate for another day, but as a principle the people decide.

You were one of the sharpest critics of President Museveni to an extent of attacking his family in some of your pieces. Today, you are on air defending and praising the very man you said was very bad and leads an ‘illegitimate regime.’ That illegitimate regime you said now feeds you and sustains your business. Is it still bad? Were you lying about it or situations change? What happened to the bad Museveni, the corrupt Museveni, the bad man you described, the illegitimate regime? Or maybe you lied about him? What happened Andrew? I think all these situations teach us that people change, situations change and no one should be held hostage to a past. People and organizations must continuously reflect and be left to self-renew. You have changed Andrew. Others too, have changed. That’s just a fact of life. So you ought to be careful when pointing fingers to people for changing when you have taken the same route. No one should be condemned for changing their position as long as they have good reasons to do so. The president has on a number of occasions given his reasons for deciding to run again. On many occasions, many of his supporters find these reasons valid and they do support him again. In the same manner, Besigye has changed positions several times because the situations required that he does. In the end, the Ugandans are the judges, we all have one head … and our opinions should be treated with the same weight as other Ugandans, whether you call them fanatical or mentally retarded. This demonizing of politicians is simply too dangerous and as a journalist, you ought to know that we hold you to a certain standard and we are not dumb to know where the boundaries of journalism and political advocacy and witch hunt start and stop.

Andrew, I will end by re-echoing the words of Odrek who implored us that sometimes someone needs to tell you that you are overly arrogant and self-righteous. I believe Mr. Odrek Rwabogo when he wrote a letter in response to your piece expressing his concern at your ‘apparent negative contribution to the ethics of journalism in Uganda’ and that ‘Many times you act as if you are heartless, not knowing that when all chips are down, Uganda is where all of you belong.’ He also added that he was hopeful that you would grow since you had gotten a fellowship at Stanford. Perhaps now that you call yourself the old man of the clan, may be you feel you have grown, but like he implored us that you had turned from real journalism to ‘witch hunt’ and had become a reckless politician’, I feel the latest attacks are evidence to these concerns that were earlier on expressed and they show your contradictions.

I ask of you to understand that being intelligent comes with some level of responsibility, integrity, honesty and humility. Odrek, years ago but perhaps prophetically put it that ‘You have a highly inflated sense of self exaltation. I guess that is the reason you are a presenter, debater, judge and everything else on your talk show’. And he advised us that ‘someone needs to tell you that there is a different and better way things are done.’ This is what I am doing Andrew. I am telling you that there is a better way to address people. There is a better way to put your ideas across without abusing people and there is a better way to disagree. Otherwise, like Odrek said, people may continue to take your submissions as ‘the daily noise that pollutes air on radio.’

Mr Mwenda, need I repeat Odrek’s words, that ‘you need some sense of humility and to give people some respect if you want to be respected in life.’ Like you attacked the president and his family years ago through, and now today you find yourself in the not very good position of having to eat from the very people you abused, it is just good to treat people with respect and know that you cannot be sure what tomorrow holds. Those so called fanatical and mentally retarded people may be more useful to you than you may want to imagine. There are so many brilliant Ugandans who can engage in debate but the way you put your ideas forward, your sense of self-righteousness and language does not stimulate such engagement. In the end, Uganda will still be here with or without you, me or Besigye or Museveni. Your opinion is just but an opinion like many others. Do not abuse others simply because they support other candidates. Years ago you called the president illegitimate, today that president gives you bulango in your newspaper! Have you learnt something or as Odrek said, you have learnt and forgotten nothing? A word to a wise, … Andrew, the Ugandans decide. FDC decides. NRM decides. We need to respect all Ugandans and their views.

For many people its not even the parties or individuals that matter to them, they just want a decent living and a good day. Whoever speaks to their situation is all that matters to them. The president has done so many incredibly good things. Besigye has also done so many good things to put the government on pressure to deliver and to sometimes bring to the attention of the president things that many around him do without his knowledge and make him look a bad person. Right or wrong has no party. People just want a good country and no body should be simply put into any box as NRM or FDC and labelled simply because they have a different idea. For me it is not important whether it is people of FDC or in the opposition you call fanaticals or mentally retarded, or the people in NRM or the government you have earlier on called illegitimate, and other charged words… the point is the language and labeling which can have dire consequences for the people you put in that box. Nobody is fanatical, that’s just their choice. NRM fanatics or Opposition fanatics… as long as they are peace loving people, they should be respected.

By calling people hooligans, mentally retarded, fanatics, useless and all the other words you have used on air before, you promote a very dangerous narrative about an undefined group of people who may be mistreated by authorities or whose views may be ignored just because of the way you have shaped the public discourse on the identity of these people. As a journalist, you have the professional responsibility and moral obligation to be careful and selective with the choice of your words. Can’t we just live in peace without having to disrespect others. In the end we are all mixed but the same. Those who support FDC are our brothers and sisters… and those who support NRM are our brothers and sisters… we are all just Ugandans. Can’t you just earn a decent living without having to demonise others?

Henry is a lecturer at Kyambogo University and is currently a graduate student at Akersus University College of Applied sciences (HIOA) in Oslo. He broke the record as the youngest lecturer in Uganda when he was retained to teach at 22 years of age. He is also a philanthropist

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