The most important daily newspapers in Germany’s capital Berlin recently devoted an entire page to the topic of human rights in Uganda. Konrad Hirsch interviewed reporter Hussein Ssenyonga aka Sama Uganda for the Berliner Zeitung and met him in Kampala.
Others follow Netflix series, I follow Ugandan livestreams. In December last year, the campaign for the presidential election on 14 January 2021 began in Uganda. Bobi Wine, the candidate of the strongest opposition party, who made a career as a rapper and was appointed “ghetto president” years ago, campaigned for non-violent reform of the autocratically run East African state. Those looking for information came across several Facebook pages featuring daily livestreams of Bobi Wine’s campaign appearances.
With their smartphones, his followers followed his travels through Uganda. Perched on car roofs, they broadcast hours of driving through beautiful landscapes to the places where Bobi Wine was expected. The atmosphere on the roadside, the hope and the cheers of the people, were followed live by hundreds of thousands via Facebook. One stream shows the candidate holding an impassioned speech and being celebrated by Ugandans. Shortly afterwards, shots are fired. Security forces are seen brutally intervening, spraying tear gas or aiming water cannons at their own people, who have done nothing more than peacefully watch an official candidate in the election campaign. Thus, the overreaction of nervous state power headed by 75-year-old dictator Yoweri Museveni, interwoven into a corrupt power structure, are broadcast in real time around the world.
What is the difference between Netflix and livestreams from Uganda? The streams from Africa are real. And intense to the point of being nearly unbearable to watch. On the way to Kalangala on Bugala Island in Lake Victoria, security forces stop the campaign trail on 30 December 2020. Bobi Wine’s team is arrested, and later he himself. Did the many cameras and smartphones that followed these scenes and showed them to the world prevent worse from happening? Would there have been a massacre otherwise? Bobi Wine calls the smartphones in the hands of his followers the stronger, better weapons, better than the guns of the government troops, because smartphones don’t kill.
One young reporter spreads particularly intense livestreams on his Facebook page: Hussein Ssenyonga alias Sama Uganda. Although he comments on his images almost exclusively in the most widespread, non-official national language, Luganda, which I do not understand, his videos are moving. Sama Uganda is always there when Bobi Wine makes a public appearance. And was broadcasting live when his colleague Ashraf Kasirye, a cameraman on Bobi Wine’s team, was shot on 27 December 2020. In one scene, Sama’s camera suddenly pans to the right. He films military police beating a passer-by on the side of the road. Sama spontaneously comments on the: “The world is watching!” – repeatedly uttered in English like a mantra of hope.
This moment touched me deeply and I asked myself: Is this young man right? Is the world seeing these scenes? Does anyone outside Uganda know what is happening there? A few days after Sama filmed the beating scene, his Facebook channel went silent. On 6 January 2021, he was arrested and spent two weeks in detention. A few days after the presidential election, for which there is now ample evidence that it was rigged, Sama was released from custody. Photos of him in hospital appeared on his Facebook channel and the impression is of a young man who has lost all his strength.
But Sama is strong and was soon speaking up again from his sickbed. He was determined to continue his work, even though the authorities confiscated his smartphone and camera. Now that Sama has his own phone again, we communicate via WhatsApp. He sends photos, reports that his Facebook page with over 90,000 subscribers has been “hacked”. The Sama Uganda page still exists, but he has not had access to it since 5 February. On 13 February, Sama sends me a voice message: his life is in danger. Security forces, travelling anonymously in so-called drones, minibuses without number plates, tried to abduct him three times. Young men who support Bobi Wine disappear daily. They are taken to secret locations. If they ever turn up alive, they are badly wounded and abused. Sama’s message is harrowing.
Tell us something about yourself.
My name is Hussein Ssenyonga aka Sama Uganda, born and raised in Uganda, 22 years old. I am the first born in a family of six children. My mother raised us alone and still struggles to make ends meet. Unfortunately, my father died. After my father’s death, I had to drop out of school. He was the sole breadwinner of the family. I worked at Moon TV and Map Media and am now a reporter. Every day on my Facebook page I posted information, shared, commented or I was live on the scene. My Facebook page was hacked last week. I am being followed even though I only spread information that is true.
What is the situation in Uganda at the moment?
Uganda is not safe for many of us at the moment. We had an intense time in December and January when many young people were campaigning for the presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu [aka Bobi Wine]. After the elections, Bobi Wine was placed under house arrest for almost two weeks. His house was surrounded by military men – some in uniform, some in civilian clothes but with weapons in their hands, some with hooded faces and masks and difficult to identify. At the same time, we faced brutal arrests, abductions and killings, especially Bobi Wine supporters and anyone known to be a supporter of the People Power movement. At the moment we are in hiding and fear for our lives. Most of those arrested do not get a fair trial, sit in prisons or are murdered and dumped on the side of the road, causing fear among us and the people.
What needs to change in Uganda?
Uganda has the youngest population in the world; 85 per cent belong to the young generation. We believe that the change we need must go from the leaders at the top to the lower positions. So from the president to the local governments. Yoweri Museveni has been president for 35 years and now claims he was re-elected in the recent sham elections that were riddled with all kinds of violence.
What do you personally think of Bobi Wine and the People Power movement?
Bobi Wine has always inspired me as he was also raised by a single mother. I feel so connected to him and he gives me hope that one day I can also be an important person in our community. The People Power movement comes from the slogan “People Power, our Power”, which most of us believe in. It has a very powerful message: power should indeed belong to us, the people of Uganda. We hope that the new movement can solve the major problems of our country, such as the unemployment, social injustice, discrimination (which is due to tribalism) and corruption that has dismantled the country. We want fair and equal job opportunities.
When did you start going live on Facebook and how did you get so many followers?
I started reporting live on Facebook not long ago when Bobi Wine became a presidential candidate and started his election campaign. I first filmed live for Map Media [also a Facebook page]. Later, I opened my own channel on Facebook under the name Sama Uganda. Day by day I got more followers. This shows how strong the movement is. I made it possible for thousands in Uganda and in many other countries to follow what was happening and to be kept up to date. This new form of reporting is possible since we have internet almost everywhere. I feel that it is more exciting for people to follow my reports than traditional television, which is influenced by the political powers. Even if people don’t have much money, they save up to buy data passes so they can watch and follow live, uncensored coverage. In villages, you sometimes find a group of people looking at a smartphone and sharing the cost. Live and unfiltered is attractive because it is real.
Why do you put yourself in danger?
I love being a freelance journalist. I am passionate about filming and reporting on real events in my environment and in my country. It is dangerous and I have often put myself in danger. But so many things happen in the dark without being reported or the world knowing about it. So as a journalist, I have a duty to take the risk of showing the world what goes unnoticed, using my smartphone to report on these happenings. I had to witness my colleague and friend, cameraman Ashraf Kasirye, being shot in the head by military men in uniform while we were reporting live. By the grace of God, he survived. I visited him in hospital the other day and now, thankfully, he is back home.
When were you arrested and in what situation?
I was arrested on 6 January 2021 while filming Bobi Wine’s campaign tour in northern Uganda. I had recorded the police arresting and torturing compatriots. My own arrest was very brutal. I was dragged out of the car from which I was recording my video. During my arrest I was beaten and tortured. Some unknown substance was injected into my back. It was very painful and even now my back sometimes feels numb.
What reasons did the police give you for the arrest?
They gave me two reasons: Firstly, that I am one of the people who spread Covid-19 and secondly, that I filmed the police.
How long were you in prison and what were the conditions like there?
I was detained for a total of two weeks. First we were taken to a so-called safe house and later I was transferred to Manafa Prison. I stayed there for a few days and then I was transferred to Butarege Prison, where I stayed until I was released. It was terrible. I was forced to sleep on a damp floor. Later they crammed far too many men into a small room that was far too cramped. We were given small portions of inedible maize once a day, and if you missed it while doing something, that was a day spent without a meal. All my belongings were taken from me. I was ordered to take off all my clothes and I was given a yellow prisoner’s uniform. I was ordered to beat the rough ground very hard with my hands until blood came out of my fingers. Many cruel things happened and one can only wonder about people who do such things to other people. After I was released, I found my flat broken into and ransacked. I was told that uniformed and armed plainclothes policemen had broken into my flat. They took everything that belonged to me, only a red carpet remained.
How do you feel now that you are free?
I cannot say that I am free because I do not feel safe. And I cannot be free when my country and my people are still in captivity. I am afraid to be in public. If I want to go somewhere, I have to ride with friends in their car with tinted windows, for my safety. I have not recovered yet. I am still taking medication.
Are you going to continue working?
Yes, I want to continue my work, although I have no idea how to do that. My Facebook page has been blocked and they are trying to kidnap me. At the moment, young people who support Bobi Wine and want a free Uganda are disappearing every day.
What are your dreams for your life?
My dream is to become an international journalist who has the possibility to provide information without restrictions. As a young man, my dreams are many, but due to the circumstances around me, they are very limited … I would like to be able to make a difference in society.
Do you have a message for people in Europe or in other parts of the world?
To the people of Europe: Please keep an eye on Uganda! Uganda is bleeding, regardless of how beautiful this country is. Uganda is the pearl of Africa, one of the friendliest countries in the world. We have great landscapes and the second largest lake in the world, Lake Victoria. We have unique fauna with elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, buffaloes, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. Such a nation should allow its citizens to enjoy freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law. Unfortunately, this is not the case at present. Therefore, I call on the people of Europe and the world to become more aware of the injustices that are being inflicted on the people of Uganda by the current government.