In Uganda last march, the black Mambas—a special unit of the government’s military intelligence service—raided the offices of The Independent, a newsweekly. One of the officers pulled out a pistol, declaring that he could make Andrew Mwenda, the founder and managing editor, disappear without a trace.
“So I directed the barrel of his gun to my head and said, ‘Go ahead, shoot me. Pull the trigger,’ ” Mwenda recalls. “He didn’t.”
While Americans take an independent press for granted, investigative journalists in post-colonial Africa do their work under daily threat of arrest, bodily harm, even death. For persevering despite the risks, Mwenda recently was presented with the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee To Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization.
The 36-year-old Mwenda launched The Independent in December 2007. Since then, he and his staff have been arrested or detained more than a dozen times. Mwenda’s home has been looted, and he’s forced to print the magazine at a secret location.
The Independent has focused on uncovering official corruption in Uganda, a nation of more than 31 million people. Recent stories have accused the government of committing human-rights abuses and the military of diverting U.S. aid to loan sharks in return for profits. In response to such muckraking, Ugandan security forces once showed up at the magazine’s offices in armored personnel carriers.
“You come armed with your tanks, and we’ll come armed with our tongues, and we’ll defeat you clean and square!” Mwenda recalls shouting.
In person, Mwenda laughs off his encounters with the government, which has slapped him with more than 20 criminal charges, including sedition, libel, and annoying the person of the president. He works out of a spotless office in the capital city of Kampala, where giant grey crowned cranes, the national bird, soar over paralyzing traffic jams.
He says that he uses humor as a coping strategy, especially as the plots against him grow darker. Mwenda alleges that on separate occasions, military intelligence planned to kill him and kidnap his fiancée. The schemes were aborted when sources tipped him off.
Mwenda’s love of lively discussion and passion for news and politics were fostered by his parents, a civil servant and a businesswoman. The youngest in a family of 13 children, he says, “ You had to do something sensational to get attention around the dinner table.”
Today, Mwenda has no trouble getting attention. Dressed in tailored suits, he talks, walks, and acts with the swiftness and swagger of a man trying to cheat time. On the radio, he referred to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni as a “coward,” saying that he was even “worse than Idi Amin.” (Amin was the country’s infamous dictator whose eight-year reign of terror was responsible for an estimated 400,000 deaths.)
“That was probably a bit of hyperbole,” Mwenda concedes. “If Museveni were like Idi Amin, I’d already be dead.” He says that the president has offered him government jobs, but Mwenda told him, “ I think I can serve you best in my current position.”
At a 2007 international conference in Tanzania, Mwenda argued that foreign aid was undermining African democracies. That controversial position got him heckled by musician Bono of U2, a vocal supporter of aid to Africa.
Mwenda’s rabblerousing has direct consequences for the staff of The Independent. “When you wake up and go to work,” says reporter John Njoroge, “you don’t know if you’re going home at night. That’s the scariest part.”
“The harassment is a double-edged sword,” says Associate Editor Joseph Were. “When we’re under threat, I know we’re doing good work, but I’m not always sure this is where I want to be when the police arrive,” he adds with a nervous laugh.
Of his editors and writers, Mwenda says, “I feel a huge weight of responsibility.” He tries to shield them by taking the byline for the most sensitive stories. His editorial mission at The Independent is twofold: to encourage debate and to equip Uganda’s citizens with the information to make educated choices.
“The government can jail me or even kill me, but it cannot jail or kill the values and ideas for which we stand,” says Mwenda. “We are standing on the right side of history, defending freedom, liberty, and democracy at any cost.”