The Ugandan government is accusing the Buganda Kingdom's CBS radio station of promoting genocide, but is avoiding the laying of charges which it would find difficult to sustain, writes Kalundi Serumaga in The East African. The truth is that the station was guilty of nothing more than highlighting the ethnic favouritism practiced by the government of Yoweri Museveni.
The government-controlled New Vision newspaper has accused the now closed Buganda CBS radio of promoting genocide, and likened it to the notorious Radio TV Milles Collines that participated in the Rwanda genocide.
Thus goes the media stand-off between the government and the Buganda Kingdom over the closure of the station, itself a development of a longer-standing conflict over political and cultural space.
Since its threats of abolition and demands for an apology have not worked, the NRM government has been compelled to present some kind of more robust argument to justify keeping the station off air some five months after the disturbances.
With its open deployment of the charge of promoting genocide, stated not just by the government-owned paper, but also the Minister for Information and an army general-cum-presidential security advisor, the government seems to be playing its last card, with uncertain results.
Shortly after the September shutdown, miles of audiotape were taken from the station to be translated into English by a university language department.
Despite a now presumably intimate knowledge among government officials of all that was broadcast on that fateful week, not a single presenter – nor the station itself as a whole – has been convicted in court on related charges.
Many will find it hard to believe that any serious government that caught its subjects planning genocide – possibly the gravest of all crimes – would simply request a mere apology from them, and then let the matter drop.
Buganda's suspicion is that the demand for an apology was in fact an attempt to hoodwink the station into accepting civil liability for the riot damage.
This would have then enabled state-backed "affected citizens" to descend on the station and sue it into bankruptcy and permanent silence.
Since the Kingdom saw that gambit coming, the only approach left to the NRM is to make the open accusation of genocide at every venue except in a court of law, where their accusations would run into all sorts of problems.
The trouble is that the most applicable law on the matter is somewhat even-handed.
On the one hand, there are clear definitions of what constitutes the malevolent targeting of particular groups, be they faith-based or ethnic.
On the other hand, the same law explicitly allows anyone so charged to demonstrate, as a defence, that the only reason they were itemising persons of a certain ethnicity was to point up that group's undue dominance of the state machinery in ways that discriminated against others.
This law was enacted in the earlier, more optimistic days of the NRM regime.
It emerged from the history of the experience of ethnic discrimination by previous regimes.
Partly because of the then state persecution of Uganda-based Rwandan Tutsi refugees, the Baganda and the Banyankole – from which communities the bulk of the then rebel NRM army was drawn – and partly because of the preponderance of northern Ugandans in the then state army, the NRM was particularity sharp in its criticism of previous regimes as being "sectarian."
Today's NRM emphasises the first part of the law, and tries to ignore the second.
The Independent magazine has been at the forefront in Uganda in publishing research that reveals both the predominance of President Museveni's various relatives in state employment, as well as the wider over-representation of persons from western Uganda in high public office. In doing so, it has attracted state hostility.
Indeed, my own work about the same point of ethnic bias seems to be what particularly enraged my jailers and interrogators during my September incarceration.
"Why are you focusing on westerners?" they repeatedly demanded. The irony that virtually all of them were from western Uganda seemed lost on them.
CBS radio's essential problem therefore comes from its having been a forum where the question of the use of the state machinery to acquire large parcels of land in Buganda is frequently dissected.
This topic inevitably invites focus on the current ethnic biases in the distribution of government contracts, jobs and control of the state.
It is this much broader and complex series of discussions that the NRM government now seeks to conflate into the accusation of genocide.
The current approach of drip-feeding partial "evidence" to the public via the state-owned media, while certainly an improvement on the earlier whispering campaign, still falls far short of a mature and responsible effort to resolve a serious matter.
As things stand, the government is faced with a stark choice: Either lift the ban on the station or hand their "evidence" to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions so that charges may be drawn up.
If they were to actually press charges, the NRM would run the risk of having their unparalleled record of nepotistic and ethnically discriminatory public appointments being entered as a defence into the official court record, thereby being reported on and extensively discussed in the media.
But it was precisely this scenario that the media clampdown aimed at suppressing in the first place.
As the Chinese say: You meet your destiny on the very road that you took to avoid it.
* This article first appeared in The East African on 1 March 2010.