It is despots and dictators that hate political cartoonists

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By David Matende

Last month, one of Africa’s most celebrated cartoonists, Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado), was formally fired by his employer, Nation Media Group.

The humourist had been in the cold since last year after his bosses forced him to take a sabbatical. His mistake? Lampooning East African leaders, particularly the flip-flopping President Uhuru Kenyatta.

While the sacking of Gado is yet another sign that press freedom in Kenya is under threat, it at the same time a recognition of the potent power of political cartoonists in particular and of satire in general.

The cartoonist has had a field day since 1992 when Nation hired him, mocking the mighty and in the process giving his audience a unique perspective on leadership. For his genius, he was called “Africa’s most important cartoonist. His page describes him as the “most syndicated political cartoonist in Eastern and Central Africa”.

The love newspaper readers lavished on him was proportional to the hatred those in authority had for the Tanzanian-born graphic humourist. President Kenyatta clearly never liked the man. Even before he became president, he tried to sue Gado over a cartoon pillorying him for the Sh100 billion “accounting error” that was reported in the 2009 budget, when the president was Finance minister.

Talk in media circles has it that it was President Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto that put pressure on the paper’s management to fire the cartoonist. His formal sacking came soon after the paper fired one of its key editors, Denis Galava, in what media watchers see as a dangerous trend for media freedoms in Kenya.

That the cartoonist provoked the ire of the mighty is testimony to the power of poking fun. While a reporter might pen a hair-rising article and sub editor conceive a punchy headline, the cartoonist’s sarcastic pen is often more potent, but often undervalued.

While readers soon forget the headlines, the cartoons are kept and sometimes framed, in the process preserving the art, humour and the political message contained therein.
Because of their subtle power and their timelessness, authorities often fear them and in times of conflict or national stress, often decide that cartoonists should be cut out, closed down, and in some cases locked up.

As recently as last year, Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart provoked the wrath of President Erdogan for drawing particularly provocative cartoons that the president didn’t like. The president had the cartoonist locked in. Cartoonists in other countries rallied to his defence, until he was acquitted.

In South America’s leading cartoonists, Rayma from Venezuela and Bonil from Ecuador, have had to face up to particularly nasty pressure. Rayma lost her job at Caracas-based El Universal newspaper after drawing a critique of her nation’s health system, while in Ecuador one of Bonil’s cartoons, telling a story of a raid by the police on the home of a journalist and parliamentary advisor for the opposition, resulted in a $92,000 (Sh9.1 million) fine for the paper at the instigation of President Correa. Gado’s tribulations are similar to those suffered by these cartoonists

While on the surface it might appear harmless and only aimed at provoking laughter, humour is in fact the best antidote to fear and the best defence against abuses of power. Cartoons are like mirrors in which governments can see themselves, and that’s why authoritarian regimes do not like them.”

African leaders who like to consider themselves superhuman as they seek ultimate power do not like the fact that cartoonists make them look not only just human, but in some cases as very ordinary human beings. There are plenty of Kenyan leaders who would rather not be reminded of that.

Humour makes everyone equal and brings down to size those with illusions of massive power. Politicians who have lost all sense of reality as a result of their exalted positions or those with an inflated sense of their own importance fear comedy.

But those who torment cartoonists had better understand that they are involved in a futile effort. Throughout history, art has been used to build popular support.

Gado was Nation’s editorial cartoonist. Political cartoons have the critical role of making social and political commentary that simplifies the subtle and often complex underlying issues of a news story.

An editorial cartoon is a representational or symbolic drawing that makes a satirical, witty, or humorous point about a political subject, be it a topical issue, event, or person. The graphic images in editorial cartoons convey concepts that might otherwise only be thought of in terms of verbal abstractions.

When it come to the use of metaphor, simile, hyperbole, satire, and sarcasm, editorial cartoons have no equal. They convey messages in a way that pure text cannot. The power of editorial cartoons is their subtle ability to influence public opinion on the big questions of the day.

While some might think that the purpose of the editorial cartoons is mere entertainment, the truth is that they go beyond mere aesthetics and are inherently powerful in moving individuals or groups towards certain political perspectives or to take a particular stand on social issues.

All Kenyan newspapers have editorial cartoons, always placed at the top of the op-ed pages. Because they are usually situated at the heart of the paper’s opinion and editorial page, it is assumed that they represent paper’s take on socio-political issues. The editorial cartoons are seen as the paper voice on issues, just like the editorials. For Nation’s spineless managers, the thought that Gado’s cartoons were interpreted as the paper’s position on the various political issues must have given them sleepless nights.

When the Nation forced Gado to go on leave last year, his place was taken by Gathara — an equally acerbic cartoonist, writer and activist. The paper soon realised that Gado and Gathara are birds of a feather and promptly showed him the door.

The paper now relies on the mild and sometimes tasteless Igah and Munene, whose perspectives on the big questions of the day are at best mediocre while their humour does anything but bite. I would bet the Nation Centre building that few readers today bother to look at the Nation’s current editorial cartoons.

It is understood that since June 2013, the presidency had been threatening the Nation with sanctions and demanding that the board reins in headstrong editors and columnists in exchange for continued advertising support.

The first casualty was Makau Mutua, then a Sunday Nation columnist, who was unceremoniously bundled out for penning articles critical of the Big Men. He relocated to the Sunday Standard, but he appears to have lost his punch after the move.

There are now fears that after getting rid of Mutua, Galava, Gado among men others, the next to go are columnists Maina Kiai, George Kegoro and Godwin Murunga, whose weekend pieces are a thorn in the flesh of the increasingly intolerant administration of Uhuru Kenyatta.

Uhuru’s hatred for Gado is said to have started shortly after he was indicted by the ICC over the 2007/2008 post-election violence. To his chagrin, the cartoonist revelled in depicting him as a man running away from his silhouette, alluding to the crimes against humanity charges he was then facing at The Hague. His caricatures of Uhuru and Ruto chained to a heavy prisoners’ ball (the ICC cases) is said to have really disturbed the duo, who swore to have the cartoonist removed.

Gado’s dramatic depiction of the deputy president in the Hustler’s Jet scandal in June 2013 equally rubbed the Jubilee administration the wrong way, culminating in the government suspending some advertisements to the Nation.

Gado also effectively managed to influence the public’s thinking on land grabbing by leaders through depicting Ruto in various editorial cartoons as a Singh complete with a turban following the attempts to grab the Lang’ata Road Primary School land early this year, for which some faceless Indian businessmen were blamed – it had been claimed that the land belonged to a certain Singh.

But it was not only the Kenyan leaders that were butt of Gado’s sardonic humour. Last year, the Tanzania government temporarily banned The East African, after the paper published Gado’s caricature of President Jakaya Kikwete being massaged airborne by beauties. The cartoonist was commenting on the scandals that were dogging Kikwete’s government.

The cartoon enraged the ruling party CCM stalwarts, who banned the cartoonist from visiting his motherland. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have not escaped the cartoonists biting satire either.

Retired president Daniel Moi hardly complained about cartoons, yet he was often the subject of satire, by Gado and others. In fact, he was said to enjoy it.  Kibaki never raised issues, while opposition leader Rail Odinga is said to take it lightly whenever he is lampooned. What is wrong with Uhuru? More importantly, what the deuce is wrong with the Nation Media Group?

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