By press time, Ugandan singer Iryn Namubiru was still in custody at Chiba Prefecture prison in Japan, where she was arrested with drugs on May 3, ahead of her prosecution that starts on May 25.
Felix Eupal looks at the controversial musician and journey from Makindye to fame – to a Japanese detention centre.
In the eyes of many music fans, Iryn Namubiru’s was long seen the story of an ordinary girl who defied odds to make it big – a revered award-winning celebrity complete that dreamt of a romantic French guy. Even after a reported marital breakdown, Iryn remained loved – seen as more of a victim of the usual complications of cross-cultural relationships.
But as news filtered in that Iryn had been arrested at Tokyo airport in possession of drugs, the ensuing debate converted the diva into a polarising figure. Fans and admirers have argued as to whether the singer was a silent drug dealer or was set up. It is a debate that will go on until Interpol and Japanese authorities dig out the truth. But in the meantime, Iryn’s music career, built tirelessly over the last fifteen years, hangs precariously by a thread.
Some have claimed that they would not be shocked if Iryn knew something about the drugs. Their conclusion is based on Iryn’s daring character – given how she sometimes allows fans have a feel of her body while on stage. But such a conclusion could have more to do with Ugandans’ more conservatively gendered approach to sexuality, with liberal women regarded as odd or abnormal.
This same school of thought also digs back into Iryn’s background –growing up in Makindye, one of the renowned Kampala suburbs, with a wild life characterised by dingy bars and pubs that attract different kinds of people. Still, many are shocked that a person whose music career had peaked and, therefore, was thought to be reaping big, would get involved in trafficking drugs.
They believe she was set up by someone who was aware of the show she was supposed to hold at the Yotsukaido Cultural hall in Tokyo. Indeed, Iryn has defended herself that she had no idea of what was in the parcel that was handed to her by her manager and brother, Thaddeus Mubiru. George Sekandi, a Ugandan in Tokyo, says Tumwesigye is a known broker and dealer. He is also the chairman of NRM/O Japan Chapter, a group that is neither registered in Uganda nor Japan.
“Tumwesigye claims that he quit the military intelligence to help his former bosses multiply their money doing business in Japan,” Sekandi wrote in Daily Monitor. “Ugandan musicians that came to Japan to perform for the 50th Independence day celebrations will tell you how much they suffered here.”
Asan Kasingye, the director of Interpol Uganda, was quoted in the press recently as saying they had got involved in this case following the disappearance of Tumwesigye in Japan. He is reported to have returned to Uganda upon learning of Iryn’s troubles.
According to Iryn’s promoter, Balaam Barugahara, the singer has been assigned a lawyer, Yuko Matsumoto, to represent her in the trial, which kicks off on May 25. Matsumoto has been exchanging emails with Barugahara since his appointment. He says that Iryn’s brother cum manager, Thaddeus Mubiru, will have to fly to Japan next week as a witness in the case.
But even if Iryn was set up, it will be a herculean task to circumvent the long arm of Japanese law. Just ask British national Nicholas John Baker, who was convicted of smuggling cocaine and ecstasy into Japan. Baker was arrested at Narita airport, on April 13, 2002, and found guilty by the Chiba Prefecture District court in June 2003. He was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment with forced labour and fined ¥5,000,000 (Shs 127m).
At his trial, Baker claimed he was tricked by his travelling companion, James Prunier, into carrying the drugs through customs in a false-bottomed suitcase. Baker’s conviction was upheld on appeal but the sentence was reduced to 11 years in prison and the fine reduced to ¥3,000,000. Singer Angella Kalule couldn’t say much save to warn fellow artistes on carrying unsuspecting luggage they are given when heading out of the country.
“This is a trying time for Iryn but my fellow artistes, we ought to be very careful and cautious regarding transporting items for friends and family,” she said.
Iryn’s drug troubles come shortly after she recently separated with her husband and father of her two children, Frank Morel. This followed press reports in November 2012 that she had been battered by Morel over allegations of infidelity. When The Observer interviewed her about her marital troubles, a teary Iryn narrated how the loving Morel had turned into a violent beast.
She even showed us the scars from her fights with Morel. At that time she appeared relieved that the two were no longer living together, revealing that she was “seeing someone”.
On January 26, she released her 2013 single Tebiba bingi, a song informing men that it is the small things that women desire and not big cars and houses like most of them assume. The song has received enormous airplay on local FM stations. Beyond that, it has been a relatively quiet year for Iryn.
Suddenly things don’t look so rosy for the diva and 2011 Pam Award artiste of the year.