The Ugandan State versus Dr. Stella Nyanzi

LET’s be clear about one thing: Dr. Stella Nyanzi, the feisty Ugandan anthropologist, feminist and all-round social justice advocate currently serving time at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison in southeastern Kampala after being found guilty of “cyber harassment and offensive communication,” is not everyone’s cup of tea. Her poem, ‘Insulting Yoweri Museveni’s Late Mother,’ published on Facebook in September 2018, is not particularly, how to put it, family-friendly. Among other things, the poem makes blunt references to the genitalia of the Ugandan president’s late mother and pours malediction on the first citizen, his wife and family.

Because of her willful abandonment of linguistic decorum and civility, many who would ordinarily have taken Dr. Nyanzi’s side in her ongoing battle with the Ugandan state have either averted their gaze or elected to watch from the sidelines. Beside the international press and holdouts in the Ugandan civil society, her few defenders have included the African Studies Association Board of Directors, which issued a statement demanding her release and defended her unconventional stylistics as follows: “Ribald speech has a long and distinguished history in Uganda. Dr. Nyanzi’s poetry, objectionable as it might have been to some, should be seen as part of a tradition of criticism, an aspect of Ugandans’ ongoing struggles for democratic self-government.”

The ASA Board of Directors and other supporters of Dr. Nyanzi are correct in defending her deployment of graphic language, and to those who prefer their resistance to be civil and inoffensive, we urge them to consider Dr. Nyanzi’s reason for her recourse to such colourful language: “Politeness has been taken, it’s been held captive, and they [the Ugandan government] don’t listen any more. So, sometimes, all you have to say is f***! And then people will hear and take you seriously.” In other words, Dr. Nyanzi is saying that the system in Uganda has become so impervious to criticism that only outrage—in this case poetic outrage— will make it to pay attention.

Accordingly, to fuss over Dr. Nyanzi’s poetic style or choice of words is to mistake the forest for the trees. The real issue here is quite simple, and it is that under President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who has been in the saddle since 1986, Uganda, the façade of regular elections notwithstanding, has gradually ossified into a full-blown dictatorship in which opposition to Mr. Museveni is barely tolerated, and a wrongly spoken sentence can lead to a jail sentence. To say this is uniquely tragic is an understatement, especially considering Mr. Museveni’s seemingly boundless youthful promise when he arrived on the scene in 1986. Today, he has become a legitimate sit-tight ruler, the latest in a continent justly notorious for presidential careerism. That is the specific tragedy, so to say, that Dr. Nyanzi is trying to call attention to, and her unstinting political activism is integral to her broader advocacy work on behalf of those whose rights have been trampled upon by the state, HIV-AIDS sufferers, and the poor.

In throwing the books at Dr. Nyanzi, President Museveni is extending his ignoble record of using his immense presidential might to try and silence legitimate opposition. Dr. Nyanzi’s place is in the classroom and not the dictator’s prison. She should be set free today.