“Challenging power isn’t polite and beautiful”: Dr Stella Nyanzi and the right to impolite in Uganda

In this photo taken on 10 April 2017, Makerere University researcher Dr Stella Nyanzi, left, gestures in the dock at Buganda Road Court in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. (AP)

To mark her 45th birthday on 16 June 2019, Ugandan academic and activist Dr Stella Nyanzi released 45 poems from the Luzira Maximum Security Prison, where she has been jailed since November last year.

Writing has been Nyanzi’s way of keeping busy in detention. In fact, prison, she says, has given her the time to think and reflect deeply on issues she cares about – free speech and expression, women’s rights, sexual freedom, good governance and social justice.

“I have been reading and writing a lot. I have written more than 45 poems although some get confiscated by prison authorities,” the mother to twin boys and a girl tells Equal Timesfrom her holding cell at the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Kampala, where she was attending a trial hearing of her case on 17 June.

The poems are not only rich in style and language, they are also laced with metaphors, humour, insults and profanity. Nyanzi is a proponent of ‘radical rudeness’, a tactic employed by Ugandan freedom fighters under British colonial rule to challenge those in power. Although this ‘radical rudeness’ landed Nyanzi in prison, it has not silenced her or changed her approach to critiquing the government of Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

In one of her birthday poems, which were widely shared on social media using the hashtag#45PoemsForFreedom, Nyanzi writes:

Teach the nation poetry.
Handcuffs cannot contain the potency of poems. 
Arrest warrants cannot disappear memorized verses
Poetry can never be detained in gaol.

For Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, a Ugandan writer and lawyer who has been campaigning for the release of Nyanzi, the poems are proof of her determination to uphold freedom of expression in Uganda: “What the poems tell us is that you can charge people, take them to prison, but you cannot stop them from thinking what they want to think. It also shows us that Stella has the courage to continue saying what she wants to say, and that she is not repentant.”

Speak out and face jail

On 2 November 2018 Nyanzi was charged with the offence of cyber harassment and offensive communication under the Computer Misuse Act, 2011. She went to trial on 9 November and she has been on remand ever since. In the past few weeks, state witnesses have been testifying against her, and this week Nyanzi’s defence case began. If convicted, she faces one year in prison.

The charges stem from a poem posted on her Facebook page on 16 September 2018, a day after President Museveni marked his 74th birthday. Using colourful metaphors, the poem expresses what can only be described as bitter regret at the birth of the president and states that Uganda would have been a better place if he had drowned in his mother’s vaginal discharge at birth. State prosecutors claim that the language used in the post is vulgar, indecent and lewd, and that it violates the president’s right to privacy.

In 2017, Nyanzi faced a separate charge under the same law when she described President Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” for failing to deliver on a campaign promise to providefree sanitary towels for female school pupils. She spent 33 days in a maximum-security prison before being released on a non-cash bail of 10 million Ugandan shillings (approximately US$3000). The trial of this particular case has been put on hold after Nyanzi challenged the prosecutor’s demands to have her face psychiatric testing. She is still awaiting the court’s final decision on whether she should be tested. If convicted, she faces an additional year in prison.

Nyanzi’s prosecution is seen by many as just one of the ways in which dissenting views are being silenced in Uganda. Mwesigire says: “It is a warning that those who follow her form of activism will face the same wrath of the law”. Isaac Ssemakadde, the lawyer representing Nyanzi, agrees: “I don’t think the state truly believes she has committed any crime”.

As one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, Museveni has been accused of nepotism, corruption and eroding judicial independence, as well as using security forces to silence opposition politicians, journalists and activists through violence, blocking peaceful assemblies, arrests and prosecutions on trumped-up charges.

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Two of the most famous casualties of this repression include pop star turned independentMP Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has faced multiple arrests, a beating by security agents so violent that he had to seek medical treatment in the United States, and charges of holding an illegal assembly and procession for protesting against a proposed ‘social media tax’ last year. Meanwhile, opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye, a former personal physician to the president (who has unsuccessfully run against Museveni in four presidential elections since 2001) has been arrested more times over the years than Ugandans can keep count of.

Meanwhile Museveni continues to tighten his 33-year grip on power. He has, amongst other things, appointed key members of his family to top government positions, including his wife as the education minister. In 2018, a constitutional amendment to remove the presidential age limit was approved, which will allow him to seek re-election in 2021. And later that year,the punitive social media tax came into effect – ostensibly to raise money for public services, although the president has admitted that he hopes the tax will curb the spreading of “gossip” online.

But new movements continue to use online platforms to engage and mobilise Ugandans. As well as galvanizing support for Nyanzi through hashtags such as #FreeStellaNyanzi and #PushForStellaNyanzi, social media has been successfully used to garner international support against homophobic legislation, to mobilise the public against the high cost of living in the ‘Walk to Work’ protests, and even to try and stop Museveni from removing the age limit for the presidency. Although these protests were usually met with violence by the police and army, they have helped to raise public consciousness about issues that affect Ugandans.

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The right to be impolite

As a woman using blunt language and direct action to campaign against everything from homophobia to violence against women, there are many in conservative Uganda who have greeted Nyanzi – who holds a PhD in anthropology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – with scorn and anger. But for those also fighting for freedom, her outspokenness and fearlessness serves as an inspiration. “People are used to the calm, collected form of activism. Nyanzi is changing that thinking,” says Bwesigire.

Nyanzi first came to the limelight in 2016 when she stripped naked (except for her knickers) in protest, after being locked out of her office by the director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research. She was employed there as a research fellow at the university but had refused to teach (it was not part of her contractual obligations). Although she successfully challenged the suspension at a tribunal, Makerere has refused to give Nyanzi her job back and she, in turn, has taken legal action against her former employers.

In her commitment to fighting against all forms of injustice, Eunice Musiime, the executive director of Akina Mama wa Africa, a pan-African feminist organisation based in Kampala, says that Nyanzi’s type of activism is necessary – however radical it appears.

“You are not going to challenge power in a polite and beautiful way. If you dig deeper and look into the context of Uganda, that has not worked at all,” she says, adding: “We cannot all use the same tools as a form of resistance and activism.”

Sylvia Tamale, a law professor at Makerere University and a feminist activist, has written extensively about the tactic of ‘radical rudeness’ in a paper titled Nudity, Protests and Law in Uganda. She notes that throughout history, African women have used their bodies – nude or clothed – to protest against inequality and abuse. “It is usually a weapon of last resort when they find themselves pressed to the edge of the cliff,” writes Tamale.

As Nyanzi continues to serve time in prison, feminists from all over Uganda will be meeting for the Uganda Feminists Forum in Kampala between 31 July and 2 August. Under the theme Silencing our Fears and Fearing our Silence, attendees will discuss issues such as the shrinking space for organising, influencing processes and the ways in which feminists are packaging resistance. Specifically, the forum will try to unpack the question: if Nyanzi spoke politely would anyone listen?

For the imprisoned academic, the answer appears to be no. She is committed to using writing as a weapon to communicate the pain and injustice she says Ugandans are subjected to. Is she worried about the outcome of the trial? “No,” she says without blinking. “In fact, I will be glad if I’m convicted. It will only prove what I have always said and continue to say: there is no freedom of expression in Uganda.”

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