Following the arrest and detention of leading Ugandan academic, feminist and activist, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, on charges related to cyber harassment and insulting President Museveni and his wife, there has been outcry and condemnation both inside Uganda and internationally. A broad coalition is agitating for her immediate release from Kampala’s maximum security prison. Paula Akugizibwe and Isaac Otidi Amuke add their voices to the call.
In Seeing, Jose Saramago’s novel about the death of democracy, citizens in the capital city of an unnamed country calmly disengage from the ritual of elections, in which they have lost faith. The state retaliates by sealing off the city and withdrawing all public services, and in response residents organise themselves to sustain order in the absence of government systems. Garbage is collected. Peace is maintained. Life goes on. This worsens the government’s distress, as it presents them with an even deeper existential threat: redundancy.
Saramago’s prophetic tale came to mind when I started following the response of Ugandan academic Dr. Stella Nyanzi to the government’s failure to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls who cannot afford them. Incensed by the government’s claim that they lacked money to fulfil their election campaign promise, Nyanzi launched a crowdfunded campaign of her own, Pads4GirlsUg, which elicited a strong show of support from the public. In just a few weeks, the campaign raised thousands of dollars and distributed pads to over 2 000 schoolgirls across four districts.
Inevitably, the state was sidelined from this impressive display of active citizenship, which cast it as both unreliable and redundant when it comes to sanitary health for Uganda’s schoolgirls. “Ugandans have moved away from, ‘we beg the government to help us’,” Nyanzi declared in an interview with Ugandan weekly The Observer. “They say that if the government is impotent, let’s be our own men and impregnate our own women”.
Nyanzi, who is known for deploying vivid sexual metaphors as a tool to invoke outrage over injustice, also used her widely-followed Facebook page to deliver scathing commentary targeting President Yoweri Museveni and first lady, Janet Museveni, who is also the Minister of Education and Sports. On 7 April, Nyanzi was arrested and charged with cyber harassment, for posting “a suggestion or proposal referring to his Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni as among others ‘a pair of buttocks’ which suggestion/proposal is obscene or indecent.”
In other words, Nyanzi was arrested, and has now spent almost three weeks in jail without a bail hearing, for being rude. Her type of activism, while unique in contemporary Ugandan politics – Charles Onyango Obbo has described her as “our first neck-on-the-chopping-block female social media combatant” – is not entirely new to Uganda’s political landscape. Several days before her arrest, Nyanzi posted a paper by historian Carol Summers titled, Radical Rudeness: Ugandan Social Critiques in the 1940s, challenging her followers to “know our rich history before you think I am the first fighter with words”.
This paper, which has done the rounds since her arrest, is centered on the most famous RSVP in Ugandan history, activist Ssemakula Mulumba’s 18-page rejection of the Bishop of Uganda’s invitation to dinner in 1948. Summers dives into historical records that illustrate how radical activists of the time used rudeness strategically, to provoke the colonial government and citizens alike into a naked confrontation of oppression that was blunted by the emphasis on good manners in politics. This emphasis was central to Britain’s rule in Uganda, allowing it to brush past conflicts in the name of civility: as the Bishop had written to Mulumba, “there is no reason that we should not be on friendly terms, even if you dislike me officially”.
Mulumba, repulsed, rejected the Bishop’s invitation on account of the “foul activities” of the British in Uganda, whom he accused of turning his country into “a pigsty for white swine”. His letter, although addressed to the Bishop, was also intended for the general public. In the analog equivalent of a viral digital post, copies were printed and distributed in Uganda by his comrades. When the British objected to his rudeness, Mulumba unleashed even more vitriol, accusing the Bishop of “disdainful filth” and defiantly asserting that “I know, the [first] letter was spicy, because I took time and care to season it well for you…”
Due to their extremism, Summers writes, these radical activists were sometimes painted as insane — much as the state has now sought to use the Mental Treatment Act against Nyanzi, which lawyer Tricia Twasiima describes as “a colonial law formerly reserved for Africans who demanded for freedom”. But from the perspective of Mulumba and his colleagues, the real insanity lay in oppressive British rule, which sought to both slap their face and shake their hand in one motion. A similar perspective has been raised by many of Nyanzi’s supporters in Uganda today, where her activism channels broader frustrations around chronic problems with public sector services.
In The Observer, Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo marvels that “Our leaders ironically fail to understand our madness, much of which is their making! Such is the bizarre structure of our society that although many of us are insane, the calamitous madness of the powerful always finds exemption while that of the powerless is condemned.” Atuki Turner comments in The Monitor that the real vulgarity does not lie in Nyanzi’s use of language, but in “the situation of the hundreds of girls who have been shamed, teased, ridiculed, laughed at, until they’ve cowered with embarrassment or run out of class in tears, or stayed at home in shame, because of their menstrual periods”.
It is disingenuous to demand respectability in citizens’ responses to a politics that is not respectable. But this principle, however intuitive, is at odds with the popularised understanding of active citizenship, which has been rooted in the vague pursuit of “a seat at the table”. Nyanzi is in prison because, like the citizens of Saramago’s fictional city, she chose instead to construct another table with and for the people, while exposing the vulgarities of the high table in the harshest possible light. Like Mulumba, she was not interested in an easy dinner, but rather in disrupting the enforced respectability in oppression. This is a different kind of active citizenship, and perhaps the most effective kind, when dealing with states that are not responsive to the needs of their people.
Pads4GirlsUg continued to publicise their work in the days leading up to Nyanzi’s second court appearance, while other citizens announced their plans to collect sanitary pad donations at an upcoming music festival. But as Nyanzi and her lawyers sat in the high court on 26 April, with journalists and the general public banned from observing court proceedings, the Minister of Education declared her intent to look into non-governmental organisations that independently distribute pads to schools — adding skeptically, “if they are there”.
Dear President Museveni
Isaac Otidi Amuke
I have debated about writing this for days, in case it has a negative effect on my ability to freely do the things I like doing, like eating fish in the open air pubs at Mulungu Beach in Munyonyo, devouring pork with friends in the roadside cafes in Wandegeya, or having cold ones in backstreet Kabalagala. I have always found a reason, if not an excuse, to travel to Kampala, which is much closer to my home village in Teso than to Nairobi, my country’s capital.
For me, Uganda has always held a deeply sentimental value. Growing up in Busia, at the Kenya-Uganda border, my childhood friends and I knew that everything fancier was always on the Ugandan side of the border. Our fathers went to drink there, bringing back stories that remain alive to this day. All the delicacies we enjoyed – the fish, the roast bananas, the goat meat, nearly always originated from Uganda, and every Saturday morning my friends and I wandered outside Ugandan warehouses in search of the nylon paper and manila strands we used to sew our soccer balls. As a child, I entered Uganda as I would a neighbour’s house. In fact, a good number of my primary school classmates crossed back into Uganda for lunch at home, returning to Kenya to attend their afternoon classes.
Sofia, on the Ugandan side of the border, remains an all time favourite destination for food and drinks. I have never understood, or cared to investigate, how my favourite Kenyan beer, Tusker, retails at one-third of the price I pay for it in Nairobi. Culturally, as an Itesot, my king’s throne is situated in Uganda. I was once filled with cultural pride on seeing a huge billboard advertisement in Kampala by telecommunications giant Orange simply saying “Yoga”, translating the company’s “Hello” tagline into Iteso. Seeing such in Nairobi, where I am almost always the first Iteso my friends have met, would be a pipe dream. To take it further, my maternal great grandmother, Marisiano, has her roots in Uganda, and as an idealistic student activist, just graduated and on the run, your government granted me political asylum.
As you can see, Uganda is more than a second home to me. I hope my writing this will not jeopardise that in any way.
A few days before her arrest in Kampala, Uganda, I sent Dr. Stella Nyanzi a Facebook message of solidarity. She had had run-ins with your government, for what was seen as her indecent attacks on Facebook on your person and the person of the First Lady, Janet Museveni. As someone who has faced personal political upheavals before, I quickly understood the weight of the circumstances Dr. Nyanzi was looking at, and decided to quietly reach out so that she wouldn’t think my silence persisting.
Facebook is where I sent my message of condolence to Dr. Nyanzi on the passing of her father, whom she heavily mourned, on Facebook. Facebook is where I have known of her closeness to her three children. Facebook is where she has teased, cajoled, persuaded and protested. Facebook is where she has celebrated Luganda culture, helping me understand the meaning of Nalongo, as a mother of twins, a name which until then I only associated with Nalongo’s, the most popular pub in Sofia. Importantly, Facebook is where I first got in touch with her for an interview for “Facing the Mediterranean”, a three-part series I wrote on Ugandans in Kenya seeking refuge because of fear of persecution based on their sexual orientation.
To Dr. Nyanzi, Facebook is more than a platform of attack. It is a space she inhabits, a channel for communication, a diary, maybe even a confidant. It must also be a political comrade, with whom she shares and expresses her joys and frustrations. The first time I met her at her office at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Dr. Nyanzi warned me that she curses a lot. “Be warned,” she said, “I use curse words a lot.” The fact that I was recording the interview didn’t deter her. Indeed, she cursed a lot, possibly because the subject was emotionally heavy and close to her heart.
I had been apprehensive about meeting Dr. Nyanzi, thinking she was a stand-offish academic who had no time for my journalistic pestering. But to my surprise, the moment we shook hands and started talking, I realised she was the direct opposite of what I had imagined her to be – a no-nonsense activist and researcher. She asked me to tell her about myself, and all she took away was that I had been a hothead during my university days, and she oscillated between teasing and complementing my younger self. She was generous with her time, in her lower ground floor office, which she told me could be bugged, but she really didn’t care. We spoke for nearly two hours, and she didn’t censor herself one bit. It is an afternoon I will not forget.
In the end, Dr. Nyanzi asked me how safe I thought I was moving around investigating the story. I told her I believed I was relatively safe, because in my view, I was merely a journalist reporting on an urgent story that had gone unattended. She told me not to take things for granted, asking me to make sure I backed up all my interviews. She then gave me her phone number, asking me to only call her if I needed bail. I laughed at this but knew exactly what she meant.
Not long after, my story was nominated for the 2016 CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Awards. At the awards ceremony in Johannesburg, South Africa, my name was called out as one of the two finalists in the Features category. The bit of the story that had been selected by the organizers to display on the huge screen on stage was part of my conversation with Dr. Nyanzi.
Why the passage was picked I have no idea, but it showed how Dr. Nyanzi was not only a leading social scientist, but also a human being who sympathised with the condition of other human beings, the Ugandan refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, who referred to her as “Mama Stella”. After the event, a senior Kenyan journalist approached me and asked, “You mean you’ve interviewed Dr. Nyanzi? I follow her on Facebook.”
Mr. President, yours is an exceptional country, with exceptional individuals. Dr. Stella Nyanzi is one of those. I have read of the difficult circumstances you and your comrades encountered in seeking regime change in Uganda in the early 1980s, how you fought in the bush whileyour wife and children were exiled in Sweden. I suspect you all must have had a sadness about being apart. I believe Dr. Nyanzi and her children are currently facing the same predicament.
I know Dr. Nyanzi will reprimand me for pleading her case, and say that she doesn’t need your mercy or sympathy or that of anyone in your family or regime. But I am willing to take her reprimand, in that very fruity language that you and many others should know by now. She will especially heavily reprimand me for pleading the case incorrectly, using humanitarian grounds as opposed to defending her rights as a Ugandan and an intellectual. I am willing to take that reprimand too, again, in her very fruity language, if my plea will see the end to her incarceration.
Mr. President, please let Dr. Nyanzi go back to her work and her children. That is not to say that she will be silent, because it is in her nature to speak up. We read a lot about your days as a young Marxist idealist at the University of Dar es Salaam. You were part of a generation of African intellectuals, some militant, as you yourself turned out to be, who believed in charting a new course for the continent, a monumental task at the time.
If the hand of time was to go back, Mr. President, you’d understand the need for critiquing a regime and its policies. Yours was an even more potent need; that of urgently seeking regime change either through the ballot or the bullet. I cannot help but see echoes of this young idealist in Dr. Nyanzi, only that hers is not a pursuit for political power, but for the basic rights of fellow citizens. She has not deployed bullets. Only words. I implore that you set her free, Mr. President, for she does not deserve to be separated from her family.
I write from a place of complete obscurity, hoping my words, too, will catch the king’s ear.
A Kenyan who loves Uganda.
Akugizibwe is a writer based in Kigali.
Amuke is a writer living in Nairobi.