Guest Column

The buttocks and the activist

2017-05-07 06:25

The arrest and detention of Ugandan academic and activist Stella Nyanzi should be a concern for all.

Her crime was simple; she dared speak out against the Ugandan government’s failed promises.

Nyanzi, who recently concluded a research gig with the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies, dared to call Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni “a pair of buttocks”.

She has been charged with offensive communication and cyberharassment.

Currently, the researcher – who holds a PhD in sexuality and queer studies – is languishing in a maximum-security prison, awaiting a bail hearing on May 10.

This is after twice being denied bail.

You’d think she committed murder when all she did was voice an opinion. But that, I suspect, is not her actual misdeed. Her crime is that she has an audience.

If I had a penny for every time the 72-year-old head of state had been called worse, I would be a millionaire.

For example, in the 2016 election year there were videos of people howling insults at the president; I don’t see them in jail, no.

But Nyanzi, a single mother of three, has 145 000 followers on Facebook and her posts attract large numbers of shares, likes and comments.

All she was doing was voicing her opinion against Museveni’s speech earlier this year marking 31 years in power.

He said: “I am just a freedom fighter; I am fighting for myself, my beliefs ... If anybody thinks you gave me a job, he is deceiving himself.”

Then a local daily, The Daily Monitor, jolted the country’s memory of a 1986 statement by Museveni:

“The sovereign power in the land must be the population, not the government. The government should not be the master, but the servant of the people.”

Museveni had ignored Nyanzi for years, but that all ended when she called out the First Lady, Janet Museveni, who doubles as Uganda’s education minister, on the government’s refusal to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

Is it not her ministry that should worry that 30% of the country’s girls drop out of school owing to lack of sanitary pads?

Let’s backtrack a little. First was the unrealistic speech by the First Lady instructing parents to pack food in food flasks for their children.

Laughable!

A 2016 World Bank Poverty Assessment report recently found that, in the northern part of the country alone, 84% of the population lives below the poverty line, on less than $1.90 (R25) per day.

Now they must buy flasks?

Then the First Lady went on to tell parents to stop using motorcycles, common among Uganda’s low-income families who cannot afford school bus fares.

To those who can’t afford the bus, she advised: “Walk the children to school.”

The activist in Nyanzi was awakened, and rightly so.

After Nyanzi’s Facebook rant, the First Lady quickly granted a journalist an interview, claiming to have forgiven the academic. But did she?

It wasn’t long before Nyanzi got a visit from the country’s law enforcement...

The criticism would soon escalate into a crime of sorts; only, the rant that caused the ruckus had been kept far from the case.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Museveni lamented:

“If you are an activist and you commit an offence – because with human rights you must also speak of the rights of others, you cannot trample on the rights of others – and you say, ‘It is my right to abuse other people’, to insult other people … no.

"Rights go with responsibilities – if you know anything about democracy.”

Rights, he says… Isn’t bail one of Nyanzi’s rights? When she was barred from leaving the country to attend a conference in Amsterdam, where were her rights?

And when some of her visitors are barred from seeing her in jail, where are her rights?

One thing is clear to us Ugandans. To stay out of trouble, one has to relinquish one’s right to freedom of speech.

If the allegations that the state is looking to prove Nyanzi is mentally unwell are true, we need to be afraid. And we need to ask: Who benefits the most from a mute population?

TALK TO US

Do you think somebody should be jailed and declared mentally unwell for insulting a country’s president or criticising his/her spouse?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword ACTIVIST. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    stella nyanzi  |  yoweri museveni  |  uganda
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