Freedom of expression is lost on Uganda

  • Radical rudeness: former Makerere University researcher Stella Nyanzi speaks in court in Kampala, Uganda (Photograph by Ronald Kabuubi/AP)

“If you want to beat me for my heartfelt birthday poem, come and find me at my home ... I refuse to be gagged,” wrote firebrand Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi in a poem she posted on Facebook last September that condemned Uganda’s “aborted” democracy under President Yoweri Museveni’s dictatorship.

Indeed, the authorities came for her, and indeed, despite imprisonment, she has not been silenced.

Nyanzi is a champion for women’s, girls’ and LGBTQ rights, a controversial academic famous for taking her profane anti-Museveni activism to social media, a strategy of “radical rudeness” rooted in anti-colonial dissent.

But “radical rudeness”, which uses public insult to shed light on political problems, is risky in a climate where civil liberties are increasingly trampled upon.

In 2017, Nyanzi was imprisoned for calling the President a “pair of buttocks” on Facebook when calling out his broken promise to provide free sanitary pads to girls, so that menstruation does not deter school attendance. Upon release, she led the “Pads4GirlsUG” campaign to pick up the Government’s slack.

This time, her words were more vulgar and her prison time is longer. Using metaphors of childbirth, Nyanzi’s latest poetic offence argues that Uganda would have been spared the oppression, immorality and unemployment of the present regime if Museveni had died in his mother’s womb.

The activist, who was arrested and placed in Luzira Women’s Prison in November for disturbing the President’s “peace, quiet or right of privacy”, has already served nine months for cyberharassment.

Last Friday, Ugandan courts decided she will serve nine more. In protest of the final verdict, Nyanzi flashed her breasts and shouted profanities through a live video feed, she had not been allowed to witness the judgment in person.

But crude metaphors and irreverent behaviour should not be an excuse to muzzle political criticism. The ruling under the Computer Misuse Act, which has been used by the justice system in the past to stifle speech, casts an illuminating light on the sad state of free expression in Uganda.

Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, lifted the age limit for the presidency in 2017 and apparently expects to rule Uganda indefinitely under tight control.

His inability to tolerate dissent offers one more piece of evidence that he has stuck around too long and should give way to new leaders, chosen by the people. And his courts should drop the charges against the poet.

Resilient despite her imprisonment, Nyanzi posted a new poem last Thursday. Defiantly, she concluded: “I refuse to be a mere spectator in the struggle to oust the worst dictator.”