Stella Nyanzi Vs. Gen. Museveni -- In 21st Century Tweets Can Be Mightier Than Tanks

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Dr. Nyanzi on boda-boda

In the past thirty-one years, President Yoweri Museveni who stormed to power in 1986 as an outlaw has established in Uganda an authoritarian dictatorship in which violence and fear are used as techniques of governance.

As a result, moderate people in opposition have been driven to despair and extremists have been driven to desperation.

In a country like Uganda where the dictatorship has foreclosed avenues for peaceful protests and dissent, as citizens have witnessed several times in the brutal mistreatment of Dr. Kizza Besigye, revolt of one kind or another becomes the only avenue for people to express their sincere grievances and resentment to a system that has oppressed them and that cynically uses people as means to its selfish parochial ends.

It was in that context that last week, in an exclusive interview with the London Evening Post of April 9, 2017, a Ugandan group declared armed struggle against President Yoweri Museveni's 31-year dictatorship.

According to Joel Wakayima, a spokesman for the group, the decision to wage armed struggle took into account the fact that peaceful and democratic resistance has been repressed and that a number of prominent Ugandan leaders perceived by the government not to support it had been assassinated in mysterious circumstances.

These include: Andrew Lutakome Kayira, James Wapakhabulo, Francis Ayume, Nobel Mayombo, James Bunanukye Kazini, Shiek Mukwaya, Robinah Kiyingi, Cerinah Nebanda and Nyakairima Aronda.

As though to confirm Wakayima's contention, on Friday April 7, 2017, Ugandan human rights activist, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, was arrested shortly after she spoke to a Kampala Rotary Club fellowship. A state prosecutor accused her of vulgarly criticizing President Museveni for not fulfilling his 2016 election campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to girls in schools.

According to President Museveni's wife Janet, who he appointed Minister for Education, the promise he made during his re-election campaign could not be fulfilled because money had not been provided for in the budget.

This is in a country where the president flies in a $50 million Gulfstream jet, where millions of U.S. dollars are spent to buy means of destruction for the police and the military for repressive purposes; and where corruption has become so cancerous that people have been disabled from raising their voices about billions of dollars siphoned off to private offshore foreign bank accounts.

It is a testament to Stella Nyanzi's sense of purpose that in a male-dominated society she did not simply criticize President Museveni for his failure to live up to his promise to a most vulnerable group in society; but she also affirmatively embarked on crowd funding for sanitary pads.

In so doing, she managed to focus attention on the plight of girls in Uganda who often would miss school during their menstrual periods due to lack of hygienic and affordable sanitary pads.

In a continent where the great majority of people live on about 1 U.S. dollar a day, the provision of sanitary pads to girls should be a high human rights priority. It should be remembered that no woman ever chooses to have menstrual periods; it is part of the beauty of human fertility and life.

This can be contrasted with having sex, which people choose and as such should bear its consequences. A failure by President Museveni not to provide sanitary pads to school-going girls should be regarded as tantamount to the violation of the rights of the girls.

It is a sad commentary about the state of affairs in Uganda that instead of being celebrated and supported for this most charitable of deeds, and for exercising her right to freedom of speech, as contained in various international human rights instruments to which Uganda is a signatory, Stella Nyanzi has been charged by the state prosecutors for using offensive language against President Museveni, contrary to sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011. The relevant part of section 24 of the Act states in (a) that cyber harassment is committed by: "making any request, suggestion or proposal which is obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent." In the Act, however, no criteria are spelled out to help determine what would constitute obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent.

To add insult unto injury, on Monday April 10, 2017, the state prosecutor asked the court to subject Nyanzi to medical examination to establish her sanity under a 1938 colonial law. I find both the charge and the request by the state prosecutor chilling and a throwback to the racist colonial era when African nationalist leaders where framed up, demonized and vilified for simply agitating for the fundamental freedoms and rights of their people.

A poignant example that can illustrate the point is Sayyid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (sometimes referred to as Mohammed Abdullah Hassan) of Somalia. Xasan was a revered poet who used his soaring eloquence to inspire a 20-year religious and nationalist armed resistance against the British, Italian and Ethiopian colonial rule.

For standing up for the freedoms and rights of his people, the British called him the "Mad Mullah." But history has now vindicated him as a forerunner to modern Somali nationalism.

It is a pity that although Stella Nyanzi has an enthusiastic following among the downtrodden, she has not garnered much support in the academic community at Makerere University in particular and in Uganda at large.

The justification given for the lack of support is that Nyanzi's language and forms of protest are rather colorful if not lurid. However, the same people have neither objected openly to President Museveni boasting that his troops "massacred" Ugandans; nor have they carried out a ruthless prognosis as to why Nyanzi has been driven to such desperation.

In one of the sermons in Martin Luther King's book, "Strength to Love," he makes a profound point that: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

As a human rights advocate and practitioner, although I might not necessarily condone some of Stella Nyanzi's language and forms of protest, I stand with her in solidarity for three main reasons.

The first is that despite the peril to her life, she has stood up for the rights of our sisters, daughters and nieces who are already marginalized in society.

The second reason is that by her example, she has demonstrated to Ugandans that they might gain their liberation only by marshalling sufficient courage to mock the repression of the dictatorship. In other words, we must be able to speak truth to power even when it is inconvenient.

And the third reason is that I admire the way in which she has managed to confront the fear of the dictatorship that paralyzes most Ugandans by dealing with it as a form a form of art.

This might be why she has sometimes brought to her aid the writings of Okot p'Bitek, the literary genius whose Song of Lawino has become a classic in African, if not world, literature.

The arrest of Stella Nyanzi for exercising her rights and freedoms to speak and organize for marginalized girls should inspire people to stand up for other vulnerable groups in society.

Her robust stand might be the beginning of a new dawn and might prove the point that in this era of social media even a dictatorship cannot erect a wall around an idea whose time has come.

The time is now to speak and stand up against the neo-colonial and kleptocratic dictatorship in Uganda.

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu
Chairman, Freedom and Unity Front of Uganda

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