“When you hear of my arrest, prepare your most comfortable clothes for you will soon be travelling to my village-home in Kalinga to bury me in the brown earth next to my father. When you hear of my arrest, tell the judge assigned to my case that I forgive the injustice with which the trial will be tried…”
Ugandan academic and firebrand feminist critic Dr. Stella Nyanzi posted those words on her Facebook page on March 31. On April 7, after a talk at Kampala’s Rotary Club about her campaign to raise money to buy sanitary pads for schoolgirls, her words came true; 21 days later, she remains behind bars.
For her sexually explicit stories and pointed criticism of government – in a frank and often expletive-laden mix of English and Luganda – Nyanzi grew a significant following on social media. In a conservative country, she shocked many. But she drew popular support, arguing that President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, the minister of education, had broken election promises to provide sanitary pads to school girls. After 31 years in office, she argued, Museveni was “raping” the constitution by staying in power.
In March, she was interrogated by police, and the government blocked her from traveling to attend an international conference on March 19. State agents arrested her after the Rotary event, and police charged her under Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act for referring to Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” on Facebook.
It would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic: the most flagrant attack on free expression in many years and a vengeful use of Uganda’s justice system to silence a government critic.
Nyanzi has been denied bail, spending the Easter holidays in prison. State attorneys argue she should undergo a psychiatric examination to determine if she has an “unsound mind” – a tactic to delegitimize her criticism. Prison officials have, at times, denied her access to her lawyers, to her three young children, and to her books and writing materials.
The court is to re-hear her bail application on May 10, but, if the psychiatric examination is ordered by court, she could still face detention in an institution – even without the criminal case.
Prosecutors should drop the charges against Nyanzi. All officials should expect criticism, even if it’s rudely worded. To criticize the president, to use vulgarity and metaphor to shock or inspire, are recognized rights.
If Nyanzi isn’t granted bail or faces a psychiatric examination, it will speak volumes, and we must respond just as loudly.