Academic freedom matters now more than ever

Ugandan Police arrested Dr Stella Nyanzi and arraigned her in court on two counts of ‘cyber harassment’ and ‘offensive communication’ under the Computer Misuse Act 2011.

Notably, this happened after she had a public spat with the First Lady and Education minister, Mrs Janet Museveni, because the ministry’s budget did not include resources to provide sanitary pads for school girls, a promise President Yoweri Museveni expressly made during the campaigns.

The Inspector-General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, ordered Dr Nyanzi’s arrest.

The police seem particularly irked that Dr Nyanzi described President Museveni as a ‘pair of buttocks’, language they found obscene and indecent.

Doctoral research

In Uganda, public debate has focused on vulgarity, something Dr Nyanzi has become the poster-child of, for which she is often condemned or dismissed.

Dr Nyanzi is an avid social media commentator; her contributions assuming an admirable ethnographic form.

She avidly records her observations, engagements and convictions.

She has done this for a long time, perhaps since her doctoral research in the Gambia.

Sexual metaphors

I have observed her take copious notes and use herself as a departure point to serious reflections on societal dynamics defined around sexuality.

Feminist thought is the critical pillar of Dr Nyanzi’s research focus on sexuality.

She has deployed ‘vulgarity’ and mobilised sexual metaphors to make social commentary.

The ‘vulgarity’ is discomforting to many; but that it is designed to shock is part of her method, and therefore perfectly in keeping with her academic vocation.

What is valuable is that she is able to easily and brazenly turn her intellectual focus into discomforting social commentary.

Uganda's Makerere Institute of Social Research don Stella Nyanzi addressing the media in Kampala April 18, 2016. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Prof Sylvia Tamale, herself a world renowned feminist researcher and editor of the path-breaking volume, African Sexualities, admitted to being “shocked and horrified, embarrassed and ashamed” by Dr Nyanzi’s nudity stunt, only to realise later “that (her) emotive response to Nyanzi’s protest was in keeping with societal attitudes that associate nakedness — especially the nakedness of a grown woman — with shame, perversity and taboo”.

You might disagree with Dr Nyanzi’s choice of words and modes of expression, but this choice can be defended intellectually.

There is no basis for restricting her rights to express them. She is an academic, above everything else.

Complete travesty

Her right to think and share her thoughts are inalienable. This is why it is a complete travesty to arrest her.

It is indeed tragic that as I wrote this, Dr Nyanzi was still held awaiting the hearing of her case on April 25.

Worse, the police think that she needs mental examination because she deploys vulgar vocabulary to protest a repressive government.

This, coming from our society where private lascivious conversations would make Donald Trump’s “locker-room talk” feel holy, reveals our hypocrisy.

Only last year, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) celebrated 25 years since its adoption of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility.

Is explicit

This declaration is explicit on the academic rights to be enjoyed and the responsibility that go with those rights.

In either case, and also with respect to Ugandan law, there is nothing that indicts Dr Nyanzi.

Her arrest is an unacceptable travesty against academic freedom in particular.

Surprisingly, the response from institutions protecting academic freedoms is inaudible.

Be enormous

Instead of defending her, Makerere University compounded this repugnant abuse of state power by suspending Dr Nyanzi.

This, coming weeks after the Ugandan state detained at the port of entry the book, Controlling Dissent: Uganda’s 2016 Election, edited by Joe Oloka-Onyango and Josephine Ahikire, shows clearly that the era of needing to defend intellectual freedom is still here, and intellectuals cannot afford to sit back and watch these rights rolled back.

The cost of silence will ultimately be enormous.

As an academic, if for no other reason, I must register my utter disgust at the way Dr Nyanzi has been treated for courageously speaking truth to power.

Godwin R. Murunga teaches Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.

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