How the detention and trial of a Makerere academic exposes the moral bankruptcy of Uganda’s elites
Dr. Stella Nyanzi, an academic at Makerere University, has been jailed for using foul language to criticise President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet. It is permissible to call the president a dictator or corrupt. I find it morally reprehensible for Nyanzi to refer to their sexual organs in a vulgar way to express her frustration with their power though I disagree that such language should be criminalised. Mrs Museveni responded to Nyanzi’s insults with grace and dignity. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for a policy debate, Nyanzi used (and abused) it to hurl even worse sexually lurid insults at her.
Support and condemnation of Nyanzi has followed partisan lines. This shows a lack of basic values around which current governance and opposition to it are organised. There is also a lack of a common agreement on basic national goals. This indicates that we can change government not governance. Those in power mismanaging state institutions and/or stealing public resources and those in the opposition battling them, are fighting over power not values.
Let us begin with Museveni and his government. Nyanzi has been using vulgar language to criticise others. She was only jailed because she used them against Museveni and his wife. Hence state institutions have been employed to protect a pecuniary interest i.e. the prestige of the first family. Her prosecution is, therefore, not a defense of our nation’s moral standards and values. In fact, it is an abuse of power. This selective and selfish use of state power strips such actions of legitimacy.
Museveni is now caught in a Catch 22 situation: If he keeps Nyanzi in jail, she will become a prisoner of conscience and an international issue. If he releases her without inflicting a high cost on her, many others will see this as weakness and begin using worse language to criticise him and his wife. If this is allowed to flourish, it will diminish the prestige and aura around them that is essential for the Musevenis to hold and retain power and command respect and obedience.
This brings me to opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye and his cohorts. He went to visit Nyanzi in jail, which is ok. But he did not condemn her language, which implies he approves of it. Would Besigye treat it as acceptable if someone criticised his wife in similar language? Besigye would have shown political maturity if he said that although he shares Nyanzi’s criticism of government, he condemns the language she used to criticise the president and first lady of Uganda. But he lacks the courage to look beyond petty partisanship and project a moral vision.
Besigye could retort that Museveni would not take such a high moral stand if the insulted person were his (Besigye’s) wife. Why should he uphold a value that Museveni would never reciprocate? Here, I follow the standard set by the philosopher, Emmanuel Kant. According to Kant, the moral worth of an action consists not in the consequences that flow from it, but the intentions from which it is done. What matters is the motive i.e. doing the right thing because it is right, not because of some ulterior motive. To Kant therefore, we should do the morally right thing out of duty to act correctly rather than convenience or usefulness.
(On August 10, 2005 I insulted Museveni on radio. When I listened to the CD the next day, I wrote an apology. My mentor, Wafula Oguttu, advised me against it saying it would be used against me in a criminal trial.
I refused saying I felt remorse that I had used vulgar language against the president of Uganda, a person old enough to be my dad and a father to my friend, Muhoozi Keinerugaba. My apology was published on the front page of New Vision on August 12, 2005).
There are many opposition politicians and media personalities appalled by Nyanzi’s language that debases public discourse and demeans the president and first lady. But they fear to condemn her vulgarities because they will be accused of having been “compromised by the regime” by hordes of opposition social media activists who have formed a kind of thought police. We must condemn vulgar language in public debate in order to protect – not just the prestige of the president and first lady – but to promote a culture of civic decency.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi in his The East African column showed moral courage when he condemned Nyanzi’s language. Timothy Kalyegira did the same, which shows he writes what he believes rather than to endear himself to the hordes. There are many critics who (either out of ignorance or prejudice or factual analysis) genuinely bash real and perceived excesses of this government. Yet many pundits take positions in order to be seen on the “right side of the public”. I despise such opportunism.
Even if public opinion (whatever that means) sided with Nyanzi, we should condemn her language. Indeed, I treat public opinion with skepticism. This was implanted in me as a child reading the story of Jesus Christ whom the Bible says was a virtuous man who had come to save our souls. Yet at his trial the crowd was chanting: “Crucify Him Crucify Him”. At age ten, I read about Socrates, whom Plato calls to “noblest, wisest, justest and best” person he had ever known; he was sentenced to death by a democratic assembly. Even as a child, these stories made me suspicious of mass hysteria.
The biggest threat to freedom of speech in Uganda today is not the state (that is minor) but a large army of social media activists using insults and false accusations to intimidate and blackmail those with alternative views. This confirms John Stuart Mill’s argument in his essay “On Liberty” which I read in secondary school and formed the core of my bachelor’s thesis at university. Mill argued that the biggest threat to individual liberty was not the state but majorities willing to use the weight of numbers to suppress minorities.
But the greatest ideological influence on me happened in my first year at university when my uncle, Prof. William Banage, advised me to read Karl Popper. In `Conjectures and Refutations’, Popper argued that public opinion is very powerful and that liberals ought to regard such power with some degree of suspicion. He argued that public opinion is an irresponsible form of power and, therefore, particularly dangerous from a liberal point of view. I intend to discuss this subject at length in another column.