Politics and Society
On Stella Nyanzi: Where can public intellectuals do their work in Museveni’s Uganda?
Academic, creative writer and human rights activist Stella Nyanzi has been charged with cyber harassment of President Yoweri Museveni this afternoon in Kampala. This followed two months of her intensive criticism of Janet Museveni, the country’s Minister Education and wife to the President, over the government’s reneging on an electoral promise to supply free sanitary pads to school going menstruating girls.
To understand the genealogy of the shrinking of spaces for public intellectuals in Uganda, it is important to trace Nyanzi’s trajectory as an academic and connect it to the gradual deterioration of Makerere University’s capacity to host researchers who produce socially and politically relevant work in the humanities and social sciences. Nyanzi studied Mass Communication and Literature at Makerere in the 1990s and Medical Anthropology at University of London where she earned a PhD in the 2000s.
Following her PhD, she was employed as a researcher by the Law, Gender & Sexuality Research Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University and Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC). In 2011, she joined the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) as a Research Fellow. From when she joined university service, first through the Faculty of Law (now College of Law), Nyanzi did only research. The advert to which she responded to, for the MISR job, specified that her tasks would include research. There was no teaching required of her, according to the advert and the terms of her employment.
The more Nyanzi was marginalised by Makerere’s interest in teaching and disregard for research, not to mention public engagement of researchers in the political and social sphere, the more she turned to Facebook.
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However, over time, she was required by her line supervisor, the MISR Director Prof. Mahmood Mamdani to teach, alongside her research. The rift over whether she was supposed to teach or not, caused the crisis at MISR in April 2016 when she stripped to her nickers in protest of Mamdani’s attempts to remove her from her office. In various impassioned posts on Facebook, and emails sent on the university mailing list and other platforms, she argued that the introduction of a taught PhD programme at MISR was negatively affecting research at MISR. MISR was established as a research than teaching unit by the colonial administration at Makerere, before Uganda attained independence.
Ironically, Mamdani’s scholarship on Makerere University and higher education generally aptly captures the impact of the commercialisation of university education on the university’s ability to do research. His 2006 book, Scholars in the marketplace, analyses the extent to which the neoliberal reforms of Makerere, to cut down support to government students and allow fees-paying private students to join the university affected its research abilities among other things. He argues that humanities and social science units became businesses, who had to create ‘marketable’ courses to attract students. In this frenzy, what used to be a subject in the Faculty of Science, grew in less than ten years into a Faculty of Information Technology and became one of the richest income generator for the university.
In the process, Makerere’s interest and investment in research, specifically the socially and politically relevant type, in the humanities and social sciences waned. Staff hired to cope with huge student populations recruited merely to generate income for the university were no longer required to research. For the three years I taught on a part-time basis, on the newly introduced course of Ethics and Human Rights, no single supervisor picked interest or asked after my research work. As long as I turned up to class to teach, as long as I marked exams, and returned results, the department was happy.
The more Nyanzi was marginalised by Makerere’s interest in teaching and disregard for research, not to mention public engagement of researchers in the political and social sphere, the more she turned to Facebook. Her Facebook activity rose in 2014. In just one year, she added over 3000 people as her Facebook friends. Her posts were being shared widely beyond Facebook, in Whatsapp groups and other platforms. Facebook provided Nyanzi a platform to become a public intellectual that Makerere’s greed for school fees generated through teaching was no longer able to support.
The mainstream media, namely newspapers, television and radio at the time would not have given Nyanzi a column, or regular show, because of the conservative atmosphere in which they operate. Only tabloids picked up her posts, but only to maximise their audience, interested in consuming the sexually laced content she shared. Her political commentary did not achieve more popularity than her erotica fiction until she commented on Janet Museveni’s statement in parliament announcing that government would not provide sanitary pads as promised.
Nyanzi’s critique of the Musevenis is not out of place, read together with her academic work. Her research has covered topics such as the politicisation of sexuality, the right to health of sexual minorities, masculinities of boda boda riders among others.
Read: Uganda: Yoweri Museveni appoints wife Janet Museveni as education minister
Nyanzi’s critique of the Musevenis is not out of place, read together with her academic work. Her research has covered topics such as the politicisation of sexuality, the right to health of sexual minorities, masculinities of boda boda riders among others. While her academic research is published in academic journals and books that aren’t readily accessible to the general public, Facebook became a platform for her to not only share this knowledge with the public but also to engage beyond academic discourse. The role of the public intellectual is not only the sharing of knowledge, but also putting theory into action.
The #pads4girlsug campaign is Nyanzi’s feminist ‘praxis’. Theory and practice, words and actions combine. This is the type of work a commercialised Makerere can no longer do, in the humanities and social sciences. If neo liberalisation was the way to emasculate public intellectualism at Makerere, the Musevenis have had to resort to brute force to repress Nyanzi’s work.
Nyanzi is not the only victim of this brute attack on academic freedom. Contributors and editors of the anthology, Controlling Consent, whose copies were confiscated by authorities recently are also victims. The anthology contained academic analyses of the 2016 Ugandan presidential and parliamentary election. The message is loud and clear. Academics are only allowed to be critical in spaces that are inaccessible to the public. When they engage publicly, the state clamps down on them. Even Facebook and other social media platforms are not immune from this repression! Back at Makerere, Nyanzi, after being recalled from the suspension that arose from the April 2016 crisis, is yet to find a home department from which to do her work.