How the detention and trial of a Makerere academic exposes the moral bankruptcy of Uganda’s elites
By Andrew M. Mwenda
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.