Stella Nyanzi’s conviction, the two important lessons

Tuesday August 6 2019


By Nicholas Sengoba

Finally, Nalongo Stella Basambye Nanyanzi Nyanzi, a researcher at Makerere University Institute of Social Research and a popular character on Facebook, has been jailed.
Her crime, she posted some invectives on Facebook that roped in President Yoweri Museveni and his late mother. With that she was found guilty and sentenced for misusing her computer to harass the President.
Two things about this trial were of great significance to me.
First, that all the defence witnesses did not turn up to help Dr Nyanzi make her case. Many of them are academics from Makerere University and other people of good standing.
This is not new at all. In the past during election petitions challenging, especially the election of the President, lawyers and witnesses have at the last moment found themselves ‘incapable’ of making it to court or associating with the petitioner. Evidence has also vanished from offices leaving the petitioner stranded.
Now, that is the side of Uganda, that is hidden in plain sight. Depending on our circumstances, any of us may be turned into a puppet and made to do what we would never have imagined by being put between a rock and a hard place.
Nothing makes this glaringly possible like contending with the State or holders of high office. It is extremely risky business.
Anyone who takes this route is at risk of being isolated. Employers, relatives, friends and associates are put under pressure to disassociate themselves from a person for their own survival.
Word has it that when one senior citizen who had retired but was still staying in a government house as he awaited his retirement package, had the shock of his life when he attempted to testify in court against a highly connected government official, his official files went missing. He was also politely asked if it was possible to vacate the house as he awaited his package.
It was only then that he came to his senses and decided to use his right not to be a witness in court on a matter that he was so passionate about.
For another a house built using all their life’s savings and had an approved plan with all the necessary paper work was to end up due for demolition ‘because it is in a road reserve’ just out of the blue. They behaved and the house stood!
There is a lesson here. As you clamour for your rights and sleep with the comfort that you will find justice in a court of law, you have to learn that not everything is as straight as it seems. Not everything to do with the law is totally dependent on what happens in court or the temple of justice.
The infrastructure of justice and the law may be in place to protect you, but it may become helpless if it is surrounded by very poisoned politics. The law and the entire machinery that delivers justice may not be as helpful as it should if the politics and those who hold the political levers, decide so.
The trouble with this frustrating development is that many will increasingly view the courts as a waste of time and will think of other means to get justice, which should be very sad and worrying.
This leads us to the second point, the violent scenes that erupted after Dr Nyanzi was convicted. The trial magistrate was hit with a mineral water bottle and people are wrongly saying ‘it sets a bad precedent.’ The precedent was already there. It was not set on this day. Only that this time, it was allegedly orchestrated by people of different shed of political opinion.
We have had in the past, the courts being surrounded and raided by the so-called Black Mamba militias and the police to re-arrest suspects who had been granted bail. The President even praised the police for being ‘vigilant.’ Abdulla Kitata, an NRM cadre, organised goons to do the same in Makindye-based court because he took exception to the legal process.
The import of all this is to humiliate and intimidate so as to manipulate judicial officers as they carry out their work. It is to selfishly force justice to one’s side. It is to attempt to rig the process.
The perpetrators of this totally unacceptable behaviour have been emboldened over time. This is because those who have done it before them were never punished or sanctioned, especially because they were assumed to be serving the interests of the government or its servants and deemed untouchable. The calves have learnt how to chew by watching mother cow.
Now Chief Justice Bart Katureebe has ‘come out strongly’ to condemn this hooliganism and says the Judiciary will sit down with the police to work out ways of ensuring that it never happens again.
Just imagine if this was done in the past, we would probably not have had this incident, which put the life of Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu in great danger.
It would also have saved the Judiciary from the accusation of being slanted in its operations and outlook.
Why, because it is only talking tough, now that a person or persons deemed to be opposed to the NRM government are the perpetrators of the violence.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.