Stella Nyanzi is for social media, not court or prison

Tuesday February 25 2020


By Nicholas Sengoba

Finally, Makerere Universtity researcher, Dr Stella Nanyanzi Nyanzi Basambye, is out of jail after spending nearly 18 months for a myriad of offences relating to insulting President Yoweri Museveni. I do not feel worthy enough to quote the exact words Nyanzi used to address Museveni, which irked the authorities. Mark you, the victim of Nyanzi’s words never came out to complain about being harassed. This, by the way, does not mean he is okay with it or that it is right. Like him or not, Museveni is one of those people who are good with words both written and spoken and is up there when it comes to defending himself when he feels aggrieved. He is also capable of painting his language.
As is the wont, some people smelt an opportunity to be viewed as the ‘President’s defenders’ – something very important on one’s CV in these spaces and can be a gate-opener. They fell over each other to ‘handle’ Nyanzi for him and have her punished. In the process (as happens when haste goes before everything else) many things happened that have left a number of people with the ominous task of scrapping egg off their faces. Among them, according to the learned judge who acquitted Nyanzi, is the Magistrate who heard this case in the lower court. She did not have the jurisdiction, so we now know. We also know that she passed judgment without allowing Nyanzi to put her witnesses on the stand and cross examining them.
Also that a lot of the basic pieces of evidence that a rational person would have relied on were missing. Everything then fell down the drain. Among them is court’s precious time, space and energy and reputation. The Judiciary is one arm of the State that could do with more facilitation, including funding for better pay, more buildings, staff and modern equipment. It could also do with less drama and ridiculous cases, which are of little consequence, clogging the system leading to case backlog.
When people like Nyanzi are indicted for speaking their minds in colourful language (not that they are above the law), they attract a lot of interest both locally and globally. That then puts many in charge to the task of trying to show justice being done, with the meagre resources available. It is costly. Many times there is need to deploy heavy security, block roads, and court may have to sit for longer hours just to get this one person out of their, things-to-do, tray.
In Nyanzi’s case, it took nine months to have her initial judgment and another nine to have her appeal concluded, which is all very long. Ridiculously, she completed the sentence and was then acquitted! Yet she must count herself lucky. There are very many who do not have the benefit of the concerns of supporters and sympathisers. Many end up disappearing in the system and remain on remand for as long as 10 years because there are no magistrates, a judge has gone to attend a seminar, the court is on vacation, the prison bus was faulty, a file is missing, the witnesses did not turn up, the court session ended prematurely because the fund allocated to it were exhausted, etc. Such a system is not only lacking in fairness to say the least, but it is also self-defeating.
Those in charge should get to a critical point and make a cost-benefit analysis. The resources spent on prosecuting this privileged person who has been ‘mischievous’ is injustice to several other people, who are in critical need of justice, especially the vulnerable people who are too poor to afford legal services.
In Nyanzi’s case, the possibility of Museveni dying in whichever way imagined, ‘during child birth’ is zero and beyond wishful thinking. It at best should be ignored as a joke.
Or in the case of a naughty person, who swears themselves in as a president is not very far from one in a comedy show. This is because it has no serious consequence apart from satisfying a fantasy. What if a million people swear themselves in as president, do we have a million arrests, prosecutions, and prisoners? So why allow such a person to take up valuable space in our overcrowded prisons? Why should they eat the little food that is available to prisoners? Why should the taxpayer pay for their usage of water and electricity?
Why should they contribute to the depreciation of the prisons bus that ferries them to and from court? Why should a learned magistrate or judge spend time on them instead of working on the case backlog? Why should police and prisons personnel have the extra burden of securing this person in the prison system yet there are many more needy murderers, thieves, rapists, defilers and muggers who deserve their attention?
Former president Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa responded that he was too big to be shouted out of office when protesters took to the streets in 1979, shouting that they wanted his predecessor Yusuf Lule and were willing to die. A president, as the fountain of honour, is too big and important to be unnerved by a mere insult or death wish of an angry citizen.
Therefore, the business of offending the President on social media should be treated with the contempt it deserves by letting it pass without prosecution.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.