How activists used poetry to fight oppression

Former Makerere University research fellow Stella Nyanzi in the dock at Buganda Road Court in Kampala where she was convicted of cyber harassment on August 1, 2019. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • The attack on activist Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire mirrors a similar pattern involving State vigilantes, who previously targeted a journalist, a female Makerere University student and a literature lecturer, all for their choice of words while criticising President Museveni’s rule. 

On November 30, 2018, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, a Ugandan lawyer and writer currently pursuing a PhD in English at Cornell University, stood before the lectern in Geneva, a lakeside town in New York, to speak to a fervent crowd of opposition activists living in the Diaspora. 
His veritable subject gleaned from the Western world’s support to Uganda was titled: “US imperialism and Uganda.”
One of the strands of his discussion focused on Stella Nyanzi, an academic, poet and polarising figure, whose incarceration earlier on November 7, 2018, was publicised in international media. 

“Stella Nyanzi is not a leader of a guerilla movement. She is not a trade union leader. She is not an opposition Member of Parliament sitting to the left of the Speaker, neither does she belong to a left-wing political party. She is an educated woman with access to Facebook, which she has used effectively to mobilise dissent against Museveni’s 32-year-old regime [now 37 years in power],” Bwesigye argued.
Nyanzi is part of the outspoken coterie who have used poetry and parody to launch invective and ad hominem salvoes at the country’s leaders. 

The power of words
Nyanzi’s choice of words are frowned upon in a society with conservative Christian values. But her supporters find her works uplifting against oppression. 
There is no empirical evidence yet to prove the effectiveness of poetry and vulgarity as an activist tool against repression.
However, Nyanzi today is one of the most followed persons on Facebook in the country, and her followers currently stand at 301,147. 

Among other offences, Nyanzi was accused of posting a vulgar poem on her Facebook page on September 16, 2018 to mark President Museveni’s birthday.
Nyanzi was accused of using vulgar language meant to ridicule the President and his late mother, and that it violated the President’s right to privacy, which constitute crimes of cyber harassment under sections 24(1) and 24(2)(a) of the Computer Misuse Act.
She was in August 2019 found guilty of the crime of cyberbullying and acquitted of the crime of offensive communication, and incarcerated at Luzira prison on the outskirts of Kampala.
On January 10, the Constitutional Court struck down Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, which had criminalised offensive communication.

Danson Kahyana

The court agreed with the petitioners that this section infringes on the digital freedom of expression, and is inconsistent with Article 29(1) of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda. 

Justice Kenneth Kakuru, who wrote the lead judgment, postulated that it “gives law enforcement unfettered discretion to punish unpopular or critical protected expression.” 
As his guests soaked in the speech, which he believed was within the purview of protected speech, Bwesigye drew parallels between Nyanzi’s methods of work to resist Mr Museveni’s government— who has been in power nearly for four decades— with Ugandans who resisted British imperialism—Queen Muhumuza and Omukama Kabalega.
 “I arrived in Uganda the next week and met Stella Nyanzi’s lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde, with some comrades and shared ideas regarding online and offline strategies for keeping the matter of Nyanzi’s incarceration in the public eye,” he recalls. He shared a campaign blueprint to lobby for the release of Nyanzi. 

Among the proposals was to petition lawmakers to present a motion in Parliament seeking the unconditional release of Nyanzi—publicising the poem Nyanzi was jailed for, debating the draconian laws the State relied on to imprison Nyanzi, and holding various publicity events in African, and Western capitals in regard to her arrest.  
Bwesigye later visited Nyanzi in prison and shared these ideas and after travelled to Nyanja, a serene village in Kabale District, southwestern Uganda, which is his birthplace.
 “While in Nyanja, I did my best to follow up with the working group we had established comprising comrades in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, the US, the UK, and elsewhere,” he says. 
This group consists of Ugandans living in the country and outside the country, who are largely human rights activists engaged in campaigns against Uganda’s appalling human rights record both in the country and in the Diaspora, and occasionally lobby international human rights organisations and Western countries to take action against the regime. They have been effective in offering pro-bono support to other activists incarcerated on the premise of draconian laws.

On the evening of January 6, 2019, Bwesigye set off for Kampala from Kabale Town. 
“I had informed very few people about my exact travelling plans. I wasn’t sure if I’d travel during the day on Sunday or Monday actually, only deciding to travel at night, that very evening. I looked for a night bus and only found Modern Coast. They said a bus was coming from Kigali. The border was closed then. How was it possible to find a place on a bus from Kigali? Hindsight is the best sight, they say. They took my passport details down for the booking.”
However, there was no Modern Coast bus travelling from Kigali as the Rwanda-Uganda border was closed. This, according to Bwesigye, could have been a ruse by Ugandan intelligence agencies to provide his passport details, which is a routine practice to be able to travel on the Kigali-Kampala bound bus. For those who were hunting him down, this passport ruse allowed them to identify the bus he would use to return to the city.

Combo (L-R): Kalundi Sserumaga, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire and Kakwenza Rukirabasaija

“Meanwhile, a person I had met earlier at a funeral, who pretty-much was fishing for personal information from me regarding my recently deceased uncle, showed up and said he too would be travelling on the same bus as he had been transferred from Kabale to Kampala.”
Later, Bwesigye says, it turned out he didn’t work for the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) as he claimed. “There’s no record of his having ever worked for the organisation.”
The bus eventually came at around 10.30pm and Bwesigye set off for the long haul to the city. 
“The strange Old Boy who had been asking about my deceased uncle boarded with us.” 
Later, the bus stopped at Lyantonde Town where Bwesigye briefly stepped out to buy packaged juice. He returned and took a nap on the bus. 
That was the last incident he remembered as he woke up from a state of unconsciousness two days later at Rubaga hospital ‘in pain, on drip, with a disfigured face, deep scratches on the neck and chin. 

“The doctor who examined me when I was brought to Rubaga wrote on the medical form describing my injuries that they were due to assault but added that the reason presented for the injuries was a motor accident.”
Bwesigye was unconscious when visitors flooded the hospital on January 7 and 8, 2019. 
However, the ‘accident’ was another staged event. On that day Bwesigye says ‘there’s no single media report of an accident on that road, reported or unreported.’
The bus company doesn’t comment when asked about whether it was involved in any accident. 
“The only thing I lost during the incident were my two phones, eventually my phone number and old WhatsApp [+256782036263] changed hands and whoever has it now, and MTN both refuse to explain how they got it.”
Politicians, scholars, civil society actors and journalists who often speak out against the regime’s vices are now targeted through sophisticated plots aided by surveillance.

Barely after recovering from his injuries, he conducted an enquiry.

“Later, via Google maps timeline, the app reveals that on January 7, 2019 I [my phone] was tracked. The assaults I suffered after I was drugged were likely carried out at that facility. I was dropped at Masaka hospital and my security friendly sources were sent images of my condition [given their sensitive connections to the security establishment, they refuse to share with me the source of those photos] and my parents were in turn informed thus the moving of my “body” from Masaka to Rubaga.”

READ: A bitter sweet night of reciting poetry
Bwesigye says his attack mirrors a similar pattern involving State vigilantes, who previously targeted a journalist—Kalundi Sserumaga, a female Makerere University student Siperia Saasiraabo and a literature lecturer at Makerere University, Danson Kahyana.

During a television political talkshow in 2009, Sserumaga made several statements likening President Museveni to former President Idi Amin. 
As he prepared to leave the station, which was in the middle of Kampala city, Sserumaga was targeted by regime vigilantes at about 10.30pm.
Mary Ikazai, a friend of Sserumaga, who witnessed his arrest, said he was knocked unconscious by plain-clothed security men. She said before anyone could come to his rescue, Sserumaga was bundled into the boot of a dark-coloured Toyota car, which sped away. 
In October 2019, unknown men attacked Makerere University student activist Siperia Mollie Saasiraabo, then Guild representative councillor for the School of Psychology near Complex Hall, where female students reside. 

The student leader, alongside 14 other female students, had earlier been handed letters of suspension from the university for allegedly inciting violence by Prof Eria Hisali, the principal of the College of Business and Management Sciences, and Gordon Murangira, the personal assistant to the vice-chancellor over a protest against the 15 percent tuition increment. 
Annah Ashaba, Saasiraabo’s close friend, said she managed to rush the student to the clinic at around 9.40pm.
“I went to take a shower at the hostel, leaving my roommate there. And on return, a gentleman [Joel, our classmate] was standing by the door of my room. I asked him what the matter was and he pointed to Mollie, who was lying unconscious on the carpet in the room.”

The other victims, including Nyanzi, claim these attacks are deliberate to silence critical voices and drift the spotlight away from graft, oppression and acts of State capture.
Nyanzi was eventually freed and later fled to Germany, where she was granted political asylum alongside Kakwenza Rukirabasaija, the 2021 winner of the PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.

Moses Khisa

Kakwenza won acclaim for his 2020 satirical novel, The Greedy Barbarian, which describes high-level corruption in a fictional country. He was charged on January 11, 2022 with “disturbing” the peace of President Museveni and his son, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, after his posts on the micro-blogging site, Twitter.
Moses Khisa, a political science lecturer at North Carolina State University, says its arguable that things have become worse in the last few years because “Museveni’s legitimacy has waned, so he has to rely more on force and coercion along with the use of money and other material resources to buy his continued stay in power.”

Bwesigye says, “---there have been increased reports of these cases but I think the extent of the violations and brutality is grossly underreported. These have happened from decades ago, but the Museveni brand of tyranny hasn’t been scrutinised because Museveni organises PR approaches to hoodwink the media and public. These patterns of assaults and violations go back to the 1970s, even the late 1960s. Remember, Museveni was part of the Obote I state infrastructure as an intelligence officer before Amin’s coup. He is the signature to this style of violations. As a government, as controllers of the State infrastructure, this has become the official policy of dealing with political criticism.”

The attack on Makerere Literature lecturer

In April 2022, Danson Kahyana, a literature lecturer at Makerere University, who has often written articles critical of Mr Museveni’s rule, was attacked by motorcycle-riding thugs, who knocked out his teeth. 
He says he does not have evidence on who could be behind his attack. However, when asked what ought to be done to restore sanity in the country, he argues, “Where did the rain start beating us – where did we start going wrong to the extent that the speeches we gave between 1986 and 1996 are now haunting because our actions are the opposite of what those speeches said? After we have gone – what kind of Uganda are we bequeathing to our children? How different is this Uganda from the pre-1986 Uganda?”
Kahyana says, “You saw how the Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago was beaten by Mr Ofwono Opondo [NRM spokesperson] on live television. If the Lord Mayor can be beaten, what about an ordinary civilian? I tell you we are in a political jungle where the people with guns are the ones in control. The tragedy is that these same people waged a five-year guerrilla war to fight similar tyrannical regimes.”


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