As Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), gets into celebratory mood to mark 36 years in power on January 26, the party faces a widening credibility gap between its promise of a free, liberal society and what it is actually serving Ugandans.
Three and a half decades later, the NRM is on the defensive, appears to have passed its ideological peak and is now increasingly tending towards the character of the oppressors it replaced.
For the second time in as many years, acerbic academic and political activist Stella Nyanzi this week fled Uganda with her family for sanctuary in Germany, citing a constipated political space. Ms Nyanzi says her move was informed by the fate of author and fellow activist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who has been languishing in detention since his brutal abduction by the military on December 28, 2021.
Kakwenza’s lawyers, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, have all released statements confirming that he was severely tortured during weeks of detention in an ungazetted place before he was sneaked into court and remanded to Kitalya Government Prison. In a letter to his attorneys that became public this week, prison authorities report that Kakwenza bears scars from torture on several parts of his body.
Ms Nyanzi said in a post on her Facebook page that writers must never be threatened merely for writing critically about brutal abusers of power flourishing under Museveni.
Nyanzi and Kakwenza are controversial public figures whose conduct goes against what many Africans consider good manners. Many think that they deserve the response they have attracted from the state. Yet their activism represents something fundamental between the normative and the reality on the ground.
In the 1800s, German theorist Jurgen Habermas advanced the idea of public spheres as spaces for communicative action. They provided an important space for engagement between the governors and the governed. Through these spaces the governed had an avenue through which citizens could influence public policy.
The internet and social media, the tools that Kakwenza and Nyanzi have used to critique the character of the ruling class, were not in existence in Jurgen’s time, but they play the same role of platforms for engagement at different levels in modern society.
The clash between the two activists and the authorities is representative of the wider contest between popular ideals and a decadent state. They need to be given audience.
Open minds that critique society and leadership are a necessity to keep society and leaders in check. If these voices are muzzled, it is a sign of a repressive atmosphere, and progress is stunted. Stella might have fled from the reach of the regime but the fundamentals have not changed.
What options has the state against the next Nyanzi or Kakwenza? Asylum or refuge is never the best choice. It is forced on people who have been harassed or threatened to a point where, to remain alive, it is the only choice.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. As Western governments lose the moral authority to force decent governance in the Global South, their place will be filled by the Kakwenzas and Nyanzis of this world.