She obtained her doctoral degree from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (2009), a Master of Science degree in Medical Anthropology from University College London (1999), and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication and Literature from Makerere University (1997).
For her critical writings, she was arrested twice and charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication against Uganda’s president Museveni. For the first case, her prosecutors applied to court for her that she be subjected to involuntary mental examination. For her second case, she was tried, convicted, and sentenced to eighteen months in maximum security prison. During her fifteen month of imprisonment at Luzira Women Prison, she was acquitted and released by the high court. She continues to write critically of Uganda’s leadership.
DEMOCRACY UNLIMITED: POWER TO THE POETS
Stella Nyanzi (PhD)
Happy silver anniversary to the Poetry Africa festival of 2021! It is a wonderful privilege for me to give the keynote address as we celebrate 25 years of this Poetry Africa festival which has firmly established itself as a platform that supports social justice. I thank the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts for honouring me with the invitation to deliver my thoughts under the title DEMOCRACY UNMUTED: POWER TO THE POETS! I was asked to focus on how poets use their voice as political agency.
Autocratic dictatorships systematically mute critical poets
It is very empowering to publicly talk about unmuting. You see: for many years in my country Uganda, I have been struggling hard to unmute my poetic voice. For those who do not know me, my name is Stella Nyanzi. Simply because of my poetic writings that are critical of Uganda’s militant autocratic dictator, I have variously faced political persecution including even being a political prisoner of conscience. In addition to serving eighteen months of imprisonment in maximum security prison for my poetic writings published on Facebook that offended dictator Museveni who has ruled Uganda for 36 years, I have also been arrested twice, charged twice, prosecuted twice, and tried twice. For my poetic writings against the excesses and failings of the dictator’s wife who is patronizingly called Mama Janet in public, and who masquerades around as the Minister of Education although she lacks the requisite education for this public office, I was unjustly subjected to repeated suspensions with half-pay for five years from my prestigious permanent and pensionable position at Uganda’s oldest public university called Makerere University (see Nyanzi 2021a for my discussion about academic freedom within militant autocratic dictatorships). In addition to freezing my formal employment in Uganda’s public universities and public service, my name was also put onto the widely feared No Fly List, I was slapped with a travel ban that I shook off through a three-year court case, and I was once physically removed from an outbound flight at Entebbe International Airport by an entire squad of armed anti-terrorism soldiers. During my first court trial for offending dictator Museveni with my poetic writing that metaphorically likened him to just a pair of buttocks (in Nyanzi 2021b I discuss the importance of satirically laughing at our political leaders in Africa), not only did the state prosecutors apply to the chief magistrate’s court to subject me to involuntary mental examination, but the lower court magistrate assigned to my case denied my lawyers the opportunity to table before him my application for bail and instead remanded me to Luzira Women’s Prison for a month before he could entertain the reception of my constitutional right to apply for bail. In addition to physically fighting off two male government psychiatrists who tried to commence involuntary mental examinations on me when I was a remanded prisoner at this maximum-security prison, I also challenged the archaic colonial relic of the Mental Treatment Act (1934) (under which this application for forceful mental examination was made) by petitioning the Constitutional Court of Uganda to review the constitutionality of pathologizing all government critics. Furthermore, I contributed critical review and recommendations for revising this repressive law to the Health Committee of the Parliament of Uganda which was in the process of amending this colonial repressive law created with the intention of discrediting all natives who criticized the colonisers – on grounds of insanity established by psychiatrists working in the service of colonial administrators. On top of all this political persecution, criminalization, pathologisation and alienation staged to deter me and others from further deploying poetry to harshly criticize the violence, violations, vices and virulence of Museveni’s dictatorship in Uganda, police raided my home several times – often confiscating my computers and research data, my children’s private vehicle was often trailed as they travelled between school and home, my children went into safe protection homes on at least five different occasions, my bank accounts were frozen, I was once abducted from a private vehicle by masked gunmen (Human Rights Council 2017), and received several death threats via telephone, email and social media. All these state-instituted modes of political persecution were aimed at muting my poetic creativity that incessantly and crudely criticized the multiple death-blows to democracy, justice, freedom, equality and peace in Uganda under the repressive dictator Museveni’s reign of terror.
Resisting the state machinery and mechanisations deployed to mute critical voices has thus become second nature to me. Within this national context of militant repression, corruption, lawlessness, misogyny, closure of civic space, diminution of academic freedom, and muzzling of the public press, I am honing the skills of constantly UNMUTING myself as a poet, writer, thinker, community organizer, opposition politician, and defiant dissident.
If democracy is to thrive in the different countries and societies that comprise our African continent, then creative thinkers, writers, artists, and performers must be allowed freedom of expression. Poets must be unsilenced, unmuted, the gags torn and the boots on our Adam’s apples lifted. Unmuting critical creative voices is mandatory for democracy to thrive.
Democracy necessitates unmuting creative critics
In a poignant interview she gave to Krishnan Guru-Murthy of the British Channel 4 News on 13th June 2018, my dissident role model who passed on earlier this year, the Egyptian dissident prolific writer Nawal El Saadawi made the strong assertion:
“We must be clear: democracy is an illusion! We cannot have democracy in a capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal, religious system… Because what is democracy? Democracy is real freedom” (El Saadawi 2018).
If it is true that democracy is indeed real freedom, then for democracy to be attained, freedom of expression must be actualized. Any form of muting, silencing, erasure, invisibilising, gagging, censoring, dumbing, etc. which takes away or takes from the voice, voices, and voicing – particularly that produced by critics – is an attack on democracy. Muting does not only dilute or diminish or decrease the extent of democracy in any context, but it threatens the very foundations of real freedom.
The bill of rights which is central to all the supreme laws of the different states in Africa provides the constitutional right to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, free press, free speech, academic freedom, the right to peaceful demonstration, and freedom of association with likeminded others. To these one must add digital freedom and internet freedom, given the vast technological advances of our day. These freedoms are not only provided for government praise-singers who applaud the strengths of power holders in public office, but also to those who criticize the violations, vices, violence and excesses of those in power.
However, increasingly in autocratic militant national contexts, repression ushers in the muzzling, constriction, penalization, criminalization, and ultimate eventual censure of criticism. All avenues of critical voices – be they from academia, civil society, journalists, opposition political parties, cultural leaders, religious clerics, diplomats or other specialized professionals – are increasingly shut down. Intimidation and censure are effected through repressive laws created by a compromised corrupt legislature and unjust penalties slapped onto critics by a captive judiciary behooven to the autocratic executive. A regime of penalties is introduced and entrenched as the hallmark of dying democracies. These include denial of accreditation for journalists, deregistration of press houses or civil society organisations that are critical, trumped up charges, violent arrests, detention without trial, torture during interrogation, sentencing as political prisoners of conscience, raids of office and residential premises, deportation of foreign correspondents, denial of visas, hate-mail, death threats, and even death.
Dictatorships invest heavily in stifling critical voices. Criticism is criminalized. Criticising the corrupt dictatorship can be courting death or indeed as the sneak peek into my biography highlighted above – can be a sentence to imprisonment in maximum security prison. However, rather than cower away from resisting the autocratic excesses and exposing failures of dictatorships, it is important that revolutionaries, radicals and dissidents continue to creatively innovate new and fresh modes of criticizing those who hold (and abuse) power. My invitation to continued criticism even in the face of imminent danger is hinged upon Nawal El Saadawi’s logic of the value of criticism gleaned from a life lived well as an endangered but bold dissident targeted by Egypt’s president Saddat.
“I become more radical, more radical with age because I am aware of the benefits of criticism. Of course to be polite – the more you are critical, the more you are polite. To be critical doesn’t mean you offend people. Sometimes you please people by criticism. It is how you criticize them – seriously, literally, intellectually,” (El Saadawi 2015).
While creative criticism is welcome in democratic societies where powerholders appreciate honest review of their positive and negative performance because of its ability to point out ways of future improvement, all sorts of critical feedback are damped down in dictatorships. Despots take offense from honest criticism. Increasingly in Uganda, critical voices in the arts, including poets, novelists, dramatists, graphic illustrators, comedians and drama actors have been variously arrested and charged with producing and circulating offensive communication against president Museveni. The fear of giving offense to powerful brutal holders of state power, and the associated reprisals likely to be unleashed on the critical writer paralyses and hinders many from freely expressing their dissent. When asked by Kenan Malik about people who censor what they write because they don’t want to give offense, Nawal El Saadawi categorically declared:
“That’s hypocrisy because hypocrisy is increasing. Like lying. Because we are living in a world of lies. Hypocrisy! Hypocrisy! We have to offend people, of course. This apologetic way, I don’t agree with at all. I find everywhere people are brought up never to speak their opinion… but it is very very rare when they quote their mind. And that is creativity. We lose the ability to be creative. This is the problem, my problem wherever I go from Egypt to the States or England… that people cannot be critical. You said they don’t want to offend me, I call it criticism. Criticism is very much related to the creative mind. And we lose the ability to be critical since we are children, under the name that we should be polite, we should not offend people – which kills creativity. I am happy when people really criticize my book because they read it seriously and they criticize it. But if they say good words – it is good, it is wonderful, – it means nothing” (El Saadawi 2015).
This defense of speaking or writing or rhyming to power truth that offends recalls the powerful assertion by Salman Rushdie in response to his own question about free expression. “What is freedom of expression? Without freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Thus, it is important that in our defense of free speech and free expression, we defend even the freedom to offend.
Unmuting poetic voice for political agency
Given the potential dangers arising from free expression that criticizes despots who abuse power, vis a vis my insistent invitation to creatives to innovatively criticize undemocratic practices in their contexts, what, then, is the role of the poet’s voice in effectively building political agency? How do poets use their voices towards real freedom, justice, equality and democracy?
One of my commitments these days is to awaken, recruit, grow and empower dissidents in the collective of poets living in repressive autocratic dictatorships, starting with Uganda my home country. It is critically important to conscientise (Freire 1996) younger poets about effectively utilizing their privilege, skills, platforms, performance and poetic productions to redistribute power away from those that serve the dictatorship and back to the masses of poor oppressed citizens. I am igniting the flames of revolution and breathing the hopes of liberation into younger poets, spoken word artists, rappers, Luga-flow rhymers and other poetic wordsmiths in my context. I am radicalizing poets to deploy their poetry for the struggle for freedom, justice, equality, liberation and democracy. One of the first essential criteria for poets to use their voices for political agency is for them to consciously, purposefully, and deliberately make the choice to write as dissidents opposed to all forms of repression, suppression and oppression.
When asked if she considered writing to be a form of dissidence or protest, Nawal El Saadawi clarified thus:
“Well, it depends what do you write, because there are writers who become millionaires and billionaires, and there are writers who go to prison. It depends what do you write. In fact, if you are writing and praising the president and the prime minister and Obama and Ulland and all that, then you will benefit. But if you are really critical to the global system and the local system in the country, then you suffer” (El Saadawi 2015).
How eloquently she classified writers into two categories – those writers who praise systems of power and writers who are really critical of existent systems of power. While the former make wealth from their writing, the latter experience all forms of suffering including imprisonment, exile, or death. El Saadawi’s taxonomic dichotomy of writers echoes another prominent African dissident writer called Ngugi wa Thiongo, who also experienced both exile and imprisonment in retaliation for his critical writing. In his collection of essays entitled “Writers in Politics,” Ngugi wa Thiongo categorically shows that all writers are embroiled in the political contestations of the day. The only differentiation between writers is a matter of which side their writing serves.
Another brilliant African poet who knows double-exile, Ghanaian Abena Busia reveals that she writes her poems for justice:
“…the poems I offer are precisely those that have arisen out of those junctures, moments in which poetry offers itself up, in the name of justice, to grapple with a disordered world in the context of saving rituals” (Busia 2005).
James David Rubadiri from Malawi also experienced double exile from his home country to Uganda and later from Uganda because of his critical political poems. Even in exile, he wrote.
For me, one of the most profound exemplars of a brilliant creative writer who simultaneously combines this creativity with his devotion to political activism and academic knowledge production is Prof. Wole Soyinka. When exiled in Accra – Ghana, it is remarkable that he was actively mobilizing the world against Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin Dada.
Nawal El Saadawi revealed that neither prison nor exile impeded her critical writings. Her memoirs from prison are powerful.
“When I was in exile, I was teaching creativity and dissidence in schools and universities. I kept writing and publishing. I didn’t stop at all” (El Saadawi 2018).
Whether living freely at home, behind prison bars as a political prisoner of conscience, or even in exile where one fled from political persecution, a dissident poet – a revolutionary writer must continue writing critically against the injustices, lawlessness, and violations of the day. All the African writers and poets I have quoted in this submission deeply inspire me because I learnt from them to write when free, when imprisoned and when in exile. Abena Busia, Nawal El Saadawi, James Paul Rubadiri, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka – are five out of many other revolutionary African writers who have known both exile and/ or prison. Similar to them, I wrote and published my first anthology of poems entitled “No Roses From My Mouth: Poems From Prison” while serving an eighteen-months sentence for my poetic writing that offended dictator Yoweri Museveni. Likewise, following from their example, I wrote my second book of poems entitled “Don’t Come In My Mouth: Poems That Rattled Uganda” while hiding in exile in Kenya where my children and I applied for asylum earlier this year of 2021.
Poetry is a potent yet non-violent creative avenue for agentically offering voice, articulation, amplification, expression, naming, solidarity, and resistance against hateful autocratic militant abusers of power who corrode and erode the virtues of democracy, justice, equality, freedom and human dignity. In some contemporary dictatorships, the established traditional strategies of resistance and peaceful protest are inadequate. Former well-known tactics of resistance are paralysed and rendered ineffective using preventive laws that bar public gatherings in the name of public health, public safety, public order, public morality and national security. Dissidence through civil action is becoming increasingly expensive, for example lives are lost, bodies are wounded or maimed by bullets, protestors are violently arrested and detained for months before their presentation in court, and heavy monetary fines are charged. When marches, picket lines, rallies, demonstrations, sit-down strikes, walk-outs, boycotts and other physical forms of protests are endangered or prohibited by the suppressive regimes in power, words of poetry can become the only viable form of stoically mounting, circulating and sustaining resistance to militant repressive brutes in power. Poetry facilitates political agency to individual wordsmiths to work either for or against the status quo. Poetic license offers a range of literary tools to speak truths to power – including cynicism, sarcasm, irony, satire, mockery, ridicule, personification, objectification, tragedy, comedy, parody, exaggeration, reversal, paradox, contradiction, etc. Unmuting democracy indeed necessitates rendering more power to the poets!
Happy 25 years of Poetry Africa! I thank you.
Busia P. A. A. (2005) What is Africa to me? Knowledge possession, knowledge production, and the health of our bodies politic in Africa and African diaspora, African Studies Review 49(1):15-30.
El Saadawi N. (2018) Nawal El Saadawi on feminism, fiction and the illusion of democracy, Interview by Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4 News. Ways to Change the World: A new podcast.
Freire P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Penguin Group.
El Saadawi N. (2015) In Conversation: Nawal El Saadawi with Kenan Malik. Oslo: Fuuse World Women.
Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (2017) Opinion No. 57/2017 concerning Stella Nyanzi – Uganda. A/HRC/WGAD/2017/57 (Available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Detention/Opinions/Session79/A_HRC_WGAD_2017_57.pdf)
Nyanzi S. (2021a) Threats to academic freedom in Uganda. Hieronder vindt u de speech van Stella Nyanzi tijdens de opening van het academisch jaar 2021-2022 van NIAS. (Available at https://openresearch.amsterdam/image/2021/9/15/stellanyanzi_academicfreedom.pdf).
Nyanzi S. (2021b) Why I called my president a pair of buttocks: The importance of laughing at our leaders in Africa. Keynote at Africa Satire Convention, Shoko Festival – Harare.
Nyanzi S. (2001c) Don’t come in my mouth: Poems that rattled Uganda. Kampala: Kisana Consults Ltd.
Nyanzi S. (2020) No roses from my mouth: Poems from prison. Kampala: Ubuntu Reading Group.
Wa Thiongo N. (1981) Writers in politics. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.