I have never met Stella Nyanzi in the flesh, not even when she, uh, laid bare her frustrations – and a lot more than just the proverbial pound of flesh – in her infamous fight with Prof Mahmood Mamdani.
But I have met Dr Nyanzi through social media platforms where she uses sexual allegory, some of it dripping with sarcasm, a lot of it marinated in a phantasmagoria of crude and vulgar vignettes, to argue socially uncomfortable topics.
Initially Dr Nyanzi's posts had a cheeky adventurousness about them, as if they were merely an extension of her academic research in gender, sexuality and social attitudes towards them. Soon enough, however, and as was to be expected, they became more political and more aggressive, showing a sticky middle finger to the entrenched social-political order and becoming both a means to an end, and an end in themselves.
Left to her own devices, Ms Nyanzi might have been little more than a social media personality, her risqué posts, to misquote Chinua Achebe, the palm-oil with which conversations are eaten over cold cheap brews by bored middle class folks after long, sweaty days.
Yet our government has never seen a puddle of water it did not want to dip its boots in, and in early March Dr Nyanzi was summoned by no less than the deputy CID director over posts that appear to have upset high-ranking government officials. When she tried to leave the country for a conference in the Netherlands recently, Dr Nyanzi was told she was on a no-fly list and had to seek permission to go abroad!
Why put a cheeky but harmless academic on a no-fly list, alongside terrorist masterminds, while well-known criminals saunter through the airport VIP unmolested? What threat could she pose? Flash air traffic control and blind them? Smack the pilot with her breasts and commandeer the aircraft?
It is still unclear what the specific complaint is but Dr Nyanzi has alluded to her posts criticising a government flip-flop on providing sanitary towels for teenage girls to keep them in school throughout the term. Not one to keep her gloves – let alone the rest of her clothes – on, Dr Nyanzi has ratcheted up the criticism and expanded the charges against senior government figures to include incompetence and nepotism.
There are two broad aspects to this matter: the form and substance of Dr Nyanzi's comments on the one hand, and the nature of the response to them on the other.
We need neither repeat here the substance of Dr Nyanzi's criticisms nor reproduce the naked rhetoric with which they are delivered, this being a family newspaper and all that. But it is sufficient to note that a few of those seen by your columnist fall in the 'common sense' category. Keeping girls in school, for instance, is one of the best investments money can buy, and should be a national priority, not a footnote in our national budgets.
So what are we to do if Dr Nyanzi and others, in calling for the right things, use coarse language that offends our sensibilities? How should leaders respond to insults and acerbic criticism?
Here things become doctrinal. Those who offer themselves for leadership generally present themselves as reluctant and sacrificing to better society. They must, at once, be able to explain themselves and their actions to citizens who hold opposing views while also developing the thick skin required to ignore criticism or insults that they consider to be unfair or vile.
Where such criticism or insult is deemed defamatory, civil law allows leaders to seek redress in the courts of law. To lean on the coercive instruments of the State to criminalise dissent and disagreement is a sign of weakness, not strength. The alternative is to tip over the cup of suffering and resign from the thankless 'sacrifice' of public service.
We can disagree with Dr Nyanzi's views. We are perfectly within our rights to turn our noses at the language she uses. But we must be willing to defend to death her right to speak, and her right to be heard. The right to free speech is to protect not those who say what we want to hear, but those who say what we don't want to hear.
Using the law to silence those we disagree with is intellectual cowardice, not brave leadership. If there is any merit in the arguments made by Dr Nyanzi and others like her let us debate the substance; otherwise let's ignore them.
It is one thing for Dr Nyanzi to undress herself in order to reveal her inner feelings. It is madness for us to undress ourselves in an attempt to keep her quiet.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandanw journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org &Twitter: @Kalinaki
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