The ASA wishes to express its concern regarding the growing threats to academic and press freedom not only in the US but abroad. Over the past several years, scholars and journalists have been harassed, attacked, arrested, and subject to imprisonment, often on dubious grounds. As one of the key academic and professional associations promoting the dissemination of knowledge about Africa, the African Studies Association re-affirms its commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It would like to note its particular concern about our former Presidential Fellow and member of the ASA, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, of Uganda, who is currently being held in a maximum security prison on charges that she insulted the President of Uganda. The following letter to the President of Uganda addresses the particulars of her case.

15 April 2017

To H.E. the President of Uganda, Yoweri K. Museveni

The Minister of Education and Sports, Hon. Janet Museveni
The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Hon. Kahinda Otafire

We write on behalf of the African Studies Association, a scholarly organisation composed of over 2,000 university academics based in the United States, Europe and Africa. As an Association, we work to ‘promote conditions of free inquiry and the principles and public understanding of academic freedom’.

The ASA is concerned about the detention of Makerere scholar Stella Nyanzi, who is being held on remand  on charges of ‘cyber harassment’, for disturbing the ‘peace, quiet or right to privacy’ of the President, and for ‘obscene and indecent’ speech. Dr. Nyanzi was a 2013 Presidential Fellow of this Association.

Provocative speech has a long, distinguished, and inspirational history in Uganda’s public life. In 1945 and again in 1949 Uganda’s earliest nationalists—among them the trade unionist Ignatius Musazi and the provocateur Semakula Mutumba—criticised British colonial government in extremely intemperate language. Their criticisms helped to inspire Ugandan commoners to challenge the autocratic officials who governed them. In 1953 through 1955 the newspaperman Jolly Joe Kiwanuka published a number of offensive editorials criticising the British government for sending Kabaka Frederick Mutesa into exile. His campaign helped to inspire Ganda people to boycott European business, and pressured the British government to agree to Mutesa’s return. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the demagogue Augustine Kamya mobilised tens of thousands of urban commoners with his loud, aggressive speeches against the monopolies that controlled Uganda’s economy. The movement he inspired helped to promote African ownership of Uganda’s businesses. In the late 1960s the journalists Rajat Neogy and Abubakar Mayanja were imprisoned for authoring cutting critiques of the Milton Obote government in the magazine Transition. And in the early 1980s a young activist named Yoweri Museveni campaigned against the brutalities of Milton Obote’s second government in a series of provocative circular letters.

To their critics, men like Kiwanuka, Kamya and Neogy were rabble-rousers, inciting discontent and insulting their social betters. From our retrospective vantage point we can see them differently. Their language, though deemed offensive by some, helped to clarify injustices, called attention to wrongs, and challenged ordinary people to invest themselves in the betterment of political life.

Dr. Nyanzi’s posts on Facebook and other media stand in this same tradition. They may be considered by many as intemperate and objectionable. But we urge you to rise above the fray and to respond, not by imprisoning Dr. Nyanzi, but by taking the substance of her argument seriously. Democracies function best when leaders of public opinion are given space and opportunity to express discontent. Free expression of opinion can sometimes be offensive. But—as Uganda’s own history shows—it is by free expression that a more just and more open society can be established.

We urge you therefore to direct the Minister of Justice to drop charges against Dr. Nyanzi and restore her to liberty. We urge you, furthermore, to reiterate your support for the exercise of academic freedom at Makerere University and at other institutions of higher learning in Uganda.

The Board of Directors
African Studies Association