Can you imagine writing a Facebook post insulting President Jacob Zuma for not living up to a campaign promise and then finding yourself arrested and thrown into a maximum-security prison? This is exactly what happened to Ugandan human rights defender, open supporter of LGBT rights, and renowned academic, Stella Nyanzi, although the target of her ire was her country’s president, Yoweri Museveni.
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Nyanzi, who is a single mother of three pre-teen children, was arrested by security agents at a rally on 7 April. She was charged with cyber-harassment and offensive communication. The state even declared that she should undergo psychiatric tests for her language, invoking the age-old, eye-rolling justification that “women are crazy” when they express anger. On her personal Facebook wall some weeks earlier, Nyanzi had compared Museveni to a “pair of buttocks” for reneging on his electoral pledge to provide free sanitary pads to Uganda’s schoolgirls. Currently, three in every 10 girls in Uganda miss school because of menstruation. Museveni had promised to address this by providing free pads, only for Uganda’s first lady to then inform parliament that the state could not afford it. Nyanzi subsequently initiated a highly successful campaign for free sanitary pads: #Pads4GirlsUg.
Finally released on bail on Wednesday May 10, after 33 days in prison, Nyanzi collapsed at the courthouse, and has been diagnosed with malaria and a urinary tract infection: gifts from Kampala’s Luzira prison. She will return to court on 25 May and may still be forced to undergo psychiatric tests. Despite being released, Nyanzi reported on Monday 15 May that she cannot go home “because the dictatorial regime’s security goons still await for me there”. Nor can she go and stay with her own children, who, after being separated from their mother for the past month, cannot live with her because of fear of what Museveni’s agents might do next.
In Nyanzi’s words, “what liberty is this if a mother cannot live with her children?” We must remember that it is not as if Nyanzi provided her “buttocks” analogy because Museveni did not comply with an arbitrary demand that she had dreamed up: she did so because he refused to implement a pledge that he himself publicly announced in his own electoral campaign.
Museveni is notorious for licensing violence in response to human rights activists or journalists who seek to hold him to account, let alone his political opponents. He jailed without bail four students of Makerere University last week until 22 May merely for demonstrating against Nyanzi’s imprisonment. These students should be released immediately. Why is Museveni so sensitive to being challenged, and why does he retort so harshly? As Amnesty International has pointed out, public officials are required to tolerate more criticism than private individuals as part of their job description. Receiving and responding to criticism with at least some grace is part of the responsibility that comes with leading a country. And yet this is something that a number of heads of state seem to have difficulty with.
The leader of Uganda’s neighbouring country, Rwanda, displays similar over-sensitivity. Last Thursday, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, one of Uganda’s most renowned queer feminist activists, was arrested on arrival into Kigali’s main airport, merely because she was overheard calling President Paul Kagame “a young dictator following in big bro Museveni footsteps”. Nabagesera had sheltered Nyanzi and taken care of her children when state authorities were hunting her down. The prominent human rights defender and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel prize, was subject to prolonged interrogation by various security agencies, handcuffed, and underwent more than 27 hours without food. The Rwanda authorities slapped her with a range of charges including terrorism and spying before simply deporting her back to Uganda.
Presidential over-sensitivity to criticism accompanied by repressive responses is not the exclusive preserve of East African leaders. Western heads of state have proven themselves to be just as fear-driven, with equally delicate egos. US President Donald Trump’s hyper-sensitivity to minor slights, let alone muscular criticism, has often been noted and is certainly evident in the current scandal unfolding around the alleged involvement of Russia in the 2016 US presidential election. After his abrupt dismissal of FBI director James Comey last week, Trump issued what were described by the BBC as “thinly-veiled threats” at Comey and most recently has been complaining to a group of coast guard graduates that “no politician in history…has been treated worse”.
What is with the problem for these heads of state who display such childish hyper-sensitivity to criticism, and seek to disempower those whom they perceive as a threat? Hyper-sensitivity has been linked to narcissism, which is largely described by psychologists as involving self-centredness, grandiosity, impulsivity, and a need for admiration. It is generally seen as being rooted in low self-esteem and shame, usually generated by traumatic childhood events. Although unable to make a diagnosis from a distance, several psychologists suggest that Trump suffers from narcissism.
Given that Museveni shares traits such as grandiosity and over-sensitivity to criticism, could he also be afflicted by this condition? It may be rather ironic that he is fixating on Stella Nyanzi’s mental health and insisting that she undergo psychiatric tests. Research suggests that narcissism can be effectively treated by depth pyscho-therapeutic approaches, which work with unconscious mental processes, among other methodologies. Given the common phenomenon of over-sensitive presidents who retaliate repressively, perhaps it should be considered that all heads of state are routinely provided with psychoanalytic or other such support to prevent them from employing state repression, rights violations, and other dictatorial behaviour?
Regardless of whether Museveni curbs his unjust reactions to criticism, Nyanzi’s campaign to bring him to book continues. Despite her ordeal, she remains absolutely undeterred in her struggle for a fair and free Uganda. Comparing Museveni to a leopard earlier this week, her Facebook post on Thursday declares that she is “disgusted, disgruntled and sick of the thirty-one-year-old corrupt military dictatorship. How do we effectively rid ourselves of the sticky tenterhooks of the Musevenis’ regime?” Meanwhile, she continues her activism for the rights of marginalised groups in Uganda. Such strong women human rights defenders should be applauded for their tenacity in pursuing goals of equality, fairness, and rights for all, even when it involves strong language at times.