I spent the past week in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. While I was there it was interesting to observe that the interviews for the vice-chancellorship of Makerere University are open to the public.
Not only were they open to the public, but they were also streamed live on television.
Part of the public interview also included the candidates debating each other.
Makerere was established in 1992 and is the most prestigious university in Uganda, attracting international acclaim and hope to some of the most talented and outspoken scholars on the continent.
One of these is feminist scholar Dr Stella Nyanzi, who was arrested in April this year for ‘insulting’ Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet Museveni in a social media post this year.
Nyanzi was criticising the government for failing to keep to the promise to provide sanitary pads for schoolgirls.
Nyanzi directed criticism at Janet Museveni, who is the country’s Minister of Education and Sports, and further criticised Museveni’s presidency by likening him to buttocks stating, “That is what buttocks do. They shake, jiggle, s**t and fart. Museveni is just another pair of buttocks … Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country.”
For this, Nyanzi spent four weeks in jail and was released on bail in late May.
There is something of a contradiction between the ostensible openness of Makerere in making its VC search open, while one of its own is arrested for criticising the president and education minister.
While I felt a sense of admiration for the fact that the Ugandan public was being invited to exercise a kind of oversight over the choice of who ought to lead the university, the arrest of an academic for expressing opinions stridently makes one wonder just how free the university is.
Prior to this buttocks insult case, in 2016 Nyanzi had drawn international headlines in her dispute with acclaimed scholar Mahmood Mamdani, who was her director at the Makerere Institute for Social and Economic Research (MISR). The dispute related to changes in the introduction of new teaching and research responsibilities for MISR staff.
In the rather complicated course of the dispute, Mamdani locked Nyanzi out of her office because she refused to take up the new duties.
In expressing her refusal with what she felt was a high-handed eviction from her office, Nyanzi stripped her clothes and staged a naked protest outside her office in full view of the public.
Since then, and in her more recent protest against Museveni, Nyanzi has captured the political imagination of many African feminist students and academics across the continent.
She has her detractors who believe this form of vulgar protest is mere spectacle that will not attract much sustained support towards mobilising change.
In the case of her office, it could be argued that Nyanzi had to honour a contractual obligation to MISR in order to access her office.
However, I fully understand her protest at the manner in which her eviction was undertaken, it is not as if she was not doing her research work. I must wonder if a man of her profile and temperament would have been similarly evicted.
So even if Nyanzi was in the wrong, she, like many Black African academic women, is very aware of the power imbalances in the academia.
While powerful men in academia do each other all kinds of favours, extending academic patronage and protection to each other, Black academic women who seek their own autonomy, who will not beg for acceptance by powerful academic networks get viewed with some kind of suspicion. At least, this has been my observation.
Nyanzi’s uncontained expressiveness breaks through the ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ that run our universities. Her vulgar outspokenness carries more integrity than the performed transparency of the public VC Makerere search.
By the way, in case you wondered, all three Makerere vice-chancellor candidates were men.