Stella Nyanzi. Credit: Kampala Dispatch.

The Ugandan academic and gender and queer rights advocate Dr Stella Nyanzi has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression, given annually to writers and journalists in recognition of their significant contribution to freedom of expression despite the danger to their own lives. The award ceremony was held as part of the opening night of Writers Unlimited Festival at The Hague. An empty chair was used to symbolise the absence of Nyanzi.

Widely regarded as a political martyr, Nyanzi is currently serving an 18-month jail sentence, after the August 2019 ruling that found her guilty of “cyber harassment” against the country’s 33-year-ruling president Yoweri Museveni. Prior to this, she had been in prison for nine months, having been first arrested in October 2018 for a Facebook post she made, a poem critical of Museveni and his mother Esteri Kokundeka.

In March 2017, Nyanzi had been indefinitely suspended by Makerere University’s appointment board following her criticism of Uganda’s education and sports minister, who happens to be the First Lady Janet Museveni. Back in 2016, after instructions from the Director of Makerere’s Institute of Social Research, where Nyanzi is a fellow, mandating her to teach in a PhD programme when her employment was restricted to research, she had protested naked.

“Around the world, brave activists are claiming the right to express themselves,” said Michiel Servaes, Executive Director of Oxfam Novib. “They speak out to influence decisions that shape the lives and the future of citizens, whose rights are being ignored by too many governments. Today, I am humbled to honour Stella Nyanzi from Uganda. She does not take power for granted. She has shocked many with her ‘radical rudeness,’ but, more importantly, she has fuelled public debate in her country about issues otherwise not spoken about. Patriarchy, women’s rights, and power abuse.”

Carles Torner, Director of PEN International, noted that “For [Nyanzi], writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her.”

Danson Kahyana, President of PEN Uganda, accepted the award on Nyanzi’s behalf and read an acceptance speech by her smuggled out of prison. “Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship,” it read. “My custodial sentence in a maximum security prison highlights how fearful this dictator and his cronies are of writers. Isn’t the pen, indeed, mightier than the sword?” Recounting acts of defiance in prison—such as using handcuffs to scribble the words “You can handcuff my body but you can never handcuff my spirit – Stella Nyanzi,” and using lipsticks borrowed from fellow inmates to write on walls—Nyanzi restated her commitment to speaking up against tyranny.

Previous winners of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression include the Cameroonian journalist Enoh Meyomesse, the Eritrean poet Amanuel Asrat, the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, and the Honduran activist Dina Meza.