Since criticising First Lady and Education Minister Janet Museveni, the academic has faced a campaign of state repression.
The Ugandan academic Stella Nyanzi was officially charged in court today for referring to President Yoweri Museveni as “a pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post. It is alleged that her online comments contravened the 2011 Computer Misuse Act and that she engaged in “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication”.
The passing down of these charges is the culmination of a two-month campaign of state repression against Nyanzi. This alarming streak of authoritarianism began after Nyanzi criticised the policies of Education Minister and First Lady Janet Museveni in a Facebook post on 15 February.
Although Nyanzi’s charge sheet does not specifically mention those comments, it is since then that her rights to free expression, movement, privacy and liberty have been flagrantly violated. She has been summoned by the Criminal Investigations Department for questioning. She found out she had been subjected to a travel ban as she tried to board a plane to a conference in Amsterdam on 19 March. And she was suspended from her job as a research fellow at Makerere University on 31 March.
Moreover, on 3 April, Nyanzi claimed on Facebook that armed individuals were trailing her sister’s vehicle, and on the same day, armed men raided her home, intimidating her domestic employee and three children.
In the following few days, rumours and false alarms of Nyanzi’s arrest circulated, until, on the night of 7 April, she was seized by unknown state agents. After being held in police custody over the weekend, she was officially charged today.
Nyanzi has courted controversy before. In fact, up until a couple of months ago, she was best known for two things. The first of these was the half-nude protest she embarked upon in April last year against the alleged maladministration of Mahmood Mamdani, director of Makerere Institute of Social Research – a demonstration she broadcast on social media, generating nationwide coverage. And the second was the erotic fiction, written from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, which she posts on her Facebook page.
Nyanzi has sometimes used this erotic imagery in creative ways to critique the government. But the post that got her in hot water with the Education Minister in mid-February was more straightforward.
The previous day, Janet Museveni had told parliament that the government lacks the funds to fulfil her husband President Yoweri Museveni’s electoral pledge of providing free sanitary pads to school girls.
Nyanzi responded angrily to the development, writing: “What sort of mother allows her daughters to keep away from school because they are too poor to afford padding materials that would adequately protect them from the shame and ridicule that comes by staining their uniforms with menstrual blood? What malice plays in the heart of a woman who sleeps with a man who finds money for millions of bullets, billions of bribes, and uncountable ballots to stuff into boxes but she cannot ask him to prioritise sanitary pads for poor schoolgirls? She is no Mama! She is just Janet!”
Nyanzi continued by recounting how she had received education on menstrual care as a young girl from her mother, before concluding: “I should visit [Mrs Museveni] without protection during my next menstruation period, sit in her spotless sofas and arise after staining her soul with my menstrual blood! That will be my peaceful demonstration in solidarity with Uganda’s poor adolescent girls.”
When Nyanzi was summoned by the police to answer for her comments, the academic responded by calling on her followers to turn up in solidarity at the Criminal Investigations Department headquarters with pads.
Soon, an online crowd funder had been set up, and a team of over forty volunteers began a campaign to fulfil President Museveni’s broken promise themselves. They visited several schools, dispensing sanitary pads and teaching girls about menstrual hygiene. According to campaign spokesperson Almeidah Ampwere, over a million pads have already been distributed so far.
A family business
On 30 March, Janet Museveni spoke out publicly about the whole affair. She wondered aloud why Nyanzi would be so angry at her and announced that she had “forgiven” the academic. This hollow declaration not only ignored the content of Nyanzi’s criticism, but exemplified the personalised nature of the Musevenis’ rule.
After all, despite the charges, Nyanzi did not commit any crime by simply expressing her opposition to a government policy on Facebook. If she had, Janet Museveni could sue her in a private capacity. But instead, the Musevenis employed the state machinery to aggressively curtail Nyanzi’s freedoms, violating her human rights and breaching the constitution.
In events reminiscent of Uganda’s post-colonial tyranny and impunity, Nyanzi’s freedom of movement was denied without any court sanction. She was suspended by Makerere on the grounds that she insulted the Minister of Education, a move the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA) condemned. Her home was raided, scaring her children and domestic employee, and her sister’s vehicle allegedly trailed.
Moreover, on 7 April, Nyanzi’s personal safety and liberty were taken away too as she was seized by plain-clothed state operatives. And she now faces politically-motivated charges.
Online, the debate about Nyanzi has shifted from discussing the appropriateness of her language to the extent the Musevenis are prepared to repress Ugandan citizens. In abusing state institutions to pursue a personal vendetta against an academic expressing her opinions, the true nature of a thin-skinned family-run regime that cares little about constitutional and human rights has become clear.
Nyanzi pleaded not guilty to the charges this afternoon. The court then declined to hear her bail application, meaning Nyanzi is to be remanded in custody until 25 April.