In February, Ugandan security agencies failed once again to exorcise the revolutionary spirit of Stella Nyanzi, one of Africa’s most determined dissidents, after a court order commuted the 18-month sentence the 46-year-old academic had received for “cyberbullying” Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni, who has been at the helm since 1986 when Nyanzi was a preteen, has drawn new nemeses ahead of the 2021 election. The perennial opposition has teamed up with upstart parliamentarian and pop star Bobi Wine, 38 — who has himself been repeatedly targeted by Museveni’s men — to unseat the septuagenarian. Wine, who was remanded to a maximum-security prison for leading a 2019 protest against a controversial social tax, has remained a thorn in his flesh.
But it is Nyanzi whose radical rudeness is significantly deconstructing the system of fear laid from ground up by the eccentric dictator Idi Amin and reinforced by Museveni, the former rebel chief who helped topple him. Accustomed to a life of civil disobedience and bodily harm as a former journalist, Nyanzi has persistently taunted the nation’s No. 1 citizen for years about poor governance — consequences be damned.
In 2017, the former anthropology researcher at Makerere University angrily called Museveni “another pair of buttocks” for reneging on a campaign promise to supply schoolgirls with sanitary pads. Her punishment: a month in jail. She earned last year’s sentence by penning a provocative poem wishing that his mother’s vagina had drowned him “as vilely as you have sank and murdered the dreams and aspirations of millions of youths who languish in the deep sea of massive unemployment.” During her hearing, Nyanzi bared her breasts during a rant full of obscenities via teleconference after being banned from the court’s premises.
Rosebell Kagumire, the Kampala-based editor of AfricanFeminism.com, says the government follows a pattern of seeing anyone with the capacity to politically galvanize certain quarters of the country as a threat. But Nyanzi, who defies the social construct of what is acceptable ladylike conduct, “challenged power in a way that had not been done,” Kagumire explains.
University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi (L) reacts in court as she attends a trial to face charges for cyber-harassment and offensives communication.
“Opposition politicians towed a similar line, but she brought in unconventional means that was opposed by [even] conservatives within the opposition,” says Kagumire, a close associate of the activist and a key voice in the advocacy for her release. “It was a tad easy to isolate her because of the language she deploys to challenge power. … Many people justified her dehumanization.”
But Nyanzi remains undeterred in or out of custody. By way of celebration after her release earlier this year, she sounded a note of warning: “I give you notice, Museveni,” she said. “We are tired. Stop oppressing Ugandans.”