Musaveni is “the Worst Curse upon Uganda”: an Update on the Case of Stella Nyanzi

28 Feb 2018
Musaveni is “the Worst Curse upon Uganda”: an Update on the Case of Stella Nyanzi

Dr Stella Nyanzi, prominent Ugandan academic, feminist and LGBTI+ campaigner, was arrested for speaking her mind. In April last year, she was detained by Ugandan authorities for a post on Facebook that called Yoweri Museveni – the President of Uganda and the world’s sixth longest-ruling head of state – a “pair of buttocks”.

Although Dr Nyanzi is out of jail, she is still not out of the punitive reaches of the Ugandan government, who continue to press charges against Nyanzi for “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication”. They are also chronically delaying the hearing of her case, which was supposed to have been heard on 16 January after a number of delays, but was adjourned again to 7 March.

We were happy to read late last year that Dr Nyanzi found PEN SA’s work helpful in securing her release. Speaking with our colleagues at PEN International, Dr Nyanzi said it was “wonderful when PEN South Africa approached my sisters and legal team [and], working jointly […] gave more visibility to the issue of my arrest and detention, and contributed towards the pressure put on government to release me and drop the charges against me.”

We hope that we can contribute to the dropping of the charges against Dr Nyanzi, and secure her physical freedom as well as her freedom of speech, and her freedom to criticise her government. Just as PEN SA called for her immediate release last year, we call for the dropping of the case against her now.

The part of the Ugandan legislature that Dr Nyanzi is accused of being in contravention of is the Computer Misuse Act of 2011, specifically its sections on “Offensive communication” – which is defined as the use of any “electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication” – and “Cyber stalking”, which is when one “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly uses electronic communication to harass another person and makes a threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety or to a member of that person’s immediate family”. In addition to fines, the offenses of offensive communication and cyber stalking carry prison terms of up to one year and five years respectively.

While modern societies do need laws that govern electronic communication and virtual harassment, the Ugandan government is using these laws to stop Dr Nyanzi’s criticism of Musaveni, the incumbent head of state, to whom Dr Nyanzi presents no physical danger. To this end, Dr Nyanzi has since described Musaveni – on the morning of her latest appearance in court in January – as “the worst curse upon Uganda” and “the ultimate murderer of truth, justice and rule of law”.

One criticism of Dr Nyanzi’s speech is that it is rude, obscene, or otherwise problematic. It is vital to note, however, that in her criticism of Musaveni and the Ugandan government, Dr Nyanzi embraces the tradition of “radical rudeness”, a sort of social critique by Ugandans that flourished under colonial rule beginning in the late 1940s.

Often mis-characterised as an outbreak of “adolescent immaturity”, Carol Summers argues that radical rudeness is instead “rooted in an understanding of the significance of social rituals” and “constituted a strategy to disrupt them, […] tied to an effort to build new sorts of public sociability to replace the older elite private networks.” Indeed, as PEN SA Board Member Gabeba Baderoon wrote at the time of Dr Nyanzi’s arrest last year:

Nyanzi join[s] the long line of artists, writers and activists holding power to account by breaking the rules and who risk being called mad, impulsive, disproportionate, unserious and disrespectful. But what she showed is that postcolonial injustice is aided and obscured by the rituals of propriety and politeness. […] So let us save our politeness, generosity and empathy to one another, and direct our necessary rudeness to those whose broken promises are stacked on one another like discarded bones. 

We call upon Barbara Nekesa Oundo, the High Commissioner of Uganda in South Africa, President Musaveni and the Ugandan government to drop all charges against Dr Stella Nyanzi, and ask our members and colleagues in South Africa and Uganda to call for the same.

(Images courtesy of Stella Nyanzi’s public Facebook profile.)