Africa

Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan accused of insulting the president

Ugandan prominent academic Stella Nyanzi stands in the dock at Buganda Road Court Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Stella Nyanzi pleaded not guilty to the cyber harassment charge

Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi has been charged with cyber harassment for referring to President Yoweri Museveni as "a pair of buttocks".

Ms Nyanzi is a controversial academic, who campaigns on a variety of issues, from sanitary pads for schoolgirls to gay rights.

Last year, a dispute about her office at Uganda's most prestigious university led her to stage a topless protest on national TV.

In a conservative society, where homosexual acts are outlawed, she has become an extremely divisive figure.

Her "buttocks" post was the latest in a string of sexually graphic social media entries.

While her audience has continued to grow there are mixed reactions to her musings. Some call her brave, others call her immoral and vulgar, the prosecution in the current case has questioned her mental health.


Stella Nyanzi: In her own words

Image copyright Reuters

"Why should I cushion Uganda's leaders, yet they neglect Ugandans?"

"Museveni has no money for the sanitary pads he promised, but he is promising street cameras! The lies."

"I threw off my clothes to draw public attention to my oppression and abuse at work."


Her Facebook post was described as "obscene or indecent", contravening the Computer Misuse Act 2011.

She has denied the charges, saying she only writes in metaphors, and some have argued that the charges are an attack against freedom of expression.

Stella Nyanzi is a 42-year-old mother of three - a daughter of 12 and two nine-year-old boy twins.

She strongly believes that as a Nnalongo - a title given to a mother of twins under Buganda culture - she has a licence to use vulgar language, because that same vulgar language was used during the traditional initiation ceremony for her sons.

Ms Nyanzi is also a human rights activist, campaigning on LGBT issues which are particularly sensitive in Uganda.

On her Twitter handle, she refers to herself as a "queer laughist and writer". She also calls herself "a die-hard Facebooker who loudly speaks her mind based on her banal experiences of life".

In a recent interview, she explained: "I'm a queer by specialisation. I do things queer, I study queer communities in Uganda, that is the language we speak."

This is not the first time that Ms Nyanzi, who describes herself as a medical anthropologist, has literally set social media alight.

Ms Nyanzi first got attention in social media circles in the run-up to the hotly contested general elections of February 2016.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Ms Nyanzi has accused President Museveni and his wife Janet of failing to honour a campaign promise

She did not hide the fact that she was a staunch supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change presidential candidate Kizza Besigye.

Her writings were often laced with sexual imagery, which fascinated some and repulsed others, especially supporters of President Museveni.

Since then her writings have continued and so have the discussions on the content.

Naked protest

A year ago she was in the spotlight when her battle against eviction from an office at the prestigious Makerere University's Institute of Social Research came to light.

This time her opponent was the renowned academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Ms Nyanzi argued that she was being forced to lecture PhD classes which was not part of her contract as researcher.

Professor Mamdani had her office padlocked in a bid to ensure she was relocated.

Ms Nyanzi responded with rants on social media, coupled with a nude protest.

She locked herself in at the premises, and stripped naked in front of TV cameras, causing nationwide shock.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Nyanzi appeared in a magistrate's court in Kampala

This year Ms Nyanzi turned her attention to the country's minister of education and first lady Janet Museveni.

This after the government reneged on a campaign promise, made by President Museveni, to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls so that they "do not run out of school when their menstrual periods start".

In her customary graphic language, Ms Nyanzi accused the first lady of being out of touch with reality.

This forced the often interview-shy Mrs Museveni to post an interview via her Twitter handle to deny the allegations.

She also said she had forgiven Ms Nyanzi. But this did not stop the diatribes against Mrs Museveni.

Last week the government scrapped a tax on sanitary pads, which some see as a concession to Ms Nyanzi's campaign.

However, she was then arrested last Friday.

Many assumed that this was because of her comments about Mrs Museveni, although this was not mentioned in court.

Apart from the charges, the state prosecution has also made a request to court seeking to ascertain her state of mind, leading to fears she could be sent to a psychiatric ward. She was remanded in custody until 25 April.

While the outcome of the legal process is not clear, Ms Nyanzi is not apologetic and shows little sign that it will change her willingness to court controversy.

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