Yesterday, 16th June, is Ugandan activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s birthday. Dr. Nyanzi will be spending her birthday in jail. Today marks her 225th day in jail after she was charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication over a Facebook post in which she allegedly insulted President Museveni and his mother.
Dr. Nyanzi is a Ugandan medical anthropologist, feminist, queer rights activist, and scholar of sexuality, family planning, and public health. She is one of Africa’s most prominent gender rights activists and a leader in the fight for freedom of speech. Her brand of activism is called “radical rudeness” by scholars. Radical rudeness is a traditional Ugandan strategy of calling the powerful to account through public insult. Radical rudeness was developed during the colonial era as “a rude, publicly celebrated strategy of insults, scandal mongering, disruption, and disorderliness that broke conventions of colonial friendship, partnership, and mutual benefit.”
It is this radical rudeness that got Dr. Nyanzi arrested in 2017 when she referred to president Museveni as “a pair of buttocks” and his wife, Janet, as “empty-brained” via a Facebook post. She was consequently arrested in April 2017 and detained at Kira Police Station on charges of cyber harrassment and offensive communication. She was released in May 2017 on a non-cash bail of 10 million Ugandan shillings. In a separate incident in September 2018, Dr. Nyanzi posted Facebook posts which the prosecution says implied that President Museveni’s mother’s womb was “cursed” and that it should have “burnt up on the unborn foetus [President Museveni].” She was once again arrested and is being charged under section 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, 2011.
Section 25 states: “Any person who willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty-four currency points (480,000) or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.” Both trials are still ongoing.
Dr. Nyanzi is widely known and celebrated for her work, and this has led both the African community and the international community to call for her release. Human rights groups condemned the arrest as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression. Amnesty International called for Uganda to drop the “absurd charges” against the activist. Human Rights Watch condemned her arrest as “an indicator that those who express critical views of the Ugandan government, especially the first family, can face its wrath.” Today, as Dr. Nyanzi spends her birthday in prison, the world continues to call for her release.