Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic on remand at the country’s maximum-security prison for calling President Yoweri Museveni “a pair of buttocks” is an unlikely face of a dissent movement.
But Nyanzi, a single mother-of-three who studied journalism then drifted into academia where she studies sexual identities, has become a thorn in the flesh of the government and a rallying point for social justice. The phrase “a pair of buttocks” trended for many days last week on Twitter and a Google search for the phrase brings up news reports from a variety of international news outlets, including the Washington Post, the Guardian, the BBC and Quartz, among others.For a country keen to attract tourists and investment, this is not the kind of publicity the Ugandan government would have had in mind.
But in a country where dissent and criticism is punished heavily, Nyanzi and her online activism represents a shift away from the heavily policed streets of Uganda to the unregulated streets of social media.
Repression in Uganda goes back many years. During Idi Amin’s reign, between 1971 and 1979, thousands of Ugandans were murdered and many more forced to flee into exile. The Museveni regime came to power in 1986, at the end of a five-year guerrilla war, promising to end repression and abuse of human rights. But, finding itself without broad political support, and facing a military uprising in the north, it, too, slowly returned to the repressive ways of old.
Opposition political parties were heavily restricted and attempts to hold public gatherings severely restricted. When dissenters tried to amplify their voices through the media, that quickly became a target. In 1993 the government ordered its ministries and agencies to stop advertising in the Monitor newspaper which had been set up only a year earlier but had immediately rocked the boat with its critical coverage of the government.
In 1995 Haruna Kanaabi, a journalist with the small weekly newspaper, Sharia ‘at, was fined and jailed for five months for “publication of false news”.
A new constitution promulgated in 1995 offered the right to freedom of expression and the press but the government continued to use laws against criminal defamation, sedition and false news to keep critical journalists in check.
In October 2002, the government raided the offices of the Monitor and shut it down for several days after the newspaper carried a story alleging that an army helicopter gunship had crashed during an operation against LRA rebels in the north of the country.
The government said the story was false but a few months earlier, in February 2004, the Supreme Court had ruled that the clause in the Penal Code Act that criminalised publication of “any false statement, rumour or report, which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace” was unconstitutional.
Without a law, the government merely declared the newspaper offices a crime scene and eventually allowed it to resume publication after searching the premises and taking away computers, many of which had sensitive information including identities of sources and whistle-blowers.
Government security agents returned a year later to shut down the newspaper’s KFM radio after a talk show host accused the government of causing the death of former South Sudanese leader John Garang, who was killed in a crash of the Ugandan presidential helicopter as it returned him home from a visit.
The radio was later re-opened but a precedent had been set. When violent riots broke out in Kampala in September 2009 three radio stations were shut down without due process. A radio belonging to the Buganda Kingdom, whose dispute with the central government had led to the riots in which about 40 people were shot dead, would remain closed for more than a year.
When journalist Kalundi Serumaga blamed the riots on Mr Museveni’s “poor upbringing” during a television talk show, he found unknown men waiting for him at his car. They bundled him into another car and disappeared with him for several hours during which time he was assaulted and he required hospital treatment.
Thus, although the Constitutional Court ruled in August 2010 that the law on sedition was unconstitutional, a climate of fear had been created in the country’s media landscape, leading to self-censorship.
Further restrictions followed elsewhere. In 2013 the Public Order Management Act was passed by Parliament, requiring, among others, permission from the Inspector General of Police for any gathering of more than three people at which political matters were likely to be discussed.
Although the justification was to ensure that the police provided security at the gatherings, opposition political parties found many of their requests made under the law turned down, often on spurious grounds.
The Non-governmental Organisations (NGO) Bill passed soon after vastly increased the government’s control over activities of civil society organisations, further narrowing the space for alternative views.
By the time security agents shut down the Monitor and Red Pepper newspapers for a week in 2013 for carrying stories from a public letter written by a former intelligence commander, there were few voices left to speak out.
A separate investigation by Privacy International, a London-based charity, found that Ugandan intelligence had, for many years, been spying on telephone and email conversations of opposition politicians and journalists without judicial oversight.
The true extent and damage of ‘Operation Fungua Macho’ has never been fully established but so widespread was the infiltration of private media and civil society in Uganda that many resorted to self-censorship.
Reporters Without Borders rated Uganda in position 102 out of 180 countries surveyed in 2016, down five places from 2015. “Acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda,” the advocacy group says.
Freedom House, a New York-based rights body, lists Uganda as “not free”. In a score of political rights and civil liberties, the country scores only 11 out of a possible 40 points. “Constitutional protections for freedoms of expression and of the press are often undermined by provisions in the penal code, including laws on criminal libel and treason, as well as by extra-legal government actions,” Freedom House notes.
One unintended consequence of the narrowing of space and the clampdown on mainstream media has been to drive critical conversations and debate online, as well as the rise of unlikely leaders of the movement.
The first such avenue was Radio Katwe, a blog that revealed uncomfortable details about the regime, including identities of alleged intelligence operatives, before it suddenly went quiet about a decade ago. It was followed by a Facebook account, Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, or simply TVO, which thrives on publishing similar details. While TVO’s credibility has suffered from some inaccurate reporting, it has unsettled the government enough to prompt several attempts at unmasking the identity of the person or people behind it, including an attempt to ask Facebook (it was denied).
Stella Nyanzi, who also operates mostly on Facebook, has taken it a step farther by giving a name and a face to the protest. “Where other accounts hide behind anonymity, Stella stands there in the middle of the street saying it as it is and daring them to come get her,” a Ugandan lawyer says, asking not to be named because of her involvement in the case.
Describing herself as a “die-hard Facebooker who loudly speaks my mind based on my banal experiences of life”, Nyanzi uses what some consider vulgar language to criticise the government over the poor state of social services in the country, as well as nepotism. First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also the Education minister, has been a target for fierce criticism, as has her husband. So virulent is Ms Nyanzi’s criticism that the alleged offending phrase “a pair of buttocks” was, to many people, the least offensive they could find to print on the charge sheet.
Ms Nyanzi’s message appears to resonate with many Ugandans based on the comments on her posts. Her Facebook page has 141,766 followers, just over half of those who follow the President’s official page (267,116), while TVO has 120,212.
In a country with about 36 million people and relatively limited access to the internet, this is a small and elitist audience but it is growing and has the potential to snowball into something that draws in off-line audiences, says a government supporter, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“You don’t want people to believe that they can abuse the President and his wife anyhow and get away with it so it was important to make an example of Nyanzi to keep those people in check,” he said. “Government should never appear to be impotent.”
The government was concerned enough about social media to shut it down twice last year, first on Election Day in February, and again during Mr Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony in May. It is now said to be increasing its capacity and ability to monitor all internet traffic in the country, including the ability to read all emails and social media conversations.
Far from a sideshow, the fight on social media is likely to be the next frontier in the Museveni government’s clampdown on dissent, with people like Stella Nyanzi its unlikely stars. Unable to demonstrate in the streets without attracting teargas from the police, many are finding an avenue for their frustrations online. No one in power in Uganda with a pair of buttocks will be sitting pretty.