Foreign Policy

Uganda’s chief provocateur

On January 14th, Ugandans took part in the controversial parliamentary elections. Incumbent President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has never seen such a strong opponent as popular musician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, of Uganda’s youth population – an estimated 78 percent of those under 30 – got his 34-year-old rule going.

In the past few days, Museveni’s officials have gone on the offensive, accusing Facebook of disrupting elections for removing accounts related to the president’s campaign. Authorities seem to have shut down the internet across the country and left citizens in the dark. Uganda, which has seen a peaceful transition of presidential power only once, is unlikely to see definitive results on Thursday. If none of the best presidential candidates get the 50 percent of the vote required for an overall win, Museveni and Wine will compete against each other in a second round.

A smaller race has also drawn a lot of attention: the seat of the Kampala Woman’s MPs, one of 124 district positions guaranteed by the constitution to promote gender equality in parliament. Stella Nyanzi, a controversial academic and activist, faces both a ruling party candidate and a member of Wine’s legal team.

Uganda’s social landscape is deeply patriarchal, but in recent years Nyanzi has become one of its main provocateurs, often belittling Museveni and suffering the consequences. For many observers, it is a sign of the coming of a new Uganda – where political capital will be shared with figures who have never been part of the Museveni National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Despite running on separate tickets, she and Wine pose a growing threat to Museveni’s decades-long takeover.

Nyanzi first became known in 2016 when she stripped during a feminist protest at Makerere University, where she worked as a research assistant, against her boss’s attempt to ban her from her office because Nyanzi refused to teach a class . Since then, Nyanzi’s form of protest – radical rudeness, particularly strong in former British colonies such as Uganda, which adopted Victorian ideas of public behavior – has brought them further into the open. Her tactics, including naked protests and the use of offensive language, earned her criticism from Museveni and sent her to prison.

In 2017, Nyanzi spent 33 days in Luzira Women’s Prison in Uganda, calling the president a “pair of buttocks” and the first lady “empty” in a poem published on Facebook. Makarere University suspended her. In 2019, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the incident. That ruling was later overturned by the Ugandan Supreme Court because the government violated its right to a fair trial.

In prison, Nyanzi published a collection of poems, No Roses from My Mouth, which contains lyrics as dire and explicit as the ones they ended up there in the first place. The Ugandan prison authorities tried to confiscate everything she wrote, including poetry and letters to her children. But her stature has risen sharply since then: last year the first edition of the book was sold out within a month.

“This is a book that people who are interested in Uganda talk about,” said Esther Mirembe, a Ugandan activist and one of her co-editors. “She’s an icon, everyone knows her.”

Nyanzi has also gained credibility through the work she has done to sanitize schoolgirls and through her work on queer rights – most publicly through her opposition to the draconian Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, later adopted by the Constitutional Court was repealed by Uganda. She has received support from global feminist movements and was awarded the Oxfam Novib / PEN International Award for free expression last year.

She has been arrested at least five times since Nyanzi’s release last February, mainly for staging or participating in protests. But her open language, which Museveni criticizes, has made her popular with younger Ugandans, who are increasingly turning against the president. Together with Wine, Nyanzi has become a symbol of Uganda’s shrinking democratic space.

“Why have I been in court all these months? Why is the current Ugandan regime suppressing Ugandans who express their constitutional rights? “Nyanzi said when her sentence was overturned. “I am the voice for the Uganda opposition.”

In Uganda, the tradition of radical rudeness of criticizing the powerful through public insult did not begin with Nyanzi. For example, in the 1940s it was a powerful tool against the oppressive British colonial administration. Ugandan activist Semakula Mulumba wrote incendiary letters to bishops, MPs and other administrative officials, which were distributed to the public. Mulumba described the British as “white pigs” wallowing in the dung of wealth they had stolen from Uganda. In collaboration with colonial administrators, the ministers of the Baganda Empire rejected such activism as disorderly, disruptive and inappropriate.

Nyanzi also joins a long line of women who have used their bodies as a form of protest in Africa and beyond. In pre-colonial Africa, as Sylvia Tamale writes, women from Oyo-Ile (present-day Benin and western Nigeria) protested naked against the rejection of the wild rule of Bashorun Gaa in the 17th and 18th centuries. In colonial Cameroon, women in the Kom and Kedjom occupied areas protested naked against threats to their farmland. During apartheid in South Africa, homeless women stripped to protest the demolition of their huts in 1990, as did women who protested the deterioration of the Niger Delta by oil companies in 2002 and students who opposed it at Rhodes University in South Africa in 2016 sexual violence protested.

In a way, Nyanzi’s form of protest is reminiscent of the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. In 1992 Maathai led a group of women whose children were political prisoners of the dictator Daniel Moi’s regime on hunger strike in naked protest. Moi called her a “crazy woman,” a term the Ugandan government used to describe Nyanzi almost 30 years later. (Museveni’s government tried to force her to be examined by a psychiatrist in prison.)

Significantly, Maathai was also vying for political office, though she only won a seat in parliament on her second attempt. Nyanzi’s supporters hope she can win on the first try. She is running for the position of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), a party long associated with Museveni’s former personal doctor and political enemy Kizza Besigye. Besigye has run against Museveni four times, including in 2016. Nyanzi’s presence on the FDC ticket despite her prior support for Wine in the presidential race is noteworthy as the party has its own presidential candidate, Patrick Amuriat Oboi.

The friendly competition between Uganda’s opposition, however, is in contrast to the stranglehold that Museveni holds in the democratic region of Uganda. Three of the presidential candidates, including Wine and Amuriat, have announced a team to protect common votes. Besigye has good relationships with Wine and Nyanzi is also a member of People Power, a resistance printing group founded in 2017 and led by Wine. While Besigye joined Amuriat in the campaign, he also acted as the senior statesman for any candidates who wanted to remove Museveni. In a press conference on Tuesday, Besigye praised them for withstanding the violence perpetrated by the security forces during the election campaign.

In this Uganda, the state has relied on familiar tactics. When security forces tried to quell protests after Wine was arrested in November for allegedly violating pandemic restrictions, some of his supporters were killed and hundreds more injured. Security forces attacked reporters ahead of the elections, with the government announcing some deported and new regulations for foreign journalists.

In addition, the Uganda National Electoral Commission has locked out around 1 million eligible voters, claiming it has no time or resources to register new voters who – given their age – likely would have been interested in wine. Coupled with the pre-election violence, this move signals that Museveni is likely to retain power in an election that will be neither free nor fair.

Meanwhile, Nyanzi is writing more poetry, much of it vulgar – more recently she told Museveni to “wipe the kisses off my pouting lips with your blood-soaked national flag underwear – fresh and old” and posted it on Facebook. “People criticize the tool of vulgarity and yet are part of the audience and have only confirmed that it actually works very well,” she said in an interview last year. “Vulgarity is not an end in itself, it is a means to achieve something, it is a means to communicate a lot more.”

Nyanzi has a good chance of becoming a member of the Ugandan Parliament, a growing number of Ugandan politicians who could shape Uganda beyond Museveni’s clutches. If she loses, she will continue her role as Uganda’s provocateur. In any case, Nyanzi has made it clear that anyone wielding power in the country – be it wine, Amuriat or Museveni – will ask questions from her.

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