Uganda’s Chief Provocateur

Through radical protest, Stella Nyanzi has become a thorn in long-serving President Yoweri Museveni’s side. Now, she could be headed to parliament.

Activist Stella Nyanzi is arrested by police officers at a protest for more government food distribution amid the coronavirus lockdown in Kampala, Uganda, on May 18, 2020.
Activist Stella Nyanzi is arrested by police officers at a protest for more government food distribution amid the coronavirus lockdown in Kampala, Uganda, on May 18, 2020. SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 14, Ugandans head to the polls in contentious general elections. Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, has never faced an opponent as strong as the popular musician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, who has galvanized Uganda’s youthful population—an estimated 78 percent of people are under 30—against his 34-year rule.

In recent days, Museveni’s officials have gone on the offensive, accusing Facebook of election interference for removing accounts linked to the president’s campaign. Authorities appear to have shut down the internet nationwide, leaving citizens in the dark. Uganda, which has only once seen a peaceful transition of presidential power, isn’t likely to have final results on Thursday. If neither of the top presidential contenders receive the 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright, Museveni and Wine will face off in a second round.

One smaller race has also attracted significant attention: the seat of Kampala Woman MP, one of 124 district positions guaranteed to promote gender equity in parliament under the constitution. Stella Nyanzi, a controversial academic and activist, is taking on both a ruling party candidate and a member of Wine’s legal team.

Uganda’s social landscape is deeply patriarchal, but over the last few years Nyanzi has become one of its main provocateurs, often slighting Museveni and suffering the consequences. To many observers, she is a sign of the coming of a new Uganda—where political capital is shared with figures who were never part of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Despite running on separate tickets, she and Wine both present a growing threat to Museveni’s decades-long hold on power.

Nyanzi first came to prominence in 2016, when she stripped in a feminist protest at Makerere University, where she worked as a research fellow, against her boss’s attempt to block her from her office because Nyanzi refused to teach a class. Since then, Nyanzi’s form of protest—radical rudeness, which is especially stark in former British colonies such as Uganda that adopted Victorian ideas of public behavior—has cast her further into the public eye. Her tactics, including nude protest and the use of insulting language, have earned her the censure of Museveni and landed her in prison.

In 2017, Nyanzi spent 33 days in Uganda’s maximum-security Luzira women’s prison for describing the president as a “pair of buttocks” and the first lady as “empty-brained” in a poem posted on Facebook. Makarere University suspended her. In 2019, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for this incident, a sentence later overturned by Uganda’s High Court on the basis that the government had violated her right to fair trial.

While in prison, Nyanzi published a poetry collection, No Roses from My Mouth, that includes texts as incendiary and explicit as the one that landed her there in the first place. The Ugandan prison authorities tried to confiscate everything that she wrote, including poems and letters to her children. But since then, her stature has risen sharply: Last year, the book’s initial print run sold out in a month.

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

Along with Wine, Nyanzi has become a symbol of Uganda’s shrinking democratic space.

Nyanzi has also gained credibility from the work she has done to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls and from her work on queer rights—most publicly, her opposition to the draconian Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, later annulled by the Constitutional Court of Uganda. She has garnered support from global feminist movements, and last year she was awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.

Since Nyanzi’s release last February, she has been arrested at least five times, mostly for staging or taking part in protests. But her candid language criticizing Museveni has made her popular among younger Ugandans increasingly turning against the president. Along with Wine, Nyanzi has become a symbol of Uganda’s shrinking democratic space.

“Why was I in court for all these months? Why is the current regime of Uganda oppressing Ugandans who are expressing their constitutional rights?” Nyanzi said when her sentence was overturned. “I am the voice for the opposition of Uganda.”

In Uganda, the tradition of radical rudeness—criticizing the powerful through public insult—did not begin with Nyanzi. In the 1940s, for example, it was a powerful tool against the oppressive British colonial administration. Ugandan activist Semakula Mulumba wrote incendiary letters to bishops, members of parliament, and other administration officials that were distributed to the public. Mulumba described the Britons as “white swine” who wallowed in the dung of the wealth they had stolen from Uganda. In collaboration with colonial administrators, the ministers of the Baganda Empire dismissed 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 of Oyo-Ile (present-day Benin and western Nigeria) protested naked in rejection of Bashorun Gaa’s savage rule in the 17th and 18th centuries. In colonial Cameroon, women in the areas occupied by the Kom and the Kedjom used naked protest against threats to their farmlands. In apartheid South Africa, homeless women stripped to protest the demolition of their shacks in 1990, as did women protesting the degradation of the Niger Delta by oil companies in 2002, and students protesting against sexual violence at South Africa’s Rhodes University in 2016.

Nyanzi joins a long line of women who have used their bodies as a form of protest, in Africa and beyond.

In some ways, Nyanzi’s form of protest recalls the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In 1992, Maathai led a group of women whose children were political prisoners of the dictator Daniel Moi’s regime in a hunger strike and nude protest. Moi called her a “mad woman,” a term the Ugandan government has used to describe Nyanzi nearly 30 years later. (Museveni’s administration tried to force her to be evaluated by a psychiatrist while in prison.)

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

But the friendly competition among Uganda’s opposition contrasts with the chokehold Museveni has on the Ugandan democratic space. Three of the presidential candidates, including Wine and Amuriat, have announced a joint-vote protection team. Besigye is on good terms with Wine, and Nyanzi is also a member of People Power, a resistance pressure group that started in 2017 that was led by Wine. While Besigye has joined Amuriat on the campaign trail, he has also acted as an elder statesman for all the candidates seeking to unseat Museveni. In a press briefing on Tuesday, Besigye praised them for withstanding campaign violence by security forces.

In this Uganda, the state has relied on familiar tactics. As security forces attempted to quell protests in the wake of Wine’s arrest in November for allegedly violating pandemic restrictions, some of his supporters were killed and hundreds more injured. Ahead of the elections, security forces have attacked reporters, with the government deporting some and announcing new regulations for foreign journalists.

Furthermore, the Uganda National Electoral Commission has locked out roughly 1 million eligible voters, claiming not to have the time or resources to register new voters who—given their age—would likely have gravitated toward Wine. Along with the violence ahead of the election, this move signals that Museveni will likely retain power in an election that will neither be free nor fair.

In the meantime, Nyanzi is writing more poetry, much of it vulgar—in recent one, she told Museveni to “wipe the kisses off my pouting lips with your underwear made from the national flag drenched in blood—fresh and old”—and posting it on Facebook. “People criticise the tool of vulgarity and yet even they are a part of the audience and so just confirmed that actually it works very well,” she said in an interview last year. “Vulgarity is not an end in itself, it’s a means to achieving something, it’s a means to communicating much more.”

Nyanzi has a good chance of becoming a member of Uganda’s Parliament, one of a growing tide of Ugandan politicians who could shape a Uganda beyond Museveni’s clutches. If she loses, she will continue her role as Uganda’s provocateur. Either way, Nyanzi has made clear that whoever wields power in the country—whether Wine, Amuriat, or Museveni—will face questions from her.

Carey Baraka is a Kenyan writer. Twitter: @CareyBaraka