On Friday, 7 April 2017, academic and human rights activist, Dr Stella Nyanzi, was arrested for “cyber bullying” Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and First Lady Janet Museveni. This caused a stir on social media, with the hashtags #PairofButtocks and #FreeStellaNyanzi trending in Uganda shortly thereafter.
While Nyanzi has made a myriad of offensive and explicit statements, the one she is currently under fire for relates to a post on social media where she refers to the Ugandan president as a “pair of buttocks”. On 23 March, Nyanzi was issued a charge sheet stating: “Stella Nyanzi on the 28th January 2017 at Kampala District … made a suggestion … referring to his excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni as among others ‘a pair of buttocks’ which … is obscene or indecent.” After a speech to the Rotary Fellowship in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Nyanzi was arrested on her way home on Friday, 7 April. By Monday, the top hashtags trending on Twitter in Kampala included #PairofButtocks and #FreeStellaNyanzi.
Nyanzi’s case has been adjourned, and she is expected to sit in detention until 25 April. Nyanzi pleaded not guilty, stating that all her posts are merely metaphoric. However, if found guilty, she may be imprisoned for a minimum of one to two years.
Among other Facebook posts that express her dissatisfaction with the government, the post for which she was charged read: “Museveni is just another pair of buttocks … Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country.”
Associate director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, Maria Burnett, states that this arrest is yet another violation of freedom of expression in Uganda. Burnett claims that all government officials should expect to be criticised as leaders and this arrest is “a revenge tactic”. Nyanzi is currently being denied bail and kept from her three young children over Easter.
Ugandan writer and lawyer, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, in an interview with the Daily Maverick, said that “the irony is that the president himself uses what they are calling vulgar language, but because he’s the one in power people don’t say it’s rude. But she is using this vulgar language, which has been the language of power, to critique power. She’s using their own language on them”. Nyanzi is often turning heads with her crude diction, #PairofButtocks and #FreeStellaNyanzi became some of the top hashtags in Uganda only days after her arrest, demonstrating both the power and influence of language. While Twitter users have responded to Nyanzi’s phrasing with humour, they stand in solidarity with her.
Nyanzi heads a campaign that promotes free sanitary pads for schoolgirls. Her belief is that young women should not be denied their education due to embarrassment when they cannot afford feminine hygiene products. This campaign often leads to her criticism of the First Lady, who is also Minister of Education.
“As a dobby washes [with] soap and water, I wash with words and punctuation marks.”
Stella Nyanzi is no stranger to controversy and describes herself as “a die-hard Facebooker who loudly speaks her mind based on her banal experiences of life” on her Facebook profile. In a post from 4 April, she explains her motives: “As a thinker, scholar, poetess, lyricist, writer, Facebooker and creative producer, it is my responsibility to boldly critique the corrupt tyrants of the day … As a dobby washes [with] soap and water, I wash with words and punctuation marks.” Stella Nyanzi’s political use of language and the Ugandan government’s reaction to her statements demonstrate the importance and power of language.