Yoweri Museveni has near-impeccable dictatorial credentials. He's been Uganda's president for three decades and recently lifted the possibility of term limits. He allocated more than $77 million in the national budget — a huge portion in the poor country — for expenses related to his residence. His police harass and arrest opposition leaders. His son is his top adviser and is openly being groomed as his successor. Like many dictators, Museveni remains a staunch U.S. ally by cooperating in regional counterterrorism operations.
About two months ago, one of Uganda's most outspoken anti-Museveni activists, a university lecturer named Stella Nyanzi, called him "a pair of buttocks" in one of her famously lewd and testy Facebook posts. Her point, it seems, was to liken the speeches and policies produced by Museveni to what is produced by, well, a pair of buttocks.
Nyanzi is seen as fearless in a country that Museveni runs by fear and acquiescence. Comments like that have earned her hundreds of thousands of followers. Now they also have landed her in a maximum-security prison.
Her crime? "Computer misuse." According to her charge sheet, she "willfully and repeatedly used electronic communication to ... disturb the peace, quiet, or right of privacy of his excellency the president of Uganda Yoweri Kaguta Museveni with no purpose of legitimate communication."
Her arrest on Sunday followed a week of harassment in which her home was raided and her three children and a domestic worker were threatened.
In other words, she got under his skin. To add to the list of Museveni's dictatorial credentials: He can't abide ad hominem attacks from people far less powerful.
Or criticism of his wife, for that matter, who is also the minister of education. Nyanzi was first summoned by the Ugandan police after she chided Janet Museveni for being married to a man who told his parliament he lacked the funds to fulfill an electoral pledge to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
“What sort of mother allows her daughters to keep away from school because they are too poor to afford padding materials that would adequately protect them from the shame and ridicule that comes by staining their uniforms with menstrual blood? What malice plays in the heart of a woman who sleeps with a man who finds money for millions of bullets, billions of bribes, and uncountable ballots to stuff into boxes but she cannot ask him to prioritise sanitary pads for poor schoolgirls? She is no Mama! She is just Janet!” Nyanzi wrote on Facebook. She subsequently launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide the pads herself.
“I should visit [Mrs. Museveni] without protection during my next menstruation period, sit in her spotless sofas and arise after staining her soul with my menstrual blood! That will be my peaceful demonstration in solidarity with Uganda’s poor adolescent girls.”
Even those standing up for Nyanzi are being attacked. According to an account posted Monday by the group Reporters Without Borders, Gertrude Uwitware, a journalist, "was walking along one of Kampala’s safest and most touristic avenues on the afternoon of 8 April when a man and a woman forced her to get into their car at gunpoint. After gagging her, they drove her to an isolated spot several kilometres outside the city, where they shaved her head, beat her and threatened to torture her. Referring to a blog post in which she defended Nyanzi, who accused the First Lady of not keeping an election promise to provide free sanitary pads in schools, they ordered her to stop harassing the president’s family and made her delete all of her Twitter and Facebook posts deemed too critical."
At a court hearing Monday, Nyanzi's lawyers were told that she would not be allowed to post bail and that she would be remanded in prison until at least April 25.
After the charges were read to her, Nyanzi said: "I am happy to take on the mantle of insanity, the mantle of truth-teller, if this is going to be the only time this regime is told of its offenses against Ugandans. Yes, I have called Museveni a rapist of our constitution." She ultimately pleaded “not guilty” to both counts.
A recent post on her Facebook page, apparently made by associates of hers, alleges that she is being subjected to unwanted medical examinations and that she is being allowed fewer visitors than the norm.
Nyanzi is no newcomer to political protest; she has long been one of Uganda's leading voices on sexual freedom and women's rights. Her writing is often packed to the brim with sexual references for extra shock value, and she regularly likens Museveni and his followers to rapists.
Adriaan Van Klinken, a South African academic and a friend of Nyanzi's, told the Daily Maverick newspaper that Nyanzi "has been framed by some critics, including the Ugandan government, as a ‘crazy renegade,’ but in fact she stands in a long tradition of radical feminist and queer thought in which ‘the personal is political,’ in which the body is a site of political protest, and in which sexuality is linked to power. For Stella, such beliefs are not merely intellectual — she is not an armchair queer philosopher — but requires concrete social and political action. This has put her increasingly in a position where she publicly criticizes those in power in Uganda, and her recent arrest is a result of this."