Obscenity is a powerful tool
However, although Nyanzi is the one in the dock, this case appears to have put Museveni’s government on trial. And Nyanzi is exploiting the twist. While she was still playing at the local level, her arrest has escalated the melee onto the international scene.
If the authorities hoped to contain her vitriol, as has happened with other Museveni opponents, Nyanzi appears to have been emboldened. She seized the opportunity in court to unleash even more vitriol. “Who has offended who? It is Museveni who has offended Ugandans for all these years,” she said before she was remanded to Luzira until April. 25.
“I am a screamer,” she posted on her Facebook page on April 2, “If I scream from the pleasure of a lover’s tender love and care, how much much harder will I hurl rocket-propelled grenades of words at the Musevenis and Musevenists…?”
This post alone, garnered about 800 comments and over 700 shares from her 126,000 followers on Facebook alone. She has trended for weeks on Twitter.
Renowned commentator and publisher, Charles Onyango Obbo, described her as “our first neck-on-the-chopping-block female social media combatant,” adding that her social activism “speaks to how gender politics and power are shifting in Uganda.”
Not sure on what to think of her, many of her critics including the government machinery are peddling claims that she is insane.
But communications expert, Amos Zikusooka, who has been behind some of Uganda’s most successful health campaigns, knows better. He told The Independent on April 10 that Nyanzi is deploying established principles of communication, which are also used in news, psychology, and even sociology.
“She (Nyanzi) uses a certain style of language to position her message in an unusual way that commands attention,” Zikusooka said, “People have for the last 20 years heard these things and were no longer caring but because she is saying it differently, it is commanding attention.”
Zikusooka says that the principle of framing and positioning is behind the popularity of Nyanzi’s message.
“The way the message is framed and positioned determines how it will be seen or heard and accepted or rejected,” Zikusooka told The Independent, “But the first stage, the message must be seen or heard, which speaks to commanding attention.”
He explained that Nyanzi has become popular because her usage of obscenity to deliver her message is new, unique, breaking the norms and has found the right environment.
“People are drawn to unusual things,” he said, “People also always want to know who the daring person breaking the established norms is.”
Apart from this, he says, the environment is also favorable.
“There is discontent, poverty, income inequality,” Zikusooka said, “People are always talking about these things. But when someone says the same things in a different way and gets a lot of attention, people say that they are saying these things in an even better way.”
Apart from Zikusooka, Dr. Moses Khisa, a political scientist, who teaches at Northwestern University in the U.S., also said that if Ugandans read a little more, a phenomena like Stella Nyanzi would not have taken us by surprise.
“The scholarship where people use obscene and grotesque language to deliver certain powerful messages has always existed,” he told The Independent. He said some of the works deploying this approach were done by Russian scholars.
On the African continent, he said, there is a post-colonial theory of scholarship, in which Nyanzi can also be placed, with established scholars who have used this approach.
He cited Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe, who wrote a book titled On the Colony.
“Mbembe uses a lot of vulgarity and obscene conjectures to tackle misuse of power in post-colonial Africa,” Dr. Khisa said.
Nyanzi, he says, appears to have cut out herself a niche in Uganda by using subversive scholarship to put across her message.
“I do not vouch for that kind of approach but it is within her right,” he told The Independent, “But her usage of obscenities is not the problem. Kalundi Serumaga did not use obscenities but he was still arrested and thrown in a boot.”
“So with a jittery, angry regime like this,” Khisa said, “you don’t get surprised when they use state force to push back against criticism.”
Observers say that while Nyanzi has as many supporters as opponents even on her Facebook page, the majority seem to relish her vulgarities, a clear signal that she has found a fertile ground in this otherwise so-called, conservative society.
Part of the reason is that apart from targeting President Museveni, whose opposition has continued to grow owing to his long stay in power, Nyanzi’s language is riding on an equally high appetite for profanities and vulgarities.
Away from the display in music videos, tabloids, Ugandans, who flock churches and mosques at night, also make sure tickets are sold out for night sex and comedy shows, where profanities and vulgarities have become the chef’s special.
Nyanzi appears acutely aware of the power of the ship she is sailing. “I use a lot of graphic language because then they listened,” she has said in the past.
“I don’t swear all the time but I know that the tools of the master cannot bring down his house,” she said the night she was arrested.
President Museveni hasn’t been the only subject of her heavily loaded insults.
When the Ethics Minister, former Catholic Father Simon Lokodo, appeared on NBS TV criticizing her, she described him as “bumbling defrocked ex-priest and a failed professional politicking for an illegitimate despotic regime”.
Earlier on, she had described the chair of Makerere University Appointment’s Board as the “bumbling bootlicking ball-less butt-wiping Bruce”. This was after the appointment’s board issued a letter suspending her over her usage of social media to insult colleagues, which got some to warn that if it continued on this path, Makerere University could become the regime’s “thought police”.