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Uganda: Why Stella Nyanzi’s radical rudeness scares the government

Uganda: Why Stella Nyanzi’s radical rudeness scares the government

Wade McMullen & Rebecca Sheff | AFRICAN ARGUMENTS | Stella Nyanzi elevates provocative activism into art. Frustrated with governance issues in Uganda last year, the human rights defender and academic dared to call President Yoweri Museveni a “pair of buttocks” on Facebook. Ugandan authorities arrested her, prompting the Twitterverse to explode with indignant #PairOfButtocks hashtags until she was released more than a month later.

A group of experts at the United Nations recently determined that Nyanzi was unlawfully and arbitrarily detained, based on a petition jointly filed by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Chapter Four Uganda. Yet the Ugandan government continues to press charges against Nyanzi for “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication”.

Nyanzi’s case is about more than a clever meme that landed one activist in jail. Amongst other things, it’s about whether we take women seriously when they fight back against powerful men with one of the only tools they have – their voice.

The Ugandan law that Nyanzi is accused of violating – the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 – is derived from the archaic notion of lèse-majesté, the crime of offending the dignity of the reigning monarch. Emperors during the Roman period and kings in early European feudal states would hack off limbs and put people to death for such utterances. Even today, a number of countries criminalise speech deemed to be insulting to the head of state, from Thailand to Saudi Arabia, where criticism of the king or crown prince can be considered terrorist acts. In Zimbabwe, authorities have arrested people for even mildly offensive language such as calling then-President Mugabe “too old” or a “selfish and sick man”.

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