Dr Stella Nyanzi is a Ugandan scholar and activist who perhaps provides the most immediate example of social media resistance to President Yoweri Museveni’s 31 years (and counting) of misrule. Her arrest and 33 days in detention followed her public criticism of Museveni for appointing members of his family to key political positions, which sees Uganda in the grip of ‘family rule’. Her protest catapulted her into the role of a global symbol of feminist political resistance.
However, Dr Nyanzi had already joined the growing list of African women intellectual protesters in April 2016, through her almost-nude demonstration against the administration of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, where she is employed. Before that, Nyanzi’s place in the Ugandan national imagination was largely due to her erotic fiction, posted on her Facebook page.
Speaking out on home soil
Many of Uganda’s past icons on the global stage attained their status through action outside the borders of their country: John Akii-bua became the country’s first Olympics champion in Germany; Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro was the first East African woman to be admitted to the bar in England; Philly Lutaaya, one of the country’s most successful musicians, who led anti HIV/AIDS stigma campaigns until he died, lived in Sweden. But Nyanzi has earned eminence as a figure of social media resistance to misrule while living on Ugandan soil.
The repression of online personalities whose political opinions do not please the Museveni regime did not start with Nyanzi, but she has become the ultimate symbol for social media resistance. In 2015, Daniel Turitwenka (alias Danny T), a blogger and social media influencer, was arrested for taking a hot chapatti to a friend who was in detention. The following year, Tusiime Samson (alias Samwyri), also a blogger, social media influencer and technology enthusiast, was also arrested, this time for posting a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of an opposition presidential candidate. On both occasions, Twitter campaigns were launched under the hashtags #FreeDanny and #FreeSamwyri respectively.
Unlike the young men, and despite the resilience of the hashtag #FreeStellaNyanzi, she was granted bail only after 33 days. Nyanzi’s offence against the Museveni regime went beyond referring to Museveni as a ‘pair of buttocks’. She had insulted Museveni’s wife, who is also the Minister of Education, and had dared to launch a sanitary pad fundraising and distribution campaign in schools – something the government had promised to do. By distributing sanitary pads, she was combining her political erotic writing with direct activism, which makes for a powerful mix of popular culture and political engagement.
A watershed moment in Uganda’s political culture
Nyanzi’s experience marks a watershed moment in both Uganda’s political culture and in cultural politics. A few months after her release from detention, a popular, socially conscious musician, Robert Kyagulanyi (alias Bobi Wine), would overwhelmingly win a by-election in the Kyadondo East constituency. Like Nyanzi, Bobi Wine made his name as a popular cultural icon with a political bent. His music, like Nyanzi’s erotica, spoke to the political realities of the country, especially the disenchantment with Museveni’s unending rule. There is no doubt that this contributed to his electoral success.
Like Nyanzi, Bobi Wine made his name globally by being relevant to a local and national audience and situation. Although Bobi Wine was already a popular musician before social media use was widespread in Uganda, he quickly adjusted to the new reality by using social media networks as more and more Ugandans became active on them.
Before the 21st century, Ugandan political and cultural icons were determined by their participation in public assemblies and media such as television, radio and newspapers. During the colonial era, the icons were those who rebelled against British rule, including Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro and Queen Muhumuza of Rwanda, who led the Nyangire and Nyabingyi rebellions, among others. In the 1950s and 1960s, anti-colonial agitation was led by, among others, Ignatius Musaazi, a trade unionist and a graduate in theology, who founded the first political party in Uganda, the Uganda National Congress.
After the attainment of flag independence in 1962, Uganda’s successive governments did not take long to adopt the repressive habits of their colonial predecessor. From the regime of Obote to that of Amin and now to Museveni’s current regime, the military repression of citizens has been the most eloquent language spoken by the Ugandan government.
A new arena for political comment
The social media era suggests that the position of the traditional political activist as the lone political fighter is under threat. Today’s icons combine cultural power, gained through the exercise of their artistic talents circulating widely on social media, with social consciousness. The influence that these socially conscious cultural icons wield is quintessentially democratic because their audience grows organically. People follow their music, writing and social activities because they agree with and believe in the causes that they champion. Unlike professional politicians, political engagement is not the only reason that social media icons gain influence.
In this short interview, Dr. Stella Nyanzi spoke about her craft as a social media writer and I asked her why she thinks the Museveni regime targeted her.
TIA: Your most popular creative work is your Facebook posts. Do you identify as a writer?
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: I claim my space as a writer – what sort of writer depends on the mood, reason, purpose and audience. I struggle to fit into the narrow definition of literary writing. Although we write on social media, we are not necessarily acknowledged as writers.
TIA: Into which category of writing would you put your Facebook posts?
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: I don’t have a category. I write.
TIA: Have you considered collecting your Facebook posts in a book?
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: I do not want to commit myself to a book. I think that to box oneself in as a novelist and then write a book that no one reads is less desirable than being known as a Twitterati or a Tweep or a Facebooker that people read like hot cakes, saying “I am hungry for Stella’s next post!” I’d rather be the person that is hungered for by an audience.
TIA: Your Facebook posts created a new genre, that of political erotica, which we can loosely define as the use of sexual innuendo to pursue an activist agenda. Would you agree with this categorisation of your work?
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: I have seen people attempt to write as I do – sometimes I read them and find it most vulgar. Writing with vulgar words is an art and there is a thick line between making it beautiful and worthy of reading and just writing crappy porn. There is tasteful pornography, erotica that is beautiful to read, and then there are people just writing about the Kandahar without it having any import to their writing. It’s just gut-level writing. There is nothing more – no symbolism, nothing under there, no beauty, no message. The political erotica that I do is an art.
When I write and I am read, then I have power. I think that writing puts one in a position of privilege. Not all of us can write. At the risk of sounding full of myself, not all of us can write well. A lot of us write, but it is not inspiring to read. I want to celebrate myself as a person whose writing is enjoyed by many.
TIA: What do you think of the professionalisation of social media writing – earning money from one’s work?
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: I know people who write on social media for money. Some have subscribers who pay to access their content. I don’t write like that. I think that the day I put a price tag on my writing, it will become a different animal.
TIA: But your social media writing is a craft. You put in work …
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: As a writer, one must be serious about what you write. I can’t just type and post. I would never write a first draft and send it off to an academic journal. I apply the same seriousness to my Facebook posts that I do to my academic work, or I’d like to think so. I believe seriously in editing. I am very fussy about my capitals, punctuation and diction although social media generally doesn’t have the same rules as the academy. What I celebrate most on Facebook is being part of the writing army. We are all writers on Facebook. We are free. We are allowed to break every rule of writing.
What is most important to me is the impact, more so than the writing style per se; the social impact of a timeline as opposed to the writing style. To what extent is a timeline social? The sociability of a page is important; things like readership, followership, how many times someone gets retweeted, how many people follow them. Such things are more important than how well one writes.
I think that, for me, the Facebook post is important because it is instant. The interaction is there almost immediately. But what is of most value to me, more than the post, are the comments and the comments to the comments and the threads of thought that one can draw from the interaction. The good thing about social media is that it is interactive. For example, people can comment and say, “Stella, by the way, instead of ‘sunk’ you wrote ‘sank’. Then I go back and edit. It is the community that matters most.
TIA: Do you think you would have been abducted and detained for 33 days without the option of bail if the posts that were cited on the charge sheet had been published elsewhere; someplace other than Facebook?
Dr. Stella Nyanzi: I think it is foolish to think that the Facebook posts that were cited on the charge sheet are the posts that irritated the government. I do not think that I got into trouble because of the buttocks post. I have talked about President Museveni before. I have described him in much worse terms, using metaphors that were much more critical. The buttocks post is a disappointment – I wish I had been charged for some of my posts that were better written! I was just really frustrated when I wrote the buttocks post. I was angry that a politician could say that they are not our servants. I do not think that I was charged or arrested or even detained because of the buttocks post.
To answer the question of whether I would have been arrested if my post was on another medium, I do not think I was arrested because of my presence on social media. I think I was arrested because of the response. Other people write similar things to what I write on Facebook, but they do not have anyone running with their ideas. I think it was the impact of the post, much more so than the actual wording.
Your question also speaks to the fact that what I say on social media gets an immediate response. It draws people in; people immediately engage with the ideas that one posts, unlike a book. I know writers of books are arrested, deported, exiled from their countries because of their books – the likes of Ngũgi Wa Thiong, Wole Soyinka – but I think that we are now in the age where the majority of literate people can access a phone and read. Not everybody who reads the posts is necessarily political but I think a lot of why I got into trouble is because of who I am: a woman. Just a woman, in the opposition, being rebellious. I got into trouble because I wrote about a powerful woman, the president’s wife. I do not think it was about the president. I think it was the fact that I was daring; doing what others wouldn’t do. People don’t write against the First Lady. I think that it was also the action that followed, much more so than the writing, that landed me in jail. It was the ability of the posts to mobilise people to donate money to buy pads. This showed up the government’s failure.
I don’t think it was because I was writing on Facebook as such. It was the combination of what was being written, who was writing it and the response to it.
This is part of a series of articles in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa. The other articles can be found below: