Beyond Stella Nyanzi: Power, privilege, and discontent in Uganda

Wednesday April 5 2017


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For the first time, this column will write about Ms Stella Nyanzi, researcher, feminist, and tree-shaker.
It is not about her boldly strong and flowery language, or her wielding nudity for protest. Rather about what her social activism, and the response of the State to them, tell us about how the times are a changing.

There are two people who set Ugandan social media ablaze and upset those in power.

The first, and really the pioneer of social media combat, is Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, or TVO.

The other is Stella Nyanzi.
We have had earlier digital warriors, more memorably “Radio Katwe”, but that was a blog, so it didn’t have the possibility of feeding the frenzy that social media provides.

No one is sure who TVO is, nor who was behind “Radio Katwe”. But we know they were/are men. Secondly, they were anonymous.
Ms Nyanzi is, therefore, our first neck-on-the-chopping-block female social media combatant. But even more remarkable, the first to do this kind of battle without being anonymous.
That is truly noteworthy. And it also speaks to how gender politics and power are shifting in Uganda.

To borrow an unfortunate expression from the locker room, Ms Nyanzi is the first Ugandan “man” of social media activism. Where others hide in pseudonyms, she fights her wars fearless in the name that is on her school certificates.


But where Nyanzi has been most shrewd, is the issue she used to build her latest campaign on – sanitary pads for the poorer school girls in Uganda.

The people who really have to learn a lesson here, on how to take an issue that is seemingly on the margins of politics and then mainstreaming it, are the Ugandan Opposition.

Despite President Museveni promising to have a sanitary pads programme for school girls as he campaigned last year, the government now says it doesn’t have the money for it. A crowd-sourcing effort launched by Nyanzi, who argued that billions of shillings are stolen daily in corruption and spent on dubious projects, quickly raised millions of shillings for sanitary towels.

But that exactly is the rub. If the government responds by funding the programme, it will be seen to have lost out to Nyanzi. By making the “no money” argument, Museveni comes across as your typical politician who makes promises he doesn’t intend to keep during campaigns.

The third has been an attempt to suppress Nyanzi, first by summoning her to record a statement with the police about her controversial social comments; then preventing her from flying to a conference in Europe; and finally suspending her from her job at Makerere University. In any event, the effect of all this is that the First Lady Janet Museveni, who is Minister of Education, soon got embroiled in an unusually direct duel with Nyanzi, who had cast her as a privileged princess out of touch with the daily suffering of ordinary Ugandans after decades behind the walls of the presidential palace.

Even more significant, through her language and framing of the issue around sanitary towels, Nyanzi achieved something hardly anyone else has before. She managed to marginalise Museveni from what has become a major national conversation about power, its abuse, privilege and inequality of access to resources.

Ms Museveni has seemed to squirm in the spotlight Nyanzi has put on her, trapped between the message, which she probably has sympathy with, and the messenger, whom she detests.
However, we have got a very good insight into the inability of the Museveni House to deal with “new age” and on-the-edge soft social issues.

That the State is looking to charge Nyanzi, not only reveals an Achilles Heel, but also speaks to the second issue – the continuing seepage of conversation-setting power away from mainstream media and the professional commentariat, to people like Nyanzi and TVO.

But that, we already knew. What we weren’t sure, was the institutional form the State’s response to the rise of this social media activism would be.

The job has fallen to the telecoms industry regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), because it is about controlling access and use of the Internet. The UCC is slowly reincarnating as the old long-scrapped and disgraceful Censorship Board.

My friend Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of UCC, finds himself having to justify blocking access to the Internet, and delivering regular sermons on responsible social media usage, more than minister of ICT and National Guidance Frank Tumwebaze, whose job it is to deal with such messy issues.

On the other hand, the Civil Aviation Authority has lately found itself blocking more people from travelling than the police (which has only Kizza Besigye to worry about), and Makerere University, if it doesn’t push back, could become the regime’s Thought Police.

I don’t know whether Nyanzi knows how much she has upset the political apple cart.

Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3