PEN talks to prominent Ugandan academic and activist Stella Nyanzi


Stella2Stella Nyanzi is a prominent Ugandan academic and activist. She was a research fellow at the University of Makerere, where she specialised in the study of sexuality in Africa. She is an outspoken activist and a leading voice in the women’s rights movement and campaigns for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex peoples. In 2017 she launched the #Pads4girlsUg Project, a campaign to raise money to buy and distribute sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda. She has an active social media following on Facebook, where she often criticises the Ugandan government.

She was charged in April 2017 with cyber harassment and offensive communication, for her Facebook posts criticizing Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in particular one where she referred to the president as a ‘pair of buttocks.’ She spent 33 days in detention before being released on bail on 10 May 2017. She continues to face charges. Since then, her case has dragged on in court, with the last four hearings postponed. Dr. Nyanzi has also filed a petition before the Constitutional Court challenging the colonial-era Mental Treatment Act, in response to the prosecution’s request for an investigation into her mental health. The petition has yet to be heard.

PEN International considers that Nyanzi has been charged for peacefully expressing her views and calls on the Ugandan authorities to uphold freedom of expression by dropping the charges against her immediately.

To take action for Stella Nyanzi please see PEN’s previous RAN action here.

PEN International interviewed Stella Nyanzi in November 2017, which you can read in full below.

What is the latest update on your case?

I petitioned the Constitutional Court against the constitutionality of several provisions of the Mental Treatment Act (1938) upon which the state is relying to make the application to court to order my involuntary mental examination. Although this petition was filed on 24th May 2017, it has never been assigned a hearing date.

I also sued the government for putting my name on a No-Fly-List and banning me from traveling to the Netherlands earlier this year. We entered into out-of-court negotiations in which the government claimed to have lifted the ban. Last weekend I was indeed able to travel out of Uganda. I will be returning to the negotiating table to claim remedies and compensation for the losses that I made when I was barred from traveling.

My lawyers have repeatedly asked the state to either produce its witnesses so that we can begin cross-examining them about their evidence, or dismiss the charges for lack of evidence. However, there has been very little progress on the hearing of the actual criminal case in which I am accused of cyber harassment and offensive communication against the president of Uganda. I am due in court tomorrow morning (24 November) for another hearing. However, because the state prosecutors in Uganda are still on strike against poor working conditions, there is a great possibility that there will be no hearing. [The hearing was postponed until 20 December due to the magistrate’s strike.]

The previous three court hearings did not take place because either the Chief Magistrate was absent without explanation or the state prosecutor was participating in the nation-wide sit-down strike.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention gave its decision about a joint petition it received on my behalf. It determined that the state acted arbitrarily in three counts and relied on problematic sections of the Computer Misuse Act, which contravene international human rights that protect freedom of speech online. A detailed copy of this decision can be accessed here.

You have now been facing charges since April 2017. What is the impact of this on you? Has it affected your writing and your activism?

I need more time to assess how this challenge has affected my writing and activism. I cannot quite place my hand around the experience as yet…

Are you writing anything at the moment?

I continue to write daily on Facebook. Some of these posts were the basis of the state prosecutor in charge of my case to apply to the court to cancel my release on bail because he claimed that I was breaking the subjudice principle and acting in contempt of court. [The decision was not granted] The immediate interaction with people who comment on my Facebook posts is very gratifying.

I also resumed my academic writing arising out of my academic research about sexual minorities. Some of this has been revising book chapters or articles in response to reviewers’ comments. Some of this writing has been focused on starting new pieces of creative non-fiction arising out of analysis of the research data that I collected.

I have also played with the idea of writing about my prison experience. I find that my emotions around the diverse experiences of being locked up in a maximum-security prison are still very raw and painful. It may still be too early for me to have acquired the necessary distance from the experience in order to write well about it.

What can organisations like PEN do to support writers in your situation?

At the moment of arrest for written forms of expression, it is critical that PEN leads or joins with other defenders of freedom of expression to publicly and visibly condemn the arrest, detention, charges and penalisation of the writer(s). It was wonderful when PEN South Africa approached my sisters and legal team to inquire about how they could better give publicity to my arrest. Working jointly, they fashioned a petition calling for my immediate release, which they invited their members to sign. The petition was shared via social media and also posted to the Minister of Internal Affairs in Uganda. This petition gave more visibility to the issue of my arrest and detention, and contributed towards the pressure put on the government to release me and drop the charges against me.

The calls for Urgent Action that were later released by PEN International added gravitas and impetus to the pressure put on our government for my release. This is a form of solidarity that is important because it keeps the issue within the public imagination, particularly when the case is on going.

I was visited by the president of PEN Uganda when I was in prison. His visit was timely because I was battling with the prison authorities who would take my writings, and tear them up daily. I contested against this targeted violation of my right to write even when in prison, because other prisoners’ writings were never confiscated or torn up. Having the president of PEN Uganda visit me in prison helped build my defense for my writings to be left alone because he supported my claims of writing as a daily habit and a passion, rather than as a tool for gathering intelligence about the prison practices. I wish that PEN Uganda had been part of the earlier voices that spoke against my arrest.

An online petition for my release was written and signed by a local collective of diverse creative writers including scholars, poets, novelists, bloggers, tweeps, spoken word artists, lyricists, journalists and editors. Although this petition originated in Uganda and was signed by Ugandans, PEN Uganda did not participate in the petition. This was very disappointing and a missed opportunity.

What is the general situation for freedom of expression in Uganda?

Generally, freedom of expression in Uganda is fine (even great) for those who toe the line, heap praises on the government and leadership of the country, as well as those whose expression is not political or politicised. However, for those of us whose articulations criticise the government and its actors, those of us who question the status quo, those of us who expose the numerous everyday violations of citizens’ rights, those of us who resist and defy the system, their spaces for freedom of expression are shutting down fast. Gags, censors, intimidation, fines, threats, arrests, beatings, detention, raids, confiscation of materials, bans of our works, are increasing vices that the government metes out against us.

What is your message to the PEN membership?

I appreciate the members of PEN for all their support and solidarity with me during the time of my arrest, detention and through the on-going hearing of my case. I am grateful for everyone who wrote an email to the Minister of Internal Affairs or the Minister of Justice, calling for my release. I appreciate those individuals who participated in online discussions about the place of Facebookers as writers worth recognising and protecting. I thank those who sent me messages of solidarity and encouragement during that difficult time. Your involvement in my trials and tribulations lent my case the much needed visibility, gravitas, and impetus.

What book are you reading right now, if anything?

I am reading the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.

Who are you favourite writers? Which writers have influenced you the most?

I have many favourite writers because I read from across several genres. I love Stephen King’s horror stories because of the way in which he builds suspense and tension. I enjoy Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. I find the works of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo and Wole Soyinka priceless. More recently, I am falling in love with Ngozi Chimamanda’s works.

How have your experiences as a woman and your experiences as a writer collided?

I always write from the position of my womanhood. I write most passionately about daily experiences of violence against women and gender non-conforming persons, perhaps because I am often writing from a place of experience or familiarity with the subject. My most convincing writing is when I write emotively to move people to act or rethink a position in relation to the violations that gender minorities and sexual minorities face on a daily basis. I use my writing to speak truth to power because I have variously tested and tasted the power of writing.

What challenges do you think Ugandan writers face? And how can
they solve these challenges?

Ugandan writers face a plethora of challenges. There is no language that unites all Ugandan writers. Thus, as a collective, we mainly write in English. This means that many of us experience and live our lives in our local languages, and yet we write about life in a foreign language. This challenge can be solved by developing the requisite specialised skills necessary to interpret and translate experiences from one language to another.

There are few local publishers who work with the scripts of Ugandan writers based in the country. Therefore, a lot of written work is either never published, or else published expensively via foreign-based publishers. A few Ugandan writers have dared to traverse into the realm of self-publishing.

There is limited (if any) respect of copyright. Many potential readers and readers photocopy books and pieces, in order to avoid the cost of purchasing the book.

Controversial, critical or exposing books that are published can be censored or banned by either the Uganda Communications Council or the Uganda Media Council.

What about writing do you enjoy?

Three things immediately come to mind. I love the process of creating something real out of nothing; using words to paint a world from scratch. I love how writing empties my thoughts and feelings about a topic into one concrete space – and then allows me to order the ingredients into a coherent and cohesive whole piece. I totally enjoy the response that I receive from people who read my writing – however varied these responses are.