Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Ugandan queer feminist anthropologist, poet, and activist Stella Nyanzi was arrested in November 2018 for violating the Computer Misuse Act when she posted a poem on the occasion of President Yoweri Museveni’s birthday in which she wishes he had been “prematurely miscarried just like [he] prematurely aborted any semblance of democracy, good governance and rule of law.” The portions of the poem which were used to indict Nyanzi, and around which much of her case revolved, were those in which she made repeated reference to the president’s mother’s vagina, describing it in rather vulgar terms. Refusing bail, Nyanzi had already been imprisoned for almost ten months before being convicted on one count of cyber harassment in August 2019 and successfully appealing this decision in January 2020. In the context of Uganda, where activists are routinely incarcerated, disappeared, or maimed, how are we to make sense of Nyanzi’s decision to “poke the leopard’s anus,” to use a term Nyanzi appropriated from President Museveni himself? What politics might loom below the surface of her poetry, the state’s eagerness to find her guilty of obscenity, and the legal and extralegal strategies employed by Nyanzi and her defence during her trial? Why do Ugandan activists employ performative tactics like vulgar rhetoric in their confrontations with sovereignty? What might this reveal about the nature of the law and the possibility of a radical feminist and queer politics in Uganda?
The anxiety around the online circulation of certain vulgar, gendered language deserves particular attention because of the urgency with which the state intervenes to regulate and prohibit vulgar sexual expressions like Nyanzi’s. Historian and theorist Achille Mbembe offers a compelling account of this phenomenon in his analysis of commandement, the style of sovereign power he identifies in both the colonial and postcolonial state. Commandement is characterized by a brutal capacity for arbitrary violence founded on the original violence of imperial conquest. Crucially, this form of sovereignty secures its violence through the singular power to judge its laws, while producing a common cultural imaginary — an episteme, or order of meaning — by which this violence is laundered and converted to authority. Mbembe points out that postcolonial African regimes utilize the fetish of the ruler to create cosmologies, symbolic universes, characterized by an aesthetics of vulgarity, a kind of obsession with the grotesque and obscene. This, he argues, is both because the regime itself has “a marked taste for lecherous living” and because the mouth, belly, and phallus — at once images of consumptive power and virile potency — also mark the fetish of the autocrat as originating in a particular body who eats, shits, and farts like everyone else. Writing against the dichotomy between resistance and passivity, Mbembe argues that the subject of postcolonial power becomes homo ludens, one who laughs at and therefore desacralizes the fetish of the ruler, bringing power back into a convivial relationship, a correspondence of symbolic thought and action, with its subject. Thus, vulgar popular humour in the postcolony demonstrates not the emergence of a nascent “resistance,” but traces of sovereignty’s own fetish. When, for example, someone like Nyanzi invokes the image of the president’s anus, despite the attempts of the regime to treat it as something out of this world — almost sacrosanct, “people see it as what it really is, capable of defecating like any commoners.” In so doing, the fetish (embodied by the autocrat) is perverted and demystified. Here, of course, we can think of Nyanzi’s repeated reference to her literary and political work as “poking the leopard’s anus.”
Mbembe’s argument has been challenged by Judith Butler, who reminds us that the sovereign’s concern with the anus and realms of invagination demonstrate that the fetish originates, in fact, in a gendered mapping of power along the lines of phallic penetration. The hetero-patriarchal origin to the symbolic order of postcolonial sovereignty is quite evident in the fact that Nyanzi’s most controversial poems have implicated the sexualities of the president’s wife or mother. By poking the leopard’s anus, as it were, Nyanzi threatens Museveni’s masculinity, the symbolic basis of his power as sovereign. Crucially, this challenge appears in the act of laughter, in the vocabulary of Nyanzi’s popular vulgar humour.
However, both Mbembe’s argument and Butler’s intervention fail to account for the spectacular lengths to which the sovereign is willing to go to protect its legal and symbolic order and for the legal dramas which unfold in the process. Let us, then, return to the courtroom, and to the trial of Stella Nyanzi. On November 2, 2018, police arrested Nyanzi when she appeared at a police station in Kampala to give notice of a public action she intended to stage at Makerere University. Nyanzi’s planned march through the main campus was the culmination of a much longer struggle with her former workplace which led to her suspension from the Makerere Institute of Social Research in April 2016, after publicly undressing in protest against the Institute’s director, Mahmood Mamdani locking her out of her office after failing to resolve a dispute over her contract and labour conditions.
On an overcast Friday at the beginning of the November rains, Nyanzi made her way to the Wandegeya police station, at the foot of the hill on which Makerere sits, to inform local law enforcement of her intention to exercise her civil right to peacefully assemble on public property. A Uganda Police Force spokesperson later announced that their officers arrested her in relation to the Facebook post she made on September 16, 2018, as part of their investigation into whether the post violated section 24 of the Penal Code, which includes penalties “for acts intended to alarm, annoy or ridicule the President.” Over the following 18 months, Nyanzi refused bail on several occasions, leading some of her Ugandan critics, like state-owned newspaper New Vision, to speculate her choice was an admission of guilt, citing the fact that she was still bound to the terms of her bail agreement in the cyber harassment case brought against her in 2017. Nyanzi, however, was adamant she chose to remain in prison on political grounds.
On August 1, 2019, after spending close to ten months in jail, Nyanzi appeared in court for her verdict. For the first time in months, she would have the chance to explain herself publicly. Her trial itself had been more theatre than procedure. The state had brought two counts against her, both in offence of the Computer Misuse Act, and presented two witnesses whom it claimed were experts on obscenity. The day Nyanzi received her verdict, the court was, of course, packed with journalists and various allies of Nyanzi from the opposition and activist circles. As Judge Kamasanyu delivered her verdict, she took pause to read each of the charges, repeating Nyanzi’s verses about the president’s mother, Esiteri. With each reference to “the smelly and itchy cream-coloured candida festering in Esiteri’s cunt” or “the acidic pus flooding Esiteri’s cursed vaginal canal,” the gallery silenced her with their laughter and whistles. Kamasanyu was repeatedly forced to stop reading her judgment to beg for silence from the crowd assembled. In these moments, the spectators became hominem ludentes par excellence, and through their laughter, the line between power and resistance blurred to the point of indistinction.
Chatter was ringing across the hall throughout the reading of the decision, which found Nyanzi guilty of harassing the president but not guilty of offensive communication. At the guilty verdict, the crowd was almost at fever pitch, and when Nyanzi was able to respond to the verdict, she took them and the judges somewhere rather unimaginable. From her first impassioned word, Nyanzi lambasted the court’s justice, drowned out by the cheers of her supporters. “Send me to Luzira,” the prison in which she had just spent nine months, Stella continued, “if my crime is that I told a dirty delinquent dictator that he is a dictator, and that Ugandans are tired. And I wish his mother’s vagina had squeezed him out.”
Rather than an admission of her own culpability, which, indeed, one might read this statement as, Nyanzi’s blunt provocation had the effect of bringing Museveni and his legal role as sovereign — ignored from the outset by the prosecutors and judge — back into the fold of the courtroom, now not as plaintiff, but defendant. “I celebrate that one woman was bold enough to deploy a dead woman’s vagina — one dead woman’s vagina —”, she continued, in a rather authorly tone, before doing something perhaps unexpected: “My name is Stella, it comes from Esiteri. I am Esiteri, right. My great-grandmother was Esiteri. I deployed Esiteri’s vagina — she’s dead.” The crowd’s laughter interceded before she could land the sequence’s last blow (“It’s a metaphor”), and Nyanzi then led the crowd in a chant of “viva opposition, viva.”
Why would Nyanzi choose to name herself in this instance, and what can we conclude from the audience’s reaction to the moment of contention? On the one hand, Nyanzi chooses to celebrate, rather than refute, the court’s findings — calling into question for all assembled the symbolic and material bases of the court’s verdict and the law that supports it. On the other hand, Nyanzi also uses the space of the defendant’s box to perform an act of naming, a socially significant and iterative practice of subjectivization. Through acts such as these, Nyanzi subverts the expectation to appear before the court as simply a citizen subject to its order of legibility.
Rather, Nyanzi chooses this moment, from within the courtroom, deliberately to enact a transcendent critique of the verdict — articulated from her position as also Esiteri, as part of a lineage of Esiteris and a member of a community whose law might authorize an act of metaphorical violence against the sovereign. During her trial, both Nyanzi and her lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde referred to the fact that Nyanzi is a nnalongo, or mother of twins, a position within Baganda society historically invested with privileges like the ability to speak out against the king. Nyanzi employs these citational practices as part of her strategies of “radical rudeness.” Described by historian Carol Summers, radical rudeness emerged as a style of decolonial politics practised by Baganda liberation activists in the 1940s as they began to see “Britain’s actions less as parental protection, and more as abusive forms of discipline, [and] increasingly found the politics of petition, deference, and appeal to be ineffectual.” Despite being pathologized and maligned as a proselytizer of gayism, Nyanzi maintains that radical rudeness is the only viable option for liberatory politics in Uganda. “I can sacrifice motherhood to whatever altar I have to sacrifice motherhood to —”, she began, before noticing the judge and stenographer staring in shock: “am I too fast for you?” — the ensuing laughter mutated into cheers of praise.
The next day, Nyanzi arrived in court to receive her sentence. After spending nine months in prison, it was unclear whether the court would release her on time served. This time, the court attempted to limit her ability to make a scene, connecting her to the courtroom from a viewing dock in prison via a video link. When Stella was once again able to speak to the judge before her sentencing, she took the opportunity to use her stage despite its limitations. During her speech, she claimed she was brought from her cell to the dock against her will. As she attempted to explain the many injuries she sustained during the process, her mic was frequently shut off and was largely inaudible to the crowd. “Down with courts that do not work for me. Why are they muting my volume? Fuck you. Why did you bring me to this place without consent?” Through the blurry resolution of the video, one could see Stella stick up two middle fingers, and it became audible that she was repeating the phrase “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” as loudly as she could. At last, Stella lifted her kitenge top, followed by her bra and began juggling her breasts before the camera. Almost immediately, the footage cut out and returned to a mirror view of the courtroom, where almost everyone was on their feet hollering. Judge Kamasanyu didn’t wait for the crowd to quieten down before beginning to read her sentence. Before she could finish, someone threw an empty water bottle in the judge’s direction. Immediately, the police surrounding the court room began dragging out anyone sitting nearby, especially those wearing the colours of Uganda’s main opposition parties, People Power (now the National Unity Platform) and the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), of which Nyanzi is a member. Seven people ended up in jail, including a court clerk who was the son of a policeman. The clerk was released when his father appeared in the jailhouse just down the road from the High Court and spoke to the Commissioner. The others, including several known FDC activists, spent weeks in jail.
Nyanzi’s topless protest, which cites protests made by Ugandan women against colonialism, turned the courtroom and the ritual dispensation of violence into a space for politics without translating her claims into legalese. As she said, “I never came to your court seeking justice, I came to court to play the game of politics.” The game to be won was blowing up the scripts of justice, demonstrating that the event of censorship can become something entirely different — a riot even. Much like her action at Makerere, Nyanzi’s disrobing cites historical practices of nude protest by women in colonial and postcolonial Africa — intimate rebukes appealing to what Laura S. Grillo calls female genital power. In her lecture “Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda,” Sylvia Tamale situates Nyanzi’s topless protest at Makerere within this vast historical context, spanning roughly from Joan of Arc to several instances of nude protests by Ugandan women since 1996 against public and private acts of land theft, sexual assault, and other instances of violence — often legal dispossession. Through a reading of these moments of bodily politics, Tamale argues that their power “is derived from the reversal of positions where the social superior is subjected to the position of spectator of the naked spectacle put on by the social inferior.” Tamale excavates the counter-hegemonic content of nude protest to intervene into discourses that exceptionalize, pathologize, or discipline those who have practised it. Tamale argues that transgressive performances can lead to changes in relations of power by deploying symbolic action — cursing or conferring social death onto oppressors. She shows how these oppressed women with no other alternatives will often “use their nakedness to demand for what they believe to be rightfully theirs.”
A closer look at the content of Nyanzi’s protest shows she does more than make a claim against the state for her freedom of speech. Certainly, Nyanzi’s protest also does that, and, in so doing, she has become an iconic figure of popular resistance whose means have inspired other women in Uganda and across the world. However, her performance in the courtroom points to the performative dimensions of courts and legal rituals, calling into crisis the system of legal and symbolic order, distinguishing it from her previous topless protest at Makerere. Further, by positioning herself as a nnalongo, Nyanzi articulates a privileged position within Ganda kinship, terms the court cannot recognize. Implicitly, Nyanzi argues that her licence to offend as a nnalongo ought to invalidate the court’s justice, and, indeed, Nyanzi rejects outright the idea that justice could be served within the court’s terms. We might say Nyanzi makes the same claim as Antigone, which, as Judith Butler has argued, “draws into crisis … the representative function itself, the very horizon of intelligibility in which she operates and according to which she remains somewhat unthinkable.” Nyanzi argues that her position as a nnalongo, rooted firmly in a law of kinship exterior to the written law, ought to grant her special privileges, and yet, she also expresses her willingness to sacrifice her own motherhood and to violate symbolically both the mother of the president and his wife, the so-called mama of the nation. Through her anthropological work and her activism with the queer movement, Nyanzi has challenged laws and customs regarding kinship, gender and sexuality. Notably, when police disrupted Uganda’s first queer Pride, Nyanzi told police she was the auntie of one of the attendees, whose birthday party they had interrupted. As such Nyanzi “represents not kinship in its ideal form but its deformation and displacement, one that puts the reigning regimes of representation into crisis and raises the question of what the conditions of intelligibility could have been that would have made her life possible.” Nyanzi, therefore, does something much greater than laugh at or mock the fetish of sovereignty — she perverts it, or, rather, reveals it to be perversion.
Nyanzi does not seek forgiveness, because sovereignty cannot forgive. If, as Derrida reminds us, “one only forgives where one can judge and punish, therefore evaluate, then the putting into place, the institution of an instance of judgement, supposes a power, a force, a sovereignty.” As if to confirm this fact, Nyanzi’s acquittal on appeal in January 2020 reverses the lower court’s judgment on purely technical grounds. But of course, the trial was never more than theatre and brutality. Real forgiveness, if such a thing could exist in a legal framework, would be unconditional in nature and imply the triumph of madness rather than order. Nyanzi preempts this madness by acting it out and, in the same moment, posing the existential threat of a different order, one outside justice, spurred by the potency of rage, indignancy, and collective trauma.
It is no surprise that since Nyanzi’s spectacular performance, the rules of the ritual have changed. Wearing political colours in court was banned almost immediately after Nyanzi’s sentencing, and the right to observe trials has been severely curtailed. Nyanzi, herself, now lives in exile, citing her fear of being targeted by the state as part of the wave of abductions of political activists following the elections. Nonetheless, Ugandan feminists and other activists have taken up Nyanzi’s practice. Some like Susan Namata have shared videos citing Nyanzi, referring to Museveni as an ass and threatening to shove their vaginas in his face. They pose what is perhaps the greatest threat to sovereignty by refusing to take the ritual at its word, inserting a different spectacle, one emerging quite unpredictably from the immaterial online realm into the streets by way of the courtroom scene.
Poem posted on Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook page.
Achille Mbembé, On the Postcolony, Studies on the History of Society and Culture; 41. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001: 107
Judith Butler, “Mbembe’s Extravagant Power,” Public Culture 5, no. 1 (1992): 67.
Stella is a popular anglicization of Esiteri.
Jacques Rancière, “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization.” October 61 (1992): 58-64.
Carol Summers, “Radical Rudeness: Ugandan Social Critiques in the 1940s,” Journal of Social History 39, no. 3 (2006).
Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life & Death, Wellek Library Lectures, Columbia University Press, 2010: 22.
Stella Nyanzi, “Queer Pride and Protest: A Reading of the Bodies at Uganda’s First Gay Beach Pride,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40, no. 1 (2014): 36-40.
Butler, Antigone’s Claim, 24.
Jacques Derrida. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Thinking in Action, New York: Routledge, 2001: 59.
Washington, Gikungu “Ugandan Activist Stella Nyanzi Flees to Kenya,” The East African, February 3, 2021.
This article cites an essay by Sylvia Tamale which allegedly links nude protest to Joan of Arc for some inexplicable reason; but after reading the essay I couldn’t find any mention of her, and in any event Joan of Arc didn’t protest in the nude (nor anything similar). In fact, historians have pointed out that she promoted precisely the opposite by insisting on modesty, which in fact was one of her main themes.
This is a very insightful approach to the topic.
Some thought provoking theories here, although not all are tested, the author invites everyone to make own judgement on the relevant social and cultural beliefs that shape our legal observations and contemporary lifestyles in a hugely bigoted society like Uganda
Thanks Anselm for analysing Stella’s activism in a well-written article. Couldn’t agree more.