SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 18, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment


Region & Country:Eastern Africa | Uganda

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 18, 2020, police reportedly arrested scholar-activist Stella Nyanzi during a protest over the government’s handling of the global coronavirus pandemic known as COVID-19.

Nyanzi is a prominent anthropologist and activist known for her advocacy on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community, as well as her public criticism of President Yoweri Museveni and his administration. Nyanzi has been arrested twice before, in April 2017 (see report) and in November 2018 (see report), for expression critical of President Museveni. In August 2019, Nyanzi was found guilty of cyber harassment and sentenced to eighteen months in prison for social media activity critical of the president. After spending nearly sixteen months in prison, Nyanzi successfully appealed her sentence and was released in February 2020.

On May 18, Nyanzi led a group of activists known as the Women’s Protest Working Group in a protest over the government’s handling of COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan China in January and has since spread around the world. Nyanzi and her fellow activists walked to the office of the prime minister where they intended to present him with a petition containing demands including the lifting of a national lockdown, the distribution of free face masks and food relief, and the release of people jailed for allegedly violating a curfew and other measures put in place to combat COVID-19. Nyanzi alleges the lockdown and measures taken by the government to address COVID-19 favor corporate interests and the wealthy, while leaving behind women and the poor, who she says are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

During their protest, Nyanzi and others held signs and chanted slogans. Police reportedly arrested Nyanzi and the activists shortly after the protest began, accusing them of “inciting violence.” Available sources do not suggest that Nyanzi or the activists engaged in violent activity or incited violence.

As of this report, Dr. Nyanzi is free, having been granted police bond.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest of a scholar and activists in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uganda is a party. State authorities have a responsibility not to retaliate against or restrict such rights, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arbitrary arrests in retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity undermine academic freedom, freedom of expression, and democratic society generally.