Campaign posters for Ugandan’s 2016 elections. Image by Maxence, January 7, 2016 (CC BY 2.0)
With just hours ahead of the highly anticipated January 14 presidential election in Uganda, the Ugandan Communication Commission (UCC) directed telecommunications service providers to switch off all social networks and messaging applications.
This election could potentially see an end to President Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year, 5-term rule — or extend it for another five years. Musician turned politician, Robert Ssentamu, 38, widely known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, is the major opposition contender against the 76-year-old Museveni in this election.
Internet monitor Netblocks confirmed that “a lengthy list of pre-selected social websites” like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, Viber, Google Play Store, were affected by the digital blackout.
The digital blackout has left Ugandans grappling with virtual private networks (VPNs) as the only option to remain online.
The government has shutdown facebook ahead of the 2021 elections it can only be accessed through VPN. #UgandaDecides2021 pic.twitter.com/0cQIxO42GT
— Nyamishana (@nyapru1) January 12, 2021
However, the government’s blocking “more than 100 (VPNs)” in the country, makes it more arduous for citizens to circumvent the internet shut down, says Access Now, an international advocacy group.
On January 12, Facebook shut down several accounts belonging to the Citizens Interaction Center of the Ugandan Information Ministry for using “fake and duplicate accounts” to promote the National Resistance Movement (NRM) ruling party, the BBC reports. President Museveni criticized the “arrogance” of Facebook for “deciding who is good or bad” in Uganda.
This is not the first time Museveni’s government has yanked away the internet or repressed online freedom of expression.
During the 2016 general elections, the government shutdown social media platforms with reasons related to curtailing propaganda and security. In 2017, the government introduced a monthly $2 USD “over the top”(OTT) communication social media tax to curtail people from gossiping on social networks. The 2016 digital blackout introduced many people to the use of VPN networks in order to access the service.
Violent intimidation of opposition’s campaign
Bobi Wine (right) talking with a lawyer. Image by Mbowasport, August 8, 2019, released to Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.
Bobi Wine, Uganda’s main opposition presidential contender, rose to political fame following his election to parliament in 2017. Wine played an instrumental role in resisting the lifting of the constitutional presidential age limit that paved the way for Museveni’s tenure elongation.
For the past two months, political campaigns have been rife with violence exacerbated by the Ugandan army and police, who weaponized COVID-19 to repress the opposition. Opposition politicians were prevented access to districts and campaign venues on the pretense of violating the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 protocols that barred any gathering with more than 200 people.
The opposition continuously argued that the time allocated to the campaigns would not enable them to traverse all four administrative regions of the country. They also argued that they abided by the restrictions but could not control the actions of citizens who are “hungry for change” and came out to rally in large numbers. On November 18, Bobi Wine and Patrick Amuriat, of the Forum For Democratic Change (FDC) party, were arrested, which sparked riots that left more than 50 people dead. Both politicians, charged for violating anti-coronavirus measures while campaigning, were released on November 25, 2020.
With just hours before the election, most members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team, including his singing partner, Nubian Li, are still remanded in a military barracks jail following their arrest on January 4, in the Lake Victoria islands of Kalangala, a venue of a scheduled campaign.
On December 26, 2020, the Electoral Commission also banned campaigns in 13 districts, including the capital Kampala, and its buffer districts of Wakiso and Mukono, making it hard for opposition politicians to access the citizens in those areas. They criticized the president for continuing to launch development projects like road and hospital construction in the same districts where opposition members were not allowed to carry out their activities.
In a statement issued on Facebook, Bobi Wine said:
They have been surprised and scared to the teeth by the massive support we have received everywhere, including Museveni’s backyard in Kiruhura and Kazo…Now, they have suspended campaigns in districts where they think people will show up in tens of thousands! Of course they had to add some other districts in order to sanitize their panicky actions.
Barred from access to voters in those districts, Bobi Wine turned to digital media to reach out to citizens by recording a song entitled, “Tulonde” which means “Let’s Vote” in the Luganda language. In the same song, he narrates the campaign journey that has been characterized by bullets, teargas, deaths and arrests, including his arrest immediately after nomination.
It’s two days before Uganda’s election. Boston-based Ugandan-American Herman Ainebyona, who organizes and leads the diaspora for @HEBobiwine’s campaign, was choked and brutally arrested by plainclothes officers at SunCiti Hotel in Lira, Uganda. #UgandaDecides2021 #StandWithUganda pic.twitter.com/CWihQeJrmI
— Arao ə-ˈrau̇ AMENY – Daughter of Lango (@araoameny) January 12, 2021
The Electoral Commission also failed to confirm Bobi Wine’s final week’s campaign schedule hence stopping him from accessing the electorate.
On January 12, Bobi Wine tweeted that Ugandan security operatives raided his home, arrested his personal assistant and security guards:
We have a crisis of dictatorship in Africa. The treatment that my friend @HEBobiwine has received along with other opposition politicians in Uganda is appalling.
Listening to his address today I was just troubled about the state of African affairs. pic.twitter.com/x62Ho9Yiq8
— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) January 12, 2021
The violence was not only reserved for opposition politicians.
Journalists covering the campaigns have also been brutalized by the police. But Police Chief Martin Okoth Ochola was unapologetic, stating that “when we tell a journalist, don’t go there and you insist on going where there is danger, we shall beat you for your own safety. I have no apology,” reports the Monitor, a Ugandan daily.
The US Embassy in Uganda, on January 13, canceled their election observer missions because the Uganda electoral umpire denied accreditation for “more than 75 percent” of their election observers. Similarly, only journalists in “good working terms with the government” have been accredited to cover the elections.
There was visible heavy deployment of the soldiers in most parts of the country on January 12, with Museveni saying that the opposition wants to create chaos after the elections.
The three opposition parties — Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP), Patrick Amuriat’s Forum For Democratic Change and General Mugisha Muntu’s Alliance for National Transformation —had, on January 12, made a joint commitment to push against voter fraud and election-rigging.
The prevailing evidence points to unequal contests between “millions of young people demanding reform and a say in their future” and “a small cadre of tyrants committed to retaining power at all costs,” asserts Wine in an op-ed in Foreign Affairs.
But “government crackdowns on the opposition in many cases violently or through arbitrary arrests may help tilt the scales in Museveni’s favor,” says the United States Institute for Peace.
Consequently, a lot depends on the international community to impress on Museveni to hold free, fair and credible elections.