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13.01.2021 Uganda

Uganda orders social media shutdown ahead of vote

By AFP
Opponents of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (L) like Bobi Wine have faced a fierce crackdown from the state during the election campaign.  By Sumy Sadurni , YASUYOSHI CHIBA (AFP/File)
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Opponents of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (L) like Bobi Wine have faced a fierce crackdown from the state during the election campaign. By Sumy Sadurni , YASUYOSHI CHIBA (AFP/File)

Uganda ordered the shutdown of social media and messaging applications on Tuesday, just two days ahead of a highly-charged election, after Facebook closed the accounts of government officials it said had tried to manipulated public debate.

The vote on Thursday will come after one of the bloodiest campaigns in years, as veteran leader Yoweri Museveni seeks a sixth term against popstar-turned-MP Bobi Wine, who has managed to fire up a youthful population that has mostly known only one president.

Wine, who has spent most of the campaign in a bulletproof vest and combat helmet facing teargas, bullets and numerous arrests, on Tuesday urged his supporters to "protect" the election from rigging.

Despite the 38-year-old's popularity, few observers believe he can pull off a victory against Museveni, a 76-year-old former rebel leader who has ruled since 1986 and effectively crushed any opposition.

Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter were down in the East African nation on Tuesday, after the communications regulator ordered a social media shutdown.

An electoral commission staff member gestures towards a screen displaying how a ballot paper should be marked during the upcoming election.  By SUMY SADURNI (AFP) An electoral commission staff member gestures towards a screen displaying how a ballot paper should be marked during the upcoming election. By SUMY SADURNI (AFP)

In a letter seen by AFP, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) executive director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to "immediately suspend any access and use" of social media and online messaging platforms.

In a televised speech on Tuesday evening, Museveni said the shutdown was retaliation for Facebook deleting pro-government accounts the day before.

"One of the groups, I think it is called Facebook, or something like, tried to target our groups," Museveni said.

"I'm sure the government has closed social media," he added.

"I'm very sorry for this inconvenience but we cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad."

Facebook said Monday it shut a slew of accounts linked to the ministry of information and technology that used "fake and duplicate accounts" to "make them appear more popular that they were".

'Guard the vote'

Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary ballot, which takes place after a chaotic campaign.

Journalists covering opposition rallies have been attacked, government critics locked up, and election monitors prosecuted, raising concerns over the transparency of the electoral process.

Two days of protests in November left 54 people dead.

Map of Uganda where presidential elections will be held on January 14..  By  (AFP) Map of Uganda where presidential elections will be held on January 14.. By (AFP)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged "the Ugandan authorities, particularly the security forces, to act in a manner that respects international human rights standards," his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, told journalists his home had been raided and his staff beaten by security forces on Tuesday morning.

He said the ruling party was trying to scare voters away from the ballot box and urged the public to record any abuses or irregularities on polling day.

"We are telling you, you will not be breaking the law when you stay and protect your vote. We encourage you to use your phones, use your cameras. Your phone is a very powerful weapon, that camera is very powerful, use it."

Young and free

Wine's rise has rattled Museveni, who has outlasted all but two of Africa's long-serving rulers, and watched as ageing strongmen elsewhere on the continent have been ousted in popular, youth-led uprisings.

Museveni presides over an increasingly urban and educated population with a median age of less than 16.

Though he has campaigned under the slogan "securing your future", the economic boom enjoyed during his early years has faded.

Only 75,000 new jobs are created each year for the 700,000 young people reaching working age, trapping most in poorly-paid farm labour, the World Bank says.

Bright yellow posters for incumbent Yoweri Museveni are everywhere in Uganda's capital Kampala.  By SUMY SADURNI (AFP/File) Bright yellow posters for incumbent Yoweri Museveni are everywhere in Uganda's capital Kampala. By SUMY SADURNI (AFP/File)

"We want change. There are no jobs, no money, we can't go to study and when we go to the hospital, there is no medicine," said 23-year-old Dorah Wasswa, hawking cheap wares on a pot-holed Kampala street.

A wily strategist, Museveni has outfoxed challengers to remain firmly in control, though analysts say his position is largely assured through patronage and force, rather than popular appeal.

He confronts in this election a divided opposition, with 10 candidates tackling him individually rather than presenting a united front.

Uganda is experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases and the United Nations and rights watchdogs say special election measures to contain the pandemic have been weaponised to browbeat Museveni's opponents while leaving the ruling party untouched.

Wine says his supporters are "peaceful but assertive" and vows nonviolent protest should the election appear rigged.

"We come with only words. He (Museveni) comes to us with bullets, bombs, grenades and teargas. We are non-violent. We are just too many for him," Wine told AFP in a recent interview.

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