With two days to go until its presidential election, Uganda has imposed a blanket ban on all social media and messaging apps.
Reuters news agency confirmed it had seen a letter from the Ugandan communications regulator dated 12th January 2021 which ordered internet service providers to “immediately suspend any access and use, direct or otherwise, of all social media platforms and online messaging applications over your network until further notice.”
Users have reported that apps including Facebook and WhatsApp are currently unavailable, despite being used for campaigning purposes by all sides in the upcoming election which sees young opposition candidate and popular singer Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) take on the incumbent Yoweri Museveni, one of the longest-serving leaders in Africa.
Reuters cited an anonymous source from Uganda’s telecoms sector as saying that the government had “made clear” to executives at telecoms firms that the ban was a retaliatory move after Facebook blocked access to certain accounts supporting the government.
On Monday, Facebook confirmed that it had blocked a network located in Uganda with apparent links to the country’s communications ministry for posting from fake and duplicate accounts. The social media company confirmed that it had no comment on the government’s apparent social media ban.
Global media watchdog The International Press Institute issued a statement on the Ugandan government’s ban in which it affirmed: “Any efforts to block online access to journalists or members of the public are unacceptable breaches of the right to information.”
Uganda Communications Commission spokesman Ibrahim Bbossa, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo, and Minister of Information Judith Nabakooba all declined to provide any comment.
Controversy has surrounded the upcoming election as the government has cracked down on opposition rallies - often violently – on the grounds that they violate Covid restrictions on large gatherings. Supporters and rights groups have alleged that the government is seeking to stifle opposition.
Of the 10 candidates running against Museveni, Wine is leading the pack after amassing a strong following among young people in a nation where 80% of the population are under 30. Wine is aged 38 –half Museveni’s 76 years.
President Museveni has ruled Uganda since seizing power as a guerilla in 1986, and is credited with stabilizing the country after the bloody dictatorships of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. However, Wine’s rise appears to have spooked his incumbent National Resistance Movement party.
Museveni has won every election since his party introduced them ten years into their reign, but has long been accused of intimidating opposition candidates and supporters as well as fixing the results. Even for this climate, the violence this year has been extreme, with 54 killed by the police and military after protests broke out in November when Wine was detained by the authorities.
With most Ugandan media outlets owned by government allies and the national daily paper state-run, Wine has been reliant on Facebook for providing his supporters with coverage of his campaign and press conferences. He has claimed that much of the Ugandan media has refused to provide him a platform.