Uganda partially restores social media a month after elections

Shutdown was necessary for ‘security of our country’, says communications minister

A man reads the Sunday Vision newspaper whose front page shows a portrait of Uganda’s re-elected president, Yoweri Museveni. Photograph:  Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

A man reads the Sunday Vision newspaper whose front page shows a portrait of Uganda’s re-elected president, Yoweri Museveni. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

 

Access to social media has been reinstated in Uganda, nearly one month after it was first cut off, though Facebook remains blocked.

“We apologise for the inconveniences caused, but it was for the security of our country,” tweeted Peter Ogwang, the country’s minister for information and communication technology, on Wednesday. “Let’s be constructive, not destructive consumers/users of social media.”

Many Ugandans were getting around the ban by using VPNs. Government agencies and the Ugandan police continued to post on social media, including broadcasting press conferences on Facebook.

There was a full internet blackout for nearly five days around the presidential and parliamentary election, which took place on January 14th.

In the days before the election, Facebook said it was blocking a slew of accounts associated with the government for engaging in what it called “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour”.

During a televised speech, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, said the country would block Facebook in retaliation.

Internet shutdowns or slowdowns are being used by governments in a growing number of African countries as a means of controlling dissent or preventing unrest.

Somalia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali and Guinea all restricted access to the internet or social media at various points in 2020.

Tanzania restricted access to social media during its highly-contested election last October, while Ethiopia cut off the internet for more than three weeks after the killing of a popular singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa last June, which sparked widespread protests. Internet was also cut in Ethiopia’s Tigray region last November, after a military offensive there began. Much of the area remains offline.

Uganda has imposed a social media tax on citizens since 2018, meaning anyone who wants to connect to sites or messaging services like WhatsApp, Twitter, Signal or YouTube needs to pay a daily fee of 200 Ugandan shillings (5c).

Abductions

Bobi Wine, the hugely popular musician who ran for president and lost with a margin of 3.4 million votes to Mr Museveni’s 5.8 million, has millions of social media followers. He is using his Twitter and Facebook accounts to broadcast evidence of what he says are abuses by Uganda’s government and security forces, often accompanied by the hashtag #WeAreRemovingADictator.

The 38-year-old, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, says the vote was rigged.

The opposition have also accused security forces of carrying out a slew of kidnapping and abductions of their supporters. Internal affairs minister Jeje Odongo has admitted the government does not know the whereabouts of at least 31 people thought to have been taken by security forces.

Prominent feminist poet and opposition figure Stella Nyanzi fled to Kenya nearly two weeks ago, after alleging that her partner had been abducted.