General YK Museveni has been president of Uganda for 30 years, presiding over a grinding and brutal civil war as well as a series of far-reaching laws that limit the human rights of Ugandans.
Last week's Ugandan general election was, in some ways, typical of elections under Museveni, in that it was characterized by corruption and intimidation. Some of those tactics were age-old, like arresting the leader of the opposition, police violence against opposition supporters, and poll workers handing out pre-marked ballot papers. But one tactic was novel: just before the election, Museveni ordered a three-day social media blackout, which was possible because Uganda's highly concentrated telcoms sector has built a UK-style national firewall that allows the government to issue blocking orders that apply to the whole country.
Uganda has the world's youngest population. 77 percent of Ugandans are under 30. Despite being a predominantly rural and very poor nation, the country's national discourse is dominated by social media.
The ban lasted three days. During that time, a whopping 15% of Ugandans with Internet access downloaded a VPN client that let them escape the country's national firewall and access social media, where they converged on the hashtag #Ugandadecides, documenting abuses. These rulebreakers became an information conduit to those who were offline, a thin pipeline that spread news from one side of the country to the other in an eyeblink.
Museveni stole the election. He's won another term.
The state has vowed to track down all those who used social media and arrest them for treason.
The ban extended to a ban on mobile payments, made through a very popular platform called Mobile Money, which had the effect of freezing commerce for vulnerable individuals -- but also for opposition politicians who had planned on hiring poll workers.
“Social media is a lifestyle, you can’t just switch it off and on," said Daniel Gilbert Bwete, a Ugandan photographer based in Kampala. "It’s a priority to a lot of our lives and we have to live on even as we are in the electoral process. We have to keep in touch with our businesses, our friends and family.”
Badru Kiggundi declared Museveni the winner. But in finding ways to counter suppression of speech, Uganda's young citizens may have eked out a victory too.
"The social media blockage has strengthened the online activist movement in Uganda and evoked their inner creativity that sets a new standard for the country moving forward to our daily activities," Bwete added. "It’s sending us to investigate and find out what other alternatives we have with the shrinking political space.”
How Ugandans Overturned An Election Day Social Media Blackout [G.S. Phillips and Grace Atuhaire/Motherboard]
(Image: Jeff 3.6.3™)