Uganda banned social media on Tuesday, two days ahead of a presidential election
pitting Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, against opposition
frontrunner Bobi Wine, a popular singer.
In a letter seen by Reuters to internet service providers dated Jan. 12, Uganda’s
communications regulator ordered them to block all social media platforms and
messaging apps until further notice.
Internet monitor NetBlocks said its data showed that Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp,
Instagram, Skype, Snapchat, Viber and Google Play Store were among a lengthy list
of sites unavailable via Uganda’s main cell network operators.
Campaigning ahead of the vote has been marred by brutal crackdowns on opposition
rallies, which the authorities say break COVID-19 curbs on large gatherings. Rights
groups say the restrictions are a pretext for muzzling the opposition.
At 38, Wine is half the age of President Yoweri Museveni and has attracted a large
following among young people in a nation where 80% of the population are under 30,
rattling the ruling National Resistance Movement party.
Wine is considered the frontrunner among 10 candidates challenging Museveni, the
former guerrilla leader who seized power in 1986 and brought stability to a country
after the murderous reigns of dictators Milton Obote and Idi Amin.
While security forces have intimidated the opposition at previous elections, the run up
to this year’s vote has been especially violent. In November, 54 people were killed as
soldiers and police quelled protests after Wine was detained.
On Tuesday, Wine said soldiers raided his home in Kampala and arrested his guards
while he was giving an interview to a Kenyan radio station. He also said a team
member who works mainly as a mechanic was shot dead by the military overnight.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the claims and a military spokesmen did
not respond to a call seeking comment.
Patrick Onyango, police spokesman for the capital Kampala, denied Wine’s home had
been raided or that anyone was arrested, saying: “We were just rearranging our
security posture in the area near his home, specifically removing some checkpoints.”
A source in Uganda’s telecom sector said the government had made clear to
executives at telecoms companies that the social media ban was in retaliation for
Facebook blocking some pro-government accounts.
Neither Ibrahim Bbossa, Uganda Communications Commission spokesman nor
government spokesman Ofwono Opondo answered calls requesting comment. An aide
to Minister of Information Judith Nabakooba said she was unable to comment at the
The U.S. social media giant said on Monday it had taken down a network in Uganda
linked to the country’s ministry of information for using fake and duplicate accounts
to post ahead of this week’s election.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company had no comment on reports users were
facing difficulties accessing the platform.
“Any efforts to block online access to journalists or members of the public are
unacceptable breaches of the right to information,” the International Press Institute, a
global media watchdog, said in a statement.
Wine has been using Facebook to relay live coverage of his campaigns and news
conferences after he said many media outlets had declined to host him. Most radio and
TV stations are owned by government allies and Uganda’s leading daily is state-run.
Museveni, 76, has won every election since the first under his presidency in 1996,
though they have been tarnished by intimidation of the opposition and accusations of
Uganda is a Western ally, a prospective oil producer and is considered a stabilising
force in a region where war has plagued some neighbours. It also contributes the
biggest contingent of an African Union force fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
Museveni said on Twitter that he would address the nation at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) on
The European Union is not deploying election observers as advice from previous
observers about how to make the polls fair went unheeded, the bloc’s ambassador to
Uganda has said. The African Union will deploy observers.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Wine and two other opposition candidates - Patrick
Amuriat and Mugisha Muntu - urged Ugandans to turn out and “protect their vote” by
staying at polling stations to observe counting.