When Ugandans went to the polls last Thursday in presidential and parliamentary elections, they participated in the most heavily-contested political battle since multiparty democracy began in 2005.
But they also discovered that their access to social media and mobile payment services had been cut off, part of a four-day ban by the government that limited political discussion and temporarily halted financial transactions across the country.
When the dust had cleared, incumbent, 30-year president Gen. Y.K. Museveni had been re-elected for another five-year term along with his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, the leader of the largest opposition party was under arrest, and reports swirled of vote buying and excessive use of force by the police on opposition protesters.
In a country with the youngest population in the world—77 percent of its population is under 30—mobile apps are vital to communication and commerce.
But it was the attempt to silence conversations taking place on Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp that produced the loudest reactions. In a country with the youngest population in the world, where 77 percent of the population is under 30 years of age, mobile apps have become vital to communication and commerce. During the four-day ban, nearly 1.5 million citizens, or 15 percent of the internet-using populace, downloaded VPN software to reroute their internet connections and return to social media, where discussion over the election continued to rage.
"When there is an unjust law or directive, it's the duty of all right thinking humans to reject it in all manner," Akiteng Isabella, an activist with Uganda Youth Network, said. "This is a lesson to the government that its population is young and creative and very unwilling to be held at ransom."
The government offered no warning of the blackout. It was only after the electoral commission asked the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to direct telecom companies to disable social media access that the UCC and the government issued explanations: the shutdown was a preventative measure to disrupt undefined security threats, stem "misinformation," and prevent illegal continuation of campaigning on election day.
Later, the government issued a statement warning that subverting the blackout to access Twitter and other platforms would be considered "treason."
"Some people misuse those pathways," Museveni said in a TV interview. "You know how they misuse them—telling lies. If you want a right then use it properly."
The power of social media was made clear to leaders across the continent during the "Arab Spring" in 2010 and the "African Spring" of October 2014, when longtime President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was toppled by a popular uprising. A recent internet shutdown in Burundi stoked concerns among some Ugandans that the social media blackout could escalate into total disconnection.
Activist Daniel Turitwenka explained that "everyone" turned to alternative apps and other methods for circumventing the blackout, "even those that weren't tech savvy."
Early attempts to circumvent the ban included Firechat, an app that works without internet (on peer-to-peer connectivity) and has been used by activists and demonstrators in places like Hong Kong and Iraq. But difficulties installing led people to Whatapp's speedier and more encrypted competitor, Telegram, the messaging app built to be inaccessible to "the Russian security agencies".
To access social media, many Ugandans turned to Virtual Private Networks, which reroute one's internet connection through computers in other countries, allowing dissidents to conceal their locations and others to watch services like Netflix outside the countries for which they're intended. "TrueVPN had a 220,000 increase in four hours, and that isn't the main VPN people used."
Ugandans downloaded a wide range of VPNs; trending searches included Cloud VPN, Tunnelbear VPN, VPN express, and Cloud Ark VPN. Anonymous web browsing offered by Tor also spiked significantly in Uganda during the blackout.
On social media, users posted their views on the irregularities of the electoral process and sent reports about polling station results and of vote-rigging, mostly in the form of pre-ticked ballot papers. Users also posted information about the location of strikes and roadblocks, and the location and behavior of police forces toward opposition supporters.
"Fairness is about equity, respect, dignity and we had a lot of violations of this," said Isabella. While "we voted and were not under any form of duress," she pointed to a number of irregularities with the election process.
"From polling materials arriving as late as 2pm, to the losers being announced, to 'crime preventers' establishing an alleged election rigging center, to the deaths and arrests of innocent people, to raining tear gas—there was nothing fair about the process and dignity of citizens."
During the election, streets were characterized by the heavy presence of state security forces, often patrolling in groups of 10-15 and evident at every polling station. Among those securing the election process were "community protectors"— support units to the Uganda police intended to better incorporate local communities in maintaining peace and order, but recruited and selected by the NRM. Their proximity to the ruling party has earned them the ironic nickname of "crime promoters," and caused Amnesty International to call for their suspension during elections.
Still, the physical presence of government in the streets paled in comparison to its presence in digital space.
"It was ridiculous, I didn't even believe it when I first heard and the reason given was more hilarious, security? If it was a really a security issue, fuel stations and agricultural shops, shops selling pangas and knives should have been clamped down too" said Isabella.
Many observers saw it as a response by the government to negative messages circulating about the NRM. The UK-based media watchdog Article 19 called the ban a systematic attempt to "limit freedom of expression and access to information during the election period," both unjustified and disproportionate.
In the face of what Amnesty International regional deputy director called "nothing but an exercise in censorship," Ugandans took up a range of tactics to continue expressing their politics, subverting the ban and risking persecution.
Sharing on social media about the tightened political situation coalesced around the hashtag #Ugandadecides. This was no secret—mainstream media outlets covered it without explaining how to access the VPN. Kampala saw the emergence of an informal business service on its downtown streets—for 5000UGX ($1.50), customers could receive enough access to a hotspot to download a VPN onto a smartphone.
However, it became clear that skirting the ban could have extreme consequences. When the communications commission learned that people were accessing social networks through encrypted apps, they sent a statement to WBS TV Uganda, which it posted on its Facebook page: "We are going to track all those who are using them, and they are going to be arrested for treason!!"
"I think a lot of people bypassed [the restrictions] before we knew what were the [potential] charges" said Bwete, the photographer.
The social media ban permeated other facets of digital life beyond the social and political.
Citizens with livelihoods attached to Mobile Money, a digital platform supported by telecom networks and used to make online payments, were unable to do business or pay for water and electricity bills, some of which can only be paid using Mobile Money.
The shutdown was related to security concerns, said UCC Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi. "There was information that people were using these to bribe voters," he told NTV Uganda. In a separate statement he called the shutdown necessary "in order to avert imminent attack (sic) by terrorist groups."
It was known that banks would be closed during elections, but denying access to Mobile Money disrupted the political process itself—political opponents that had withdrawn money from the banks and saved it on Mobile Money were unable to access funds for their agents at polling stations.
"We can't speak of social media without speaking of mobile money," said Isabella. "How much money is made and how many Ugandans transact over Mobile money. It's like shutting down a banking system for 3 whole days."
According to the world bank, about 84 percent of Ugandans live in rural areas. The wide geographic spread of the population has enabled fast growth in mobile banking systems, and increasing reliance on it. With over 17 million users, Mobile Money has been central to online business transactions since March 2009.
"My boda boda man is starving and so is the woman who he buys groceries from," Isabella said. "That is irresponsible of the government. What happened to securing the livelihood of the citizens?"
On Monday, by the time Museveni had been declared the winner, with 60.8 percent of the national vote, Kizza Besigye, the 59-year-old leader of the FDC, was bundled up into a police van and detained after he tried to defy a house arrest to join a peaceful protest of the election results that had been discussed on Twitter. Labeled a public security threat, Besigye has been placed under what is known as "preventative arrest."
After coming to power as a guerrilla leader against brutal regimes of former Presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote, President Museveni acquired star status, heralded as a "new breed" of African leader by former US President Bill Clinton and credited with making Uganda a leader in regional security and stability. His commitment to democratically elected leaders and fair play, outlined in his 1986 Inaugural Speech, sounds very different today, amid critiques of term length and abuses of power.
Despite Museveni's historic importance as strategic ally for the US in the region, the State Department issued a statement last week expressing concerns at the constraints on voters "collectively undermine the integrity of the electoral process." An online petition has called for Obama to not recognize Museveni as a legitimate democratic ruler. This week, 23 Ugandan, African, and international organizations issued a letter to authorities at the African Union, the United Nations, and others, calling upon the Ugandan government to "provide redress to victims of the internet shutdown, and pledge not to issue similar orders in the future."
In 2011, the Egyptian government severed the country from the internet in the wake of protests. In January 2015, the government of Niger suspended all digital and mobile communications following violent demonstrations against President Mahamadou Issoufou. The government of Chad has recently been blocking access to Facebook and other social media networks for days, in the wake of a gang rape that inspired protests and rallies.
"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."
Al Jazeera's The Stream reports on Uganda's elections: