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Wednesday, Oct 23rd

Social media used to galvanise voters in Uganda

Social media used to galvanise voters in Uganda.

Uganda has gone to the polls and according to results made public over the weekend, President Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner on Saturday, effectively extending his 30-year rule. However, the process has been heavily criticised with Museveni's main opponent Kizza Besigye calling it a 'sham' and EU observers claiming the process was undermined by intimidation.

Amid the controversy and criticism, another key issue that has emerged through the process and one likely to garner further attention in the post-election period is the role the technology has played, particularly social media.

Ugandans took to social media to share opinions about the elections and to update themselves about related happenings.

The surge in online participation, which some have attributed to the lack of uncensored information from traditional media, prompted a call by the ruling government to block access to social media sites - mainly Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter in the wake of ballot casting.

At approximately 9am on polling day the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) commenced with the shutdown via the country's mobile telcos - MTN, Airtel, Smile and Africell, except for Vodafone whose connectivity remained functional but intermittent.

President Museveni later told journalists that social media is a "pathway of lies" and justified the shutdown by saying that the steps were taken "for security" and "to stop so many [social media users from] getting in trouble."

However, despite the blockage, the 19.5 million phone users in the country - according to UCC figures as at last February - were not deterred as they sought alternative means to pass across their intended messages.

Many Ugandans resorted to using virtual private networks to bypass the blockages and tweet about the shutdown especially after one of the seven candidates challenging Museveni, Amama Mbabazi, tweeted a VPN to his 138,000 followers. Mbabazi had earlier announced his presidential bid on Youtube.

While the blockage has cast doubt over the veracity of the ballot process, the move has been widely criticised globally over the social media and news sites as a way to hinder the free flow of information among the citizens.

Commonwealth election observer mission head Olusegun Obasanjo said it is ill-advised to block social media while a tweet from the US Mission in Uganda‏ which quotes Ambassador Malac as saying: 'Blocking people's right to communicate on this important day sends wrong message to Ugandans' has been retweeted almost a thousand times.

Another tweet by the US Mission stated that US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Museveni to end the block on social media and mobile money sites immediately.

With the blockage, hashtags such as #UgandaDecides which alleged there were unsealed voting and stuffed ballot boxes in certain locations; #1986pictures with tweets of old pictures of Museveni outlasting four US presidents in 30 years; and #IchoosepeaceUG by a group of university students in Kampala to campaign for a calm election still found their way to connect many followers.

Not free

Uganda is rated Not Free according to the Freedom in the World 2016 index. It has 6, 5 and 5.5 rating scores for Civil Liberties, Political Rights and Freedom (1 = most free and 7 = least free) respectively.

Going by the level of media coverage of the campaigns and the election process, especially for opposition candidates, social media seems to have proven useful as a cost competitive means of communication to wider audiences.

According to a preliminary study funded by Democratic Governance Facility and conducted by Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring, including Transparency International and Anti-corruption Coalition, Museveni has spent Shs27 billion (about $7.8 million) on his 2016 campaigns in two months, 12 times more than that of his two closest challengers – Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye – combined.

Museveni's expenditure represents 91.6% of the total Sh29.6b spent by all the candidates compared to Mbabazi's total of Shs1.3b or 4.6% and Besigye's Shs976m or 3.3%.

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