On Eve of Election, Ugandans Say Nation Feels Like It Is ‘at War’

Election officials count the ballots after polls closed in Kampala, Uganda, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Ugandans voted in a presidential election tainted by widespread violence that some fear could escalate as security forces try to stop supporters of leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
AP Photo/Jerome Delay

The Ugandan military’s “heavy” presence in the national capital, Kampala, ahead of the country’s general election on Thursday evoked a tense, war-like atmosphere, Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo told Deutsche Welle (DW) on Wednesday.

“It doesn’t feel as though the country is going into an election,” Opiyo told the German state broadcaster.

“It feels as though the country is at war,” he said, describing “scores of armored vehicles with mounted guns … patrolling the capital.”

Opiyo recently served jail time in Uganda after facing charges of money laundering and is currently out on bail. The human rights lawyer described the government’s charges against him to DW as “a continuation of a pattern targeting civil society leaders.”

Opiyo said many people he knew in Uganda “sent their families out of the country or to the countryside” after Uganda’s army deployed forces to “maintain order” in the capital this week.

In addition to increasing security in Kampala, the Ugandan federal government has shut down access to most social media platforms used in the country ahead of its January 14 general election.

“The government has closed social media,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said in a national address on January 12.

Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, accused U.S.-owned Facebook and alleged foreign actors of “arrogance” in his speech after Facebook removed Ugandan accounts linked to his reelection campaign on January 11. The accounts were allegedly pretending to be independent supporters of Museveni.

“This is unfortunate but it is unavoidable,” the Ugandan president said of the social media blockage.

“There is no way anybody can come around and play with our country, to decide who is good, who is bad. We cannot accept that,” Museveni said, adding that he “cannot tolerate this arrogance.”

The social media shutdown has hindered journalists’ efforts to report on Uganda’s voting process on election day.

Museveni in 2018 criticized social media platforms for promoting allegedly false information in Uganda, claiming young people spent too much time on messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Later that year, Uganda’s government imposed a $0.05 tax on social media usage in the country. Since then, many Ugandans have accessed the internet via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to side-step the tax.

“[T]hose who are already using VPNs are able to easily get around this latest social media blackout,” DW noted on Wednesday.

“Since [Monday], we have been having a problem with the internet, especially those people who are using [the social media tax]. They have found it so challenging but with people who had already downloaded VPN, they are okay,” Kampala resident Gerald Sengelo told the broadcaster.

Uganda is one of 15 African countries to restrict social media access during elections since 2015, according to data from the privacy protection company Surfshark.

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