Uganda’s internet-less election may be the most surveilled ever


Uganda electoral commission chairman Simon Byabakama, centre, declares Ugandan president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni winner of the presidential elections in Kampala on Saturday. (Jerome Delay/ AP Photo)


By Sally Hayden


It was a little after 8pm, on Wednesday, January 13th – the eve of Uganda’s elections – when my internet went off for the final time.


It had been flickering for days. The previous Sunday, my messaging apps stopped working for a few hours, and then a flood of WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram messages would arrive at once. Various VPNs – virtual private networks, which ensure online privacy – were blocked: they became useless if already downloaded, and their websites were inaccessible.


Some journalists found a workaround, accessing the internet using foreign sim cards, but that option was soon cut off too. Across the country, people resorted to texting and calling each other to share information, despite feeling uneasy about who could be listening. I filed two Irish Times reports by SMS.


Shortly before the internet was cut, the government announced that last Friday, the day after election day, would also be a public holiday. This meant people couldn’t complain about their work being affected, but they did anyway.


A 35-year-old goods supplier who works in Kampala’s markets said he was going to lose a lot of money. “We get orders using the internet, we supply, now we are not working,” he told me.


IT student and first-time voter 23-year-old Pauline Jean said the internet block was the “worst thing to ever happen to Uganda” and could lead people to “cause chaos” as they become bored. “People hate sitting home doing nothing,” she said.


“Of course it is not fine,” said a 27-year-old who works in an electronics shop and sells phone credit. She wanted to message her friends all at once.


A dentist, in the upmarket neighbourhood Naguru, said both his social and professional life had suffered because of the blackout. He gestured at a small camera, which showed patients the inside of their mouth on a screen but had stopped transmitting images.


Andrew (30), from Kamwokya, the slum in which opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine grew up, sells films he has downloaded from the internet. He worried that trying to get online would give the police another excuse to arrest people. “They’ll say you’re hacking the internet,” he said, but he desperately wanted to post his thoughts on social media. That’s the way young people “express our feelings to society”.


Wine – a pop star whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – said the government was trying to ensure that Ugandans “vote in the dark”, without international attention. He previously promoted an app called UVote, which would have allowed results to be tallied online and incidents of wrongdoing to be documented. Without the internet, it was redundant.


Even transmitting results between rural areas and the tally centre was difficult, something president Yoweri Museveni admitted to following the announcement that he had been re-elected. The 76-year-old, who has already ruled for 35 years, won his sixth term with 5.85 million votes compared with Wine’s 3.47 million – a result rejected by the opposition.


During the five days that online communications were down, in-person surveillance increased.


Journalists


Foreign journalists in Uganda had reason to believe they were being followed or observed. Undercover agents were present in at least one bar popular with journalists, and went as far as approaching drivers to ask what they had been doing each day and how they felt about Wine’s loss.


The level of monitoring by security forces is no secret. Ugandans know facial recognition cameras have been placed across the country, with police spending at least $126 million on a surveillance system created by Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. Some opposition supporters were afraid to speak to me in the open, aware that cameras were watching them.


A major question is how all of this influenced the election result.


“Rigging an election is about giving yourself a profoundly unfair advantage using non-democratic means,” said Nic Cheeseman, a British political scientist and co-author of the book How to Rig an Election. In Uganda, he says, “that certainly happened, through intimidation, censorship, harassment and the mistreatment of opposition leaders”.


The lack of international observers and absence of an independent way to tally the votes mean we may “never know the true result”, he said, but the months leading up to the election made it clear this wasn’t a level playing field. Turning off the internet was “indicative” of the way the Ugandan government had controlled the political landscape, but it was not critical to the outcome. “The damage had been done much earlier than that,” he said.


This article was published by The Irish Times.