Uganda: Museveni’s revolutionaries aren’t revered by youth anymore… and certainly not online

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 16 September 2022 10:51

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni speaks during at the National Leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi district
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni speaks at the National Leadership Institute (NALI) in Kyankwanzi district, Uganda December 4, 2021. Picture taken December 4, 2021. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

With Facebook blocked in Uganda since the January 2021 election, Parliament last week passed a computer misuse bill yet to be signed into law. As human rights activists protest the move, could this be the final blow to internet freedom in Uganda? The law is the latest twist in what is turning out to be a generational fight that pits the Museveni generation that captured power in 1986 and the youth who are the majority of Uganda population and largely support anti-government forces.

Parliament passing the bill is the latest step in the government’s efforts to tame social media which has been weaponized by the youth to nudge the country’s top leadership.

A major policy of government’s efforts was the  introduction of social media tax 2018 that President Yoweri Museveni said would help curb “rumour mongering” on internet platforms.

Ugandans were required to pay a daily tax in order to access social media services. The tax was however discontinued in 2021.

In the bill is a section on social media use that could land thousands of Ugandans in trouble.

Internet misuse

Parliamentarians argued that social media has become “the commonest platform of computer misuse” in the country.

The new law defines social media as a set of technologies, sites, and practices which are used to share opinions, experiences and perspectives. It mentions examples such as YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WeChat, TikTok, among others.

For many human rights activists, the law raises concerns, especially the social media clause which was introduced at the last minute.

The law says any person who uses social media to publish, distribute or share information, prohibited under the laws of Uganda whether through authentic or disguised or false identity, commits an offence.

Internet freedom

Critics also argue that the law does not stipulate offences, hence it can be misused any day.

“There has been a consistent move towards curtailing internet freedom. For all the laws we have had, none promotes internet freedom,” says Dorothy Mukasa, executive director of Unwanted Witness, an organisation defending internet freedom in Uganda. “This is the final blow to internet freedom in the country.”

Mukasa tells The Africa Report that ambiguity of the laws gives leeway to the State to charge people for things such as annoying officials by seeking accountability of public funds.

“You will annoy someone even when you’re seeking accountability from political leaders.”

Andrew Karamagi, a human rights lawyer, has described the law as an extension of the repression and the anti-people trend of Museveni regime. This law is not a mistake, he says, “it’s a logical progression of the teargas, batons and bullets that we have seen used against Ugandans.”

Taming keyboard warriors

The law is the latest twist in what is turning out to be a generational fight that pits the Museveni generation that captured power in 1986 and the youth who are the majority of Uganda population and largely support anti-government forces.

Uganda has one of the youngest population in the world with a median age of 17 years. The youth have seized the boundless space offered by the internet to poke fingers in the eyes of the ruling class whether through harsh criticism over governance or ridicule.

When people are blocked from expressing themselves, the anger that boils within them will explode.”

The most recent case was the disdain with which social media reacted to the death of Gen. Elly Tumwine at the end of last month, a former minister of security, commander of the army.

Tumwine was one the illustrious soldiers, having fired the first bullet in 1981, marking the launch of the war that propelled Museveni to power in 1986.

Leaders judged

His death was widely celebrated on social media. Tumwine’s more than four decades military career was largely judged on a less-than-a-minute video clip of him saying police had the right to shoot protestors following November 2020 riots triggered by the arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine in which more than 50 people were killed by security agencies.

Video clips of young Ugandans were all over social media, especially TikTok, as they celebrated Tuwmine’s death. As a result, a 27-year-old lady was arrested and is in jail for recording the video on a charge of offensive communication.

There was hardly a word of praise for Tumwine being the last serving army officer to ask Museveni to prepare for a peaceful handover of power.

He made the remarks in 2021 after he was dropped from a ministerial position and appointed a presidential advisor. Tumwine said the best advice that Museveni deserved is telling him “to prepare for a smooth transition.”

Ethnicity vs Class

Major Okwir Rwabwoni, who fought in the bush war that brought Museveni to power tells The Africa Report that the discussion of Tuwmine’s death had “ethnic undertones,” as well as “class undertones.”

Ethnic undertone is a reference to Buganda region (central Uganda), the political backyard of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine who was Museveni’s main challenger in the 2021 presidential election. Class undertone is a reference to the young generation who believe Museveni and his tight control of the State has left them with no political or economic opportunities.

Rwabwobi says there is much frustration from youth who think they have not benefitted from the government.

They saw the death of the  bush war general as an opportunity to vent.

Quality of politics

“They are just angry. Many of them did not know who Gen. Elly Tumwine was, his biography, or the good things he did. They just just quoted him from that clip when he said if you don’t stop rioting, the police will shoot you,” he says.

Rwabwoni says the structure of the State has impacted the quality of politics in Uganda for all the years Museveni has been in power.

The rebel movement that brought Museveni to power was youthful. Many of the commanders were in their 20s and early 30s while a few were in their early 40s.

For the youth who had not joined the army, they were attracted to do so after Museveni captured power rather than forge a political career within the National Resistance Movement, the ruling party.

Youth in politics

“The creme dela creme of the youth admired and joined the army, and because of the way it is led, they cannot directly participate in party politics. That was one good thing, building a good army but which had implications on the performance of the party,” he says.

The impact of state structure, Rwabwoni tells The Africa Report, has been to give less attention to training the young generation on competing for political space.

The group that Museveni came with from the bush started disintegrating at the turn of the century when Dr. Kizza Besigye resigned from the army and became Museveni’s main challenger on the ballot for two decades.

Another group left in 2004 when Museveni engineered a constitutional amendment to delete a two-term limit clause that would have barred him from contesting in the 2006 presidential election.

Museveni, Salim Saleh, his family

Much of online mocking has targeted the first family. Museveni, his young brother Salim Saleh–another illustrious bush war general–and his son Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba have also been pronounced dead before on social media.

Muhoozi, an avid social media user, is the commander of land forces in the army.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a Ugandan author, was arrested at the end of last year and badly tortured allegedly on orders of Muhoozi for mocking the first son on Twitter. He has since been living in exile in Europe but still faces charges of disturbing the peace of Museveni and his son.

Last year when Museveni was pronounced dead on social media, he ordered a crackdown on those who were spreading the rumours.

The state appears unwilling to loosen the grip on social media control. Museveni has twice told people who were asking him to unblock Facebook that no one has died because of lack of access to the platform. But many Ugandans have been accessing the platform through virtual private networks.

Anger will explode

Mukasa tells The Africa Report that crackdown on internet freedom is an indication that Uganda is headed to a dreadful path.

“When people are blocked from expressing themselves, the anger that boils within them will explode and it will not be a good thing for the country, including those who are in power,” she says.

Okwir Rwabwoni says there is a need for a national conversation that encompases all political actors-young and old, political parties and civil society. It’s through conversations that these actors can build bridges and bring down the “tempo of political discourse which is so high that people have lost a sense of reason.”

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