By Stephen Lwetutte
LONDON-UNITED KINGDOM/NEWSDAY: President Museveni’s New Year’s resolution must have been to challenge and change the free rein status enjoyed by the opposition as the undisputed Lords of the Social Media on Uganda affairs. The opposition evidently calls the shots, forms opinion and dictates action towards the regime, a situation that Mr Museveni now appears determined to reverse. It has been costly to the regime in terms image, reputation and influence. He seems to have adopted a bare-knuckle approach – hordes of uncouth barely literate young people have suddenly emerged from the blue to attack leading opposition vloggers, bloggers and leaders as failures, failing or double agents for the regime. The opposition social media retaliatory response has been nothing short of devastating.
The image of Museveni’s government has suffered irreparable damage for its atrocities, mismanagement of state affairs and poor governance record widely publicized locally and exposed globally. With the advent of social media, numerous credible reports, photographs and footage, often live, are disseminated around the world speedily, timely and accurately for the audiences to make their own conclusions. Room for denial by the regime has considerably diminished. Instead, the regime has now resorted to engaging in recriminations and the blame game for the consequences of their actions, conduct and behaviour: they are now mainly blaming the National Unity Party (NUP) for their predicament, having gotten away with it for most of the 36 years of Museveni’s dictatorship.
NUP does not deny amplifying, drawing the world’s attention to the facts on the ground and making clarion call for the world to abandon Uganda in the face of arguably the worst human rights and governance crisis in Uganda’s post-independence history. Awareness of this state of affairs has considerably grown, international publicity increased, and meaningful, concrete and effective response and measures began to happen. NUP and the opposition enjoys almost total superiority on social media on Uganda affairs and is reportedly set to entrench, intensify and extend that status at the expense of the regime propaganda machinery.
Having initially been misled or misadvised to underestimate and underrate the might and role of social media, referring to it as a platforms for gossip, Museveni must now have come to terms with the reality that you dismiss its significance at your own peril. He had even earlier in 2018 introduced social media tax – over-the-top (OTT) – ostensibly to curb online gossip and to raise revenue, but was abandoned only three years down the line as uncollectable. The fact that social media activists are giving the regime a run for its money is all the more surprising, given the fact that Internet data is expensive, the infrastructure poor, access to some platforms (Facebook) restricted by a jittery government, technological censorship and the low internet penetration of less than half of the population (estimated at about 46% as at 2020).
Still, even that seems to terrify the regime and scare the life out of it – it did shut down social media at elections in 2016 when penetration was estimated to be just north 20% and the entire internet at the subsequent 2021 elections when the penetration was just shy of 50%. There seems to be an exponential growth of internet usage against all odds, which clearly will not bode well with the repressive regime and with which it will have to grapple. With the economies becoming increasingly digitised, the regime is caught between a rock and a hard place – soon it will be impossible to shutdown the internet without shutting down the economy.
This realisation must have dictated a paradigm shift in the way the regime tackles the digital opposition – during the past couple of weeks, an inordinate number of mainly Ticktock pro-regime video clips has been unleashed on social media attacking in chorus the famous and extremely popular Turkey-based anti-regime blogger Fred Lumbuye and portraying NUP and its leader as a sell-out and spent force. Curiously, this bandwagon has been joined by some known, albeit mediocre activists, but previously anti-regime activists, in an unexplained change of heart, which can only be attributed to being financially compromised by the regime amidst the biting poverty so that they could do its bidding. It is a tried and tested regime propaganda method.
In what appears to be an unequal contest, NUP members, supporters and activists on social media in equally acerbic format have responded with decisive, destructive and devastating force to swiftly and effectively silence or at least blunt the regime Offensive. A few regime activists have even owned up to being part of concerted effort to subdue the NUP and opposition dominance on social media, and even conceded that it would be a tall order to take NUP and the opposition on, on its social media turf and win, yet many social, economic and political battles and wars are now won or lost in cyberspace. Although many more offensives are likely to be attempted by the regime, it is about time the accepted that this is one war they are unlikely to win. As the internet penetration grows, the Ugandan version of the Arab Spring could arguably be beckoning as the country sinks further and further down into the political and economic abyss, with an ageing incompetent tyrant at the helm.
The writer is a Multilingual Human Rights Practitioner, formerly at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London for over 20 years and now Legal and Human Rights Consultant.
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