Internet 'blackout' in Uganda on eve of tense election

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Security forces patrol the streets near opposition leader Bobi Wine headquarters in Kampala, Uganda Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.The United States ambassador to Uganda said Wednesday the embassy has canceled plans to observe the country's tense presidential election on Thursday, citing a decision by electoral authorities to deny accreditation to most members of the observation team.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

KAMPALA – Ugandan authorities appeared to cut off internet access in the country Wednesday night on the eve of a tense presidential election, while a lawyer for leading opposition candidate Bobi Wine said all contact had been lost with him.

“Confirmed: Uganda is now in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout,” watchdog NetBlocks said in a statement saying connectivity levels had dropped to 33% of usual levels. Ugandans using leading internet service providers MTN and Airtel said they could no longer get online.

The U.S.-based counsel for Wine, Bruce Afran, told reporters that the candidate “is now in his compound with his wife and a single staff member who is unarmed and is not security personnel ... Security and police are stationed outside his home and effectively encircled it.”

Afran said he feared Wine, a popular young singer and lawmaker, will once again be arrested, and he warned that “we’re going to see protests on the streets” if they believe longtime President Yoweri Museveni is declared the winner of Thursday's vote because of fraud.

Wine, 38, has captured the imagination of many at home and abroad in his generational clash with the 76-year-old Museveni, who has rebuffed calls for his retirement after 34 years in power.

Hundreds of staffers for Wine's party are in detention, Afran said, saying “we believe this portends a a significant attempt at vote-rigging." He added that while the candidate has sent his children to the U.S. for their safety, “I am quite certain Bobi Wine is not leaving Uganda” regardless of what happens in the days ahead.

“He has told us he intends to remain in this fight,” the counsel said.

Earlier Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda said the embassy has canceled plans to observe the election , citing a decision by electoral authorities to deny accreditation to most members of the observation team.

Ambassador Natalie E. Brown expressed “profound disappointment” in a statement saying more than 75% of the accreditations requested had been denied.

“With only 15 accreditations approved, it is not possible for the United States to meaningfully observe the conduct of Uganda’s elections at polling sites across the country,” the statement said. “As we have stated previously, the United States takes no side in Uganda’s upcoming elections."

Without “the robust participation of observers,” the statement added, “Uganda’s elections will lack the accountability, transparency and confidence that observer missions provide.”

An electoral commission spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

The U.S. embassy statement came the morning after Museveni spoke harshly against development partners, Facebook and unnamed outside groups he accused of “arrogance.”

Uganda's government has repeatedly alleged that foreigners are working in support of the opposition. Wine has been accused of being “an agent of foreign interests," which he denies.

Museveni announced that his government had shut down access to social media and blasted Facebook after the social network removed Ugandan accounts linked to his reelection campaign.

"That social channel you are talking about, if it is going to operate in Uganda, it should be used equitably by everybody who wants to use it,” Museveni said of Facebook. “If you want to take sides against the (ruling party), then that group will not operate in Uganda.”

Facebook said this week it had removed some Ugandan accounts because they engaged in alleged coordinated inauthentic behavior.

The allegations of outside interference have contributed to a charged atmosphere, with Museveni deploying the military in the streets of urban centers where authorities fear the opposition is planning riots that could overwhelm the regime.

Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, insists his campaign is nonviolent and he urges his supporters not to be intimidated by the heavy military deployment in Kampala, the capital.

At least 54 people were killed in November as the security forces put down riots sparked by the arrest of Wine, whose rallies were frequently broken up by police purportedly enforcing coronavirus control measures.

Wine's supporters allege that security forces are cracking down on his supporters. Many have suffered beatings, and at least 49 of Wine's associates and supporters have been criminally charged.

The European Union, which also is not deploying an observer mission, said in a statement Tuesday that excessive use of force by the security forces had tarnished the electoral process.

A United Nations spokesman said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Ugandan authorities, “particularly the security forces, to show maximum restraint.”

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth told reporters in Geneva that the rights group is troubled by “Museveni’s repeated use of violence by security forces to suppress" Wine's presidential campaign.

Museveni, he said, “seems to be using kind of every trick under the sun” to thwart Wine, including “beatings of his supporters, in some cases shooting and killing people.”

Sarah Jackson, an Amnesty International official in the region, urged Ugandan authorities to end the shutdown of social media, saying that decision was “clearly intended to silence the few accredited election observers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, activists, journalists and bloggers who are monitoring the elections.”

Ugandan polls are often marred by allegations of rigging and militarization. Authorities disabled internet service on the day of the 2016 election. The country has never seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1962.


Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.