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Uganda Shuts Down Social Media Ahead of Elections

Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has given his government a directive to shut down social media two days before the country’s election on Thursday.

This comes after accusing Facebook of “arrogance” after the social media giant this week removed Ugandan accounts linked to his re-election 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 on Facebook in a national address on Tuesday. “If you want to take sides against the [ruling party], then that group will not operate in Uganda.

Museveni, dressed in a military jacket, said he was “sure the government has closed social media” and apologised to Ugandans for what he called an inconvenience.

Earlier in the day, Uganda’s communications regulator had ordered internet service providers to shut down social media and messaging services.

In a letter seen by news agencies on Tuesday, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) Executive Director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms.”

A source who spoke to a news agency on condition of anonymity said the order was first communicated in “nasty and aggressive” phone calls to the telecommunications companies on Tuesday morning. The calls made it clear the order was retaliation for Facebook deleting pro-government accounts for seeking to manipulate public debate before Thursday’s key polls.

The list of banned social media sites include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal and Viber. Some of these were already offline on Tuesday.

The development came as, Bobi Wine, Museveni’s main challenger, said police had raided his home and beat two security guards.

Bobi Wine, a popular singer and politician whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, said the raid on his compound in Kampala and the arrest of his guards happened while he was doing an interview with Kenya’s Hot 96 FM radio station.

“I have to end the interview because I can see soldiers beating my security guards,” he said.

Patrick Onyango, police spokesman for the capital Kampala, denied Bobi Wine’s home had been raided or that anyone was arrested, saying: “We were just rearranging our security posture in the area near his home, specifically removing some checkpoints.”

While security forces have cracked down on the opposition at previous polls, the run-up to this year’s vote has been especially violent. In November, 54 people were killed as soldiers and police quelled protests after Bobi Wine was imprisoned.

“The terror, frankly, is unprecedented,” said Kizza Besigye, a veteran opposition leader who challenged longtime President Yoweri Museveni in four elections. “Violence, terror seem to be scaled up with every coming election. This election has witnessed untold violence. It gets worse and worse by the day.”

UCC spokesman Ibrahim Bbosa stated,

“I am not aware of a directive to switch off internet or social media platforms.”

“There has been slow connectivity on the platforms which can be partly due to heavy traffic as a result of the forthcoming elections.” he said

Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary ballot, which takes place after a chaotic campaign.

Journalists covering opposition rallies have been attacked, government critics locked up, and election monitors prosecuted, raising concerns over the transparency of the electoral process.

Two days of protests in November left 54 people dead. The country has never seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1962.

European Union High Representative Josep Borrell said in a statement calling for a credible vote that “the excessive use of force by law enforcement and security agencies has seriously tarnished this electoral process.”

Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, told journalists his home had been raided and his staff beaten by security forces on Tuesday morning.

He said the ruling party was trying to scare voters away from the ballot box and urged them to record any abuses or irregularities on polling day.

“We are telling you, you will not be breaking the law when you stay and protect your vote. We encourage you to use your phones, use your cameras. Your phone is a very powerful weapon, that camera is very powerful, use it.”

At 38, Wine is half the age of Museveni and has attracted a large following among young people in a nation where 80 percent of the population is under 30.

He is considered the frontrunner among 10 candidates challenging the former rebel leader who seized power in 1986.

Bobi Wine and other leading opposition candidates said they had launched a concerted effort to protect against vote rigging at polling stations.

They are urging their supporters to stay within 100 metres (328 feet) of polling stations rather than return home as the electoral commission is demanding. That means potential confrontations with security forces.

Police and military personnel now patrol the streets in parts of Kampala.