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Uganda is not ripe for twitter revolution

May 29, 2011 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

The short piece below was published by Index on Censorship on May 24. A longer analysis of Uganda’s post-election violence, which I contributed to the Foreign Policy in Focus website of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, can be found here.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni appears to have lost the plot. A violent crackdown on initially small and peaceful opposition protests at rising fuel and food prices has over the last five weeks left at least ten protestors and bystanders dead, including a two year old child, and hundreds injured. This show of indiscriminate force has shocked even government supporters, pitching the country towards political crisis. Now the 67 year old president, who came to power 25 years ago at the head of a rebel army, is blaming local and international media for his predicament, and promising to roll back the press freedoms that have been one of the saving graces of his rule.

Media have been influential in Uganda. A local TV station broadcast close-up footage of police wrenching opposition figurehead, Kizza Besigye, from his car, pepper-spraying him full in the face and hurling him on to the back of a pick-up. The widely exposed brutality of the arrest drew sharp condemnations from church leaders, lawyers, women’s groups and NGOs.

A government that behaves like this is hardly entitled to berate those who report on the fact. Yet the Ugandan case highlights an information deficit—and, perhaps, a growing information divide—that characterises politics in the world’s poorest countries.

In the run-up to general elections in February, Besigye and other opposition leaders ran a largely negative campaign, denouncing the corruption, nepotism and autocratic tendencies of Museveni’s rule. They repeatedly invoked the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, saying they would call for similar protests if the election were rigged.

Museveni won a landslide 68 percent. His vote was solid across nearly all rural areas in what is still an overwhelmingly agrarian society, with only 15 percent of Ugandans counted as urban. But the opposition is stronger in towns. Kampala, the capital, returned an independent mayor and opposition MPs.

The ruling party’s campaign was marred by vote-buying on a massive scale. Opposition parties handed out money too, but could not match Museveni, who almost certainly diverted state funds for this purpose. Yet no international election observer group discerned outright fraud on a scale to materially affect the result, and most described the polls as an improvement on previous ballots.

Opposition leaders still called foul and denounced the results as invalid. Few supporters answered their call to mass protests, and those who did were promptly tear-gassed. At this point the opposition switched track to protesting inflation—which may have been aggravated by a splurge in election spending, but is largely due to global price rises—through symbolic, “walk to work” protests which have unleashed an even more repressive response.

The “Arab Spring” has likely influenced both sides in this stand-off, inspiring the opposition and persuading Museveni—who must know that his sleazy election victory was not so robust as it appeared—that protest must be nipped in the bud. But whilst global commentators and local, urban elites have wondered aloud how far south of the Sahara the “end of tyranny” zeitgeist might spread, this is hardly true of Uganda’s rural masses.

For every one of the country’s estimated three million Internet users there are at least two fully—not just “digitally”—illiterate Ugandans. Newspapers have next to nil penetration in rural areas. With less than 10 per cent of the population having access to electricity, rural Ugandans’ experience of television is limited to watching occasional English Premier League football matches broadcast in market town cinemas and video shacks.

Local radio stations are the main news source for most people, but broadcasting licences for these are awarded disproportionately to members or supporters of the the ruling party and their content is more closely watched and controlled than any other medium.

If this rural information deficit favours the status quo, it will be eroded by gradual progress in basic education—for which Museveni himself can take at least some credit—and by ongoing urbanisation, which will in time bring Uganda closer to Tunisia and Egypt, with their much larger urban populations (65 per cent and 43 per cent respectively).

This will eventually see the end of patronage-based “big man” rule in sub-Saharan Africa: but not quite yet. Breathless narratives of how Twitter and Facebook are reshaping the world do not take full account of African realities.

Meanwhile, it is almost inconceivable that Museveni will be ousted by street protests, if only because he can count on the loyalty of semi-literate security forces. They receive constant political tutoring from the ruling party, in addition to training from Europe and America—delivered to Uganda as a supposed pillar of regional stability and, through its “peacekeeping” operations in Somalia, as an ally in the war on terror.

But if Museveni were forced to go before his new term ends in 2016, it would be a dubious triumph for democracy in a country that, since independence in 1962, has never known a peaceful transfer of power.