Uganda banned social media and messaging programs on Tuesday, two days before a presidential election in which Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, opposed opposition leader Bobi Wine, a popular singer.
Users complained on Tuesday that they could not access Facebook and WhatsApp, social media platforms are often used for campaigns by all sides ahead of Thursday’s election in the East African country.
In a letter that Reuters sent to ISPs dated January 12, Uganda’s communications regulator ordered them to block all social media platforms and messaging programs for the time being.
Pre-voting campaigns have been crushed by brutal crackdown on opposition rallies, which authorities say violates COVID-19 curbs at large rallies. Rights groups say the restrictions are a pretext to worry the opposition.
>> Read more about Uganda’s election campaign caused by violence
At the age of 38, wine is half the age of President Yoweri Museveni and has attracted a large following among young people in a nation where 80% of the population is under the age of 30, rattling the ruling party for the National Resistance Movement.
Vin is considered a leader among ten candidates challenging Museveni, the former guerrilla leader who took power in 1986 and gave stability to a country after dictators Milton Obote and Idi Amin.
While security forces have intimidated the opposition in previous elections, the introduction of this year’s vote has been particularly violent. In November, 54 people were killed when soldiers and police suppressed the protests after Vin was detained.
On Tuesday, Wine said soldiers looted his home in Kampala and arrested his guards while giving an interview to a Kenyan radio station. He also said that a team member who mainly works as a mechanic was killed by the military overnight.
Reuters could not immediately verify the allegations and a military spokesman did not respond to a call for comment.
Patrick Onyango, the police spokesman for the capital Kampala, denied that Wines’ home had been raided or that anyone had been arrested, saying: “We just rearranged our security position in the area near his home and specifically removed some checkpoints.”
A source in Uganda’s telecom sector said the government had made it clear to telecom executives that the social media ban was in retaliation for Facebook blocking certain government accounts.
Neither Ibrahim Bbossa, Uganda Communications Commission spokesman nor Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo responded to calls and requested comment. An aide to Information Minister Judith Nabakooba said she could not comment at this time.
The American giant in social media said on Monday that they had taken down a network in Uganda connected to the country’s Ministry of Information to use fake and double accounts to post before this week’s election.
A spokeswoman for Facebook said the company had no comment on reports that users had difficulty accessing the platform.
“Any effort to block access to journalists or the public online is an unacceptable violation of the right to information,” the International Press Institute, a global media watchdog, said in a statement.
Wine has used Facebook to broadcast live coverage of his campaigns and news conferences after he said many media outlets had refused to host him. Most radio and television stations are owned by government allies and Uganda’s leading daily newspaper is state-owned.
Museveni, 76, has won every election since the first of his presidency in 1996, although they have been hurt by threats of opposition and accusations of equal voting rights.
Uganda is a Western ally, a future oil producer and is considered a stabilizing force in a region where war has plagued some neighbors. It also contributes to the largest contingent of an African Union force fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
Museveni said on Twitter that he would address the nation at 19.00 (1600 GMT) on Tuesday.
The European Union does not distribute election observers because advice from previous observers on how to do the vote justice did not follow, says the group’s ambassador to Uganda. The African Union will deploy observers.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Wine and two other opposition candidates – Patrick Amuriat and Mugisha Muntu – called on the Ugandans to show up and “protect their vote” by stopping at the polls to observe the bill.