A number of Ugandan government officials and ruling party members have had their Facebook accounts shut down as the internet giant accuses them of manipulating public debate ahead of key elections.
Residents in the East African nation will cast their votes on Thursday to elect a new president and parliament amid a tense and bloody electoral campaign, with incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, 76, facing a stiff challenge from the pop star-turned-politician Bobi Wine.
“Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network,” Facebook said in a statement on Monday, adding the decision was linked to the government ministry of information and communications technology.
“They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were,” it added.
Judith Nabakooba, Uganda’s minister of information, told Reuters news agency she needed more time to study the situation before commenting.
Museveni’s senior press secretary Don Wanyama, who saw both his Facebook and Instagram accounts shut down, accused the company of seeking to influence the election.
“Shame on the foreign forces that think they can aid and plant a puppet leadership on Uganda by disabling online accounts of [ruling party] NRM supporters,” he said on Twitter.
“You won’t take away President Kaguta Museveni,” he added, using the president’s second name.
Shame on the foreign forces that think they can aid and plant a puppet leadership on Uganda by disabling online accounts of @NRMOnline supporters. You can take away your platforms, you won't take away @KagutaMuseveni votes.#IWillVoteM7#SecuringYourFuture pic.twitter.com/70wan34jAb
— Don Wanyama (@nyamadon) January 9, 2021
Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development Frank Tumwebaze also accused the social media platform of targeting Ugandan accounts and urged Facebook to unblock them.
Plz @ITU @ITUSecGen one of the threats we must speak against in our digital ecosystem is this abuse of communication platforms by tech giants. Connectivity shdn't be a right to enjoy at the mercy of Tech giants. @Facebook shd unblock selectively targeted #Ugandan accounts ASAP! https://t.co/L0q8wTnCxw
— Frank K Tumwebaze,MP : Psalms 124 : 1-8 (@FrankTumwebazek) January 10, 2021
Museveni’s online account is still active but many government officials and members of the ruling party had their pages taken down, including a well-known blogger and Museveni supporter, a prominent doctor and a senior official in the information ministry.
The account shutdown comes amid heightened tensions between the two main candidates who are running against nine others.
The president, who has been in power since 1986, has long accused foreign organisations and elements of backing Wine in a bid to remove his government.
The 38-year-old opposition candidate, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has fired up the imagination of many across Africa as he tries to unseat Museveni, who has deployed the military to prevent what he sees as opposition attempts to create civil unrest that could cause regime change.
Last week, police officers confronted Wine as he announced his petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate allegations of torture and other rights abuses in the country.
A key part of the petition to the ICC lays in the request to investigate alleged acts of torture, mutilation and murder of civilian protesters.
Scores of opposition protesters have been killed during a campaign scarred by crackdowns on Wine’s rallies.
In November at least 54 people were killed in the capital, Kampala, and other parts of the country as security forces put down riots provoked by Wine’s arrest for allegedly violating campaign regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.