Is Twitter the New Der Stürmer? How the Ugandan Dictator Uses the App Against His Victims

The internet’s historic impact on global politics (think the Arab spring) has a dark side. While it enabled otherwise repressed people to communicate, organize and take political action, it is also used as an agent of repression.

During WWII there was a magazine whose sole purpose was to spread disinformation and run smear campaigns against people seen as enemies of the regime, particularly Jews but also Catholics and others. There were no limits to what could be published and it included pornography and deliberate libel. It was published by a Nazi Party insider.

Twitter has made it possible for the work of disinformation and character assassination to be carried out without the hassle and expense of publishing. The government of Uganda, short of money, has embraced Twitter as the vehicle of choice for its anti-opposition propaganda. Always repressive, it reached a new level when in August it found itself losing a by–election it arrested five members of parliament, killing the associate of one (having mistaken him for the MP) and severely tortured two. The public responded instantly with demonstrations which involved attempting to block roads with burning tyres. The government’s response was another wave of violence that lasted over a month.

Two members of parliament had to be hospitalized after being subjected to protracted torture by the Special Forces Command. Councillor Night Asara (Arua Hill) Saudha Madada and other women were kicked in the abdomen and were unable to walk for weeks afterwards. Asara was produced in court on trial for treason with vaginal bleeding.

In response, the European Parliament, British Parliament and Congress condemned the brutality visited by the State against the population. The Canadian government has withdrawn a promise to finance the national airline. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (a global organization of parliaments) has also acknowledged the torture as have Human Rights Watch and other bodies. This is mainly due to the global public outcry, fuelled by a twitter campaign to #FreeBobiWine.

The arrested MPs were released but the injured were rearrested when they arrived at the airport to travel to India and the United States for medical care. Francis Zaake, MP was removed from life support only weeks later. His hands and part of his ears were stripped of skin and flesh with pliers.

A raft of new accounts created in in the same month began following accounts using the hashtag. They were easily recognizable by the lack of avatars, lack of content and other signs obvious to Ugandans. Some evidence has surfaced showing the bots are part of an organized operation, probably using public funds. Then there were other seemingly genuine accounts, notably carrying photographs and information on tourism in Uganda and heaping praise on the government of President Museveni.

Their work is to amplify government propaganda denying that the MPs were tortured. Following the President’s denial, and his public commendation of the Special Forces Command for a job well done in apprehending the ‘violent’ MPs, the bots have kept up a barrage of tweets ridiculing the injured, accusing them of dissembling and making libelous allegations about them. There is a lot to be gained from towing the party line, and the bots will go to great lengths to catch the eye of the powers that be in order to advance their careers.

Odong Lomache is a case in point. Tweeting under his own name. @odonglomache is an aspirant member of parliament intending to stand in the 2021 elections for the Gulu Municipality seat. His time line is an homage to the regime. After birthday wishes for the president, he tweets, “Former President Milton Obote once said, A good Muganda is a dead one. Meaning; never trust a Muganda. Hon. @HEBobiwinewill NEVER be President of Uganda. Therefore, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP.”

Anyone familiar with Uganda’s history will understand how incendiary that statement is. It was first made at a time when even the name Buganda had been erased from the map (and replaced with East Mengo and West Mengo.) Today, Buganda, having been reinstated after Obote’s fall, was again erased and maps published by Museveni’s government and replaced with ‘Central Region’ while all the other regions were labelled according to their ethnicity.

A number of tweeps of a cross–section of ethnicities reported Lomache’s hatespeech to Twitter Support. They also reported it to the police, sectarianism being a criminal offence in Uganda. Twitter took no action (neither did the police) and the offensive tweet stands, followed by further retweets of messages from President Museveni and his son, an army general.

Clearly, Lomache is hoping to be selected as the party candidate in 2021 and is doing everything necessary to establish himself as a die–hard, blind supporter of President Museveni.

Disinformation has come (in spite of the evidence and the findings of the UK and European Union missions which visited Bobi Wine in prison on 22 August 2018) from the highest level. The Principal Private Secretary to the President Molly Kamukama posted a photograph purportedly of the healthy happy Bobi Wine and his wife laughing on a plane and claimed that he had been acting when he left Entebbe airport in a wheelchair looking dejected. The photograph turned out to have been lifted from a Facebook where it had been posted two years earlier.

The most assiduously mean–spirited, bold and callous tweets are posted by a man under a pseudonym and disguised as a woman in his avatar. He has been revealed as Ian Musiimenta, an architect, one of the beneficiaries of a controversial State House scholarship fund intended to pay for the education of war orphans and other under–privileged children. As suspected, some recipients have become (or were) regime lackeys.

He first began the work of disinformation when he persecuted members of the opposition at the beginning of the last election cycle in 2016. She/he has continuously mocked the injured victims of the Arua atrocities, belittled their suffering, accused them of play–acting and questioned their intelligence.

Der Stürmer died a natural death in 1945. Going on current form, Twitter can be expected to grow from strength to strength. This is why it is important that it takes complaints more seriously, especially those of a potentially genocidal nature.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan law graduate who has worked in public sector reform and spent several years in advocacy, and as a volunteer care worker for asylum-seekers. Her essays have been published in Transition (Hutchins Press), The Elephant, Pambazuka News, Foreign Policy Journal, Africa is a Country, the Observer (Uganda) and King’s Review. The Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt website carries her articles on debt.

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