Thursday, 14 January 2021, Ugandans took to voting booths in their numbers to decide who will be their next president. Early on, it appears the battle will be between current President, Yoweri Museveni, and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known by his stage name - Bobi Wine.

What is interesting about this election and the two popular candidates so far is that Bobi Wine was only 4 years old when Museveni became president of Uganda. At the time of his election in 1986, Museveni was a man of the people and promised much in terms of uplifting the lives of the people of Uganda. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out as he promised considering also that he has stayed as president after deciding to contest every election held since 1986 to date.

Like many previous elections, the 2021 elections in Uganda had their fair share of controversy.

Uganda election posters.

Internet shutdown in Uganda

On Monday, 11 January 2021, several days before the elections kicked-off in Uganda, Facebook announced that it had identified and taken down several accounts (the social media company called them a "network" in their statement) by Uganda's Ministry of Information. According to Facebook, these accounts were fake and in some cases duplicates.

More importantly, Facebook claims that the activity of these accounts picked up ahead of the elections to make some content appear more popular than it was.

"We found this network to be linked to the Government Citizens Interaction Center at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Uganda. 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," said Facebook in statement.

As soon as this was known by Uganda's government, Museveni announced that social media will be restricted in the country with one of the reasons he gave being that Facebook appeared to be taking sides in the country's elections. However, this was not the first time that Uganda had restricted social media before elections. Since 2011, there have been several cases of the government ordering for the restriction of social media or a total shutdown of the internet.

This is what happened on 13 January 2021, on the eve of the country's presidential elections.

A letter by UCC to all Internet Service Providers and telecommunications companies in Uganda.

Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a letter to all telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country on the night before the elections ordering them to "implement a temporary suspension" of all their Internet Gateways and associated access points. The letter appeared to suggest that the suspension was to be indefinite until the UCC decides when it will lift it.

However, that wouldn't be the end of election related technological issues in Uganda.

Over approximately the past decade, there has been a worrying and steady increase in internet shutdowns ad restrictions globally. These typically happen before or during elections of protests by citizens. After Tanzania in 2020, Uganda is the latest African country to implement internet restrictions and a shutdown before its 2021 elections.

Biometric identity verification machines fail on the day of elections

Following the internet shutdown the night before voting stations opened, many of Uganda's polling stations started reporting that they were having problems with the biometric machines which were supposed to be used to verify voter identities.

At first, some polling stations reported that the machines were extremely slow until they didn't function at all. It turns out that the biometric identity verification machines required a network connection to function as expected.

The internet shutdown rendered them useless.

As a result, officials at voting stations had to switch to a manual process of checking the identities of those coming to vote. This also resulted in long queues and delays at voting stations as the process took longer.

Apart from technological issues, there have also been reports of violence and intimidation by Uganda's police forces.

It remains to be seen whether the rest of the election process will be accepted as free and fair by all contesting parties and leaders and more importantly, whether Ugandans will be content with the process and its results as vote counting continues.

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