Trends of Digital Data Operations in Elections in Uganda from 2005 – 2020

Daniel Mwesigwa |

While different countries in Africa and beyond have been rocked by shocking revelations of abuse of user data from popular social networks such as Facebook (re: Cambridge Analytica) and massive advertising exchanges such as Google’s DoubleClick during electoral cycles, Uganda seems to have been spared.

This is not entirely surprising given such information is generally scant, however, it does not imply that Uganda does not or has not used data assets during elections in the past cycles. Neither does it show that Uganda will abstain from digital data operations in future elections, including the 2021 polls. In fact, as we argue in the text below, for long, Ugandan politicians and their political parties have exploited complex traditional systems of monitoring and communication to influence electoral outcomes. They are also using new and modern technologies such as mobile telephony to influence elections.

In particular, the state’s influence on the telecommunications industry has given it uninhibited access to large amounts of user data that could be used beyond state-sanctioned surveillance purposes. It is evident, surveillance is a critical aspect of electoral machinery in Uganda—especially that which is controlled by the incumbency. While Uganda is a multi-party democracy with theoretically coindependent arms of the government i.e. executive, legislature and judiciary, the president’s prominence within the country’s day to day administration including within its security dockets cannot be understated.

The state, through the presidency, has firmly established links within the Local Council (LC) system popular in rural and urban areas and is, indeed, an embodiment of “eyes on the street” phenomenon; a vernacular form of surveillance and monitoring—and care—enabled by the local leaders in local communities. However, with the proliferation of mobile telephony, especially in the urban areas, the surveillance machinery builds on the pre-existing (vernacular) infrastructures of surveillance to advanced technology and data enabled surveillance that has been weaponized, mostly by the state, to steer the electoral process and the probable outcomes.

Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to talk about data and politics in Uganda without situating the
conversation within the broader political history of elections in Uganda. Having attained its
independence from the British colonial masters on October 9, 1962, Uganda’s democratic journey has been characterised by violence and suppression. In fact, Uganda has never had a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another since independence.

To crudely put it, political transition has often been a matter of life or death. Having ascended to power in January 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war campaign imputed to a rigged 1980 presidential poll, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been at the helm of the country’s leadership since then. Notably, the president has also overseen arguably the longest period of relative peace and stability, coupled with significant post-1986 socio-economic recovery and growth. Despite these achievements, they seem to be steadily eroding because of increasing oppressive legislation, harassment of critics and opposition, and the impunity of those in power.

In this report, see the changing trends of use of data in electoral cycles in Uganda’s modern history. Crucially, the report looks at the period between 2005 and 2020, a period characterised by the highest use of technology and data assets witnessed in Uganda yet.