Report: 2021 Ugandan Election Will Escalate Ethnic Tensions

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986. In February 2021 Uganda will hold elections. Museveni circumvented term limits in the Constitution to run for his sixth term.

In June 2020 the Electoral Commission of Uganda declared that due to COVID-19, the campaign for the 2021 Presidential and General Election will be held digitally as a “ scientific election process.” Museveni is far better equipped than opposition groups to disseminate digital information because of his access to the internet, radio, and television media.

Voter Demographics & Access to Information:

Uganda’s 2020 population is 45.7 million with roughly 50% of the population 18 years of age or older and thus eligible to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, 17,782,594 people have registered to vote in the 2021 election, approximately 2.5 million more than in the 2016 elections.

Figure 1: map of ethnic regions in Uganda by Dr. Stefen Lindemann of the London School of Economics

75.6% of the Ugandan population lives in rural areas that have limited access to digital technologies. According to the World Bank only 42.6% of the population has electricity in their homes.

Groups that have opposed Museveni in past elections, such as the Acholi in the north and the Bakonjo peoples in the southwest have limited access to electricity. Museveni’s traditional supporters, urban Ugandans from the Baganda group, are much more likely to have access to TV, radio, and the internet. They will therefore have disproportionate weight in a “digital election.”

Figure 2: Ugandan Population Density 2020 with data from ESRI

Access to electricity and digital communications

Figure 3 Lighting and electricity data courtesy of Energy Sector GIS Working Group Uganda

Ugandans must have a national identity document to obtain access to phones, bank loans, and the ability to vote. Around 80% of Ugandan women have national identity documents. 70% of Ugandans have mobile phone subscriptions. 82% of men and 63% of women own a phone. Rural women are the least likely to own a phone.

17 million of the 26 million Ugandan telephone subscribers have phones that have at least rudimentary abilities to surf the internet. During the 2016 election, President Museveni shut down access to social media sites, ostensibly to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation. It can be anticipated that a similar restriction will be imposed during the 2021 election.

In July 2018, an idle talk’ tax was imposed, ostensibly to combat online “gossip” in the country. To visit social media sites including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, Ugandans have to pay a tax of 200 shillings per day. 41% of Ugandans live below the poverty line of $1.90 USD/day or 6,971.82 shillings. The tax constitutes at least 3% of the daily income for 41% of the population.

In Uganda, radio is the most accessible mass medium, particularly in rural areas, as batteries can power radios even where there is no electricity. The cost of the radios (around 20,000 shillings), however, is a barrier to ownership. To keep broadcasting, many Ugandan stations receive government subsidies and donations to stay afloat, which compromises a station’s ability to disseminate unbiased information. In Uganda, popular stations CBS FM and Akaboozi FM have government ties. Television is another source of news that will be used for campaigning. Uganda has 1.6 million TV subscribers.