The Ugandan Presidential Election in 2016 left many Ugandans frustrated and angry at the election process and the announcement of the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, as the winner with approximately 60% of the votes. Unfortunately, rather than uniting the Ugandan people in a fight for a free and fair democratic environment in Uganda, social media is reap with statements blaming the result on the marginalised and already maligned Karimojong people in Uganda’s North-eastern corner. Karamoja is a remote region in Uganda, which has the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in the country. Ugandans are angry and frustrated and they are releasing the Inner Beast on those that are easy to blame rather than those who are actually to blame.
The election process was indeed problematic to say the least. Voting materials were delayed for almost the full day at various polling stations, numbers that did not add up indicated rigging in several places and heavy presence of military personnel and tear gas equipment in the street created an intimidating environment. The opposition leader of the party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was arrested and released several times just as police raided the FDC head quarters. The access to social media was cut off and telecommunications were disrupted in general.
Many Ugandans circumvented this by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and kept posting updates on facebook and twitter throughout the election. Indeed, a hashtag arose: #Museveni has created a nation of hackers#. Ugandans fought for their rights to a free and fair democratic election by exposing failures in the election process using footage from the ground, and discussions and musings on gaps in the accountability and transparency of the process flourished. The government responded to these people who defied the ban on free communication with penalising their actions as treason.
After the election, the European Union Election Observation Mission published a press release under the headline: “Voter enthusiasm for democratic process eclipsed by atmosphere of intimidation and ruling party control of state resources in Uganda’s third multi-party elections“. The incumbent was seen as using his resources at head of state to forcefully keep that position. Ugandans had good reason to be angry and frustrated, and they had good reason to use all their possible venues to fight for their right to democracy.
However, early in the election process, another – rather disconcerting – trend started to take shape. Results from Karamoja region were published when many people in Kampala had not even had a chance to vote yet, and they showed an immense support for the incumbent amongst the Karimojong. People – some of who still stood under the burning sun waiting to vote in Kampala – started scolding the Karimojong people for the way they had cast their vote. It was the early signs of the Inner Beast being let out.
Inner Beast released
The Inner Beast is an expression describing our human capacity to sacrifice basic human principles, such as compassion and empathy, in times when we are overpowered by feelings of powerlessness. It is when we turn our frustration and anger towards the marginalised, the different, the ones who are easy to target, when we cannot target those who are actually at fault. The disconcerting trend on social media in the aftermath of the Ugandan 2016 election is one showing the Inner Beasts of a Ugandan urban elite aiming their anger and frustration at the people of Karamoja.
This is not a practice without resemblances in the past. The Karimojong has through history been the targets of abuse in Uganda due to their different lifestyle of pastoralism, which previously included cattle raiding practices and widespread use of AK47s. The region was declared peaceful in 2010 following a violent disarmament campaign led by President Museveni, but the negative sentiments towards the Karimojong are easily rekindled.
“Wabula karimajongs…. You vote m7 then you come to kla to beg Let me see one of u bringing your bi hands begging me in a taxi (name and hashtag)…” and then four knives are displayed. The message for the Karimojong in essence is: You vote for Museveni and then you come to Kampala to beg. Let me see one of you reaching your hands out to beg money from me, when I’m seated in a taxi ….“, and I can only assume that the four knives are meant to signal that something violent will be done to the beggar. A person wrote this on facebook just after the Karamoja result came out, and it was shared and liked several times. Many wrote similar and supportive comments or lashed out against those defending the Karimojong and begging for unity in the wake of the election.
I will quote only one, but several social media entries show Ugandans blaming the disappointing election results on fellow countrymen’s ignorance, illiteracy, primitiveness and refusal to change. Several of these are threatening of physical and structural violence. I can only analyse this trend as powerlessness. Ugandans are angry and disappointed, but they are facing someone who has the power to take away the voices of the people by shutting down telecommunications, and they feel powerless.
Rather than turning their anger on the Man, instead they turn their anger on an easy scapegoat. And the Karimojongs are scapegoats in this. Firstly, and going back to the above example, the majority of Karimojong people begging in the streets of Kampala are street children. These children obviously did not vote for anybody. Are they to blame for the lack of change in government? Secondly, the Karimojong population is a minority population in Uganda (approximately 1 million out of 42 million people), and even if the entire adult population of Karamoja (I know of several who would never vote for him) freely and fairly voted for the incumbent, it would never be the decisive vote.
Threat to democracy
Threatening to put knives to innocent children because you are unsatisfied with the way their adult kin cast their vote is evidence of a problem much more problematic for human kind than one man’s misuse of power – even if that is horrible. It is a threat to the very democracy that people are fighting for. According to rhetoric as the one shown above, the Karimojong are not allowed their vote. They are not allowed to vote for the candidate they want to vote for. They are not allowed their democratic rights, because it goes against the will of those who has the resources to sit by a computer screen and type incitements to hatred into virtual reality.
I have seen two major trends on social media during Uganda’s Presidential election in 2016. One was people fighting for their rights to a free and fair democratic election. The other was people denying others that same right. The former is democracy in a very true form. The President and his government defiled this democracy with a misuse of power. The latter is defilement of democracy by the people.
A final comment: This is not a Ugandan trend, but reminds me of the aftermath of Danish elections in 2015, when Danish People’s Party had an extremely successful election. This incited the same kind of elitist speech towards voters in the remote areas of Denmark calling them ignorant and conservative. Frustration and anger can awaken the Inner Beast everywhere, but the strong negative feelings must target the problem rather than denying people their rights to fight in their own way.
Marianne Bach Mosebo holds a PhD in Anthropology from Copenhagen University. She has worked and conducted research in Uganda and Karamoja since 2006 working on livelihood strategies amongst urban youth and how these strategies intersect with violence, power, legality and state security and development politics. She recently finished a postdoctoral project on the role of local elites in the growing mining industry in Karamoja. Marianne is currently teaching, doing consultative work and working on the next project proposal.