WORLD FEBRUARY 25, 2011
The month of February gave observers of African politics a curious case study in political geography. At one end of the Nile, protesters in Egypt were breaking the chains of autocracy through the revolution in Tahrir Square. At the other end of the Nile, voters in Uganda were preparing for an election that ultimately gave the country’s quasi-autocratic ruler, Yoweri Museveni, another five years in power. (He’s already had 25.) Yet, despite the fact that Uganda’s election was marred by vote-buying, localized violence, and other “irregularities,” so far, there’s been no real threat of large-scale demonstrations by disaffected citizens—despite calls for protests from a few opposition candidates. The way things look now, the revolution will not be heading south.
And yet, according to the cyber-utopians of the world, it shouldn’t have been this way, especially given the amount of blogging, texting, tweeting, and Facebook groups devoted to the election. Indeed, in the wake of the revolutions in North Africa, it’s become apropos to speak about social media as an inherently “liberating” force. In Egypt, despite the telecom blackout in the early days of the protests, the fact that a marketing executive from Google became one of the most recognizable faces of the revolution plays into a certain kind of narrative: that social media is a formidable tool in the back pockets of the would-be revolutionaries of the world.
In Uganda, though, something entirely different happened. Instead of “the people” harnessing the power of technology for the purposes of reform or change, it was the regime that deployed those tools to greatest effect. Arguably, one of the biggest breakout stories of the election was the recording of a wildly popular rap single by President Museveni himself, done with the assistance of local music producers to appeal to youth voters. MP3s of Museveni’s single, dubbed “You Want Another Rap,” went viral in late October, spreading like wildfire over e-mail and Facebook before quickly migrating to the country’s airwaves and into the nightclubs in the capital city of Kampala. Within a few weeks, Museveni’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, was applying for copyrights of the song and inking deals with one of Uganda’s main telecom carriers to create a ringtone. (As one man told a local newspaper in November, “This chain reaction makes me feel sorry for those standing against Sevo [Museveni] in the race for president. They should be scared because with the rap that has swept almost every young person, vote Museveni victory is bound to be a landslide.”)
Of course, this isn’t the first time a politician has used social media to augment his appeal among certain constituencies. (Barack Obama perfected it in 2008.) And then, there’s the novelty of a sexagenarian rapping; friends of mine who are vehement foes of the ruling party still got a kick out of the old man’s efforts. But, that said, when comparing the current political events in Uganda to those in North Africa (and here it’s important to remember that North Africa is still a part of Africa, with political, economic, and historical ties to its sub-Saharan neighbors), one can’t help but notice that, if social media can be used in the service of reform, it can also be used to anesthetize, as well.
To be sure, no one really knows how much of an impact Museveni’s forays into the worlds of rap and social media had on voter preferences. On election day, he garnered 68 percent of the vote, besting his runner-up by over 40 percentage points. Even with the vote-buying and other irregularities, it’s not clear that Museveni didn’t have the support of a majority of the population. (Independent polls taken throughout the campaign had Museveni garnering percentages comparable to his final tally.) And, while surveys from a few years back showed Museveni as being less trusted by the under-30 crowd, it’s also true that Museveni is an exceptionally charismatic politician who continues to be popular for bringing stability to the countryside. After the terror of the 1970s under Idi Amin and the subsequent civil wars and violent insurgencies of the 1980s, the security ushered in by the current regime still matters to a lot of voters—especially those old enough to remember how things used to be. “It’s important to remember that peace still resonates with many Ugandans,” says Bernard Tabaire of the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala. “Museveni has made a point of showing that he’s the guarantor of that peace. It makes a lot of people support the regime, regardless of its corruption and anti-democratic behavior.”
So how long will the ruling regime be able to rest on its peace laurels? It’s hard to know. But it’s unlikely that the circulation of another rap will be able to smooth things over the next time Ugandans go to the polls. Given the country’s youthful population (the second-youngest in the world after Niger), a growing number of voters won’t remember the bad old days of yore—and they’ll be demanding more jobs and decent public services just like their brothers and sisters to the north. The fact that Uganda already has more income inequality than both Egypt and Tunisia certainly spells trouble down the road. Indeed, as Museveni may soon learn, the politics of cool can only get you so far.
Elizabeth Palchik Allen is a freelance writer and research associate at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment in Kampala, Uganda.