By Haggai Matsiko
Who is winning on social media?
No Ugandan presidential candidate has created as much activity on social media as former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi who in a June 15 YouTube video announced his intention to stand against the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni in the 2016 elections. His campaign poster for the 2016 polls—yellow poster with his portrait and words, Amama16, Go Forward, uploaded the night before had already garnered 500 comments on Facebook, the following day.
The 66-year old former Prime Minister, who has been a subject of massive speculation since he was sacked from his two positions—Prime Minister and ruling party Secretary General—at the end of last year, having served in Museveni’s government for as many years as it has existed, is the most trending subject both in Uganda’s mainstream and social media.
He has tapped into his over 43k followers on Facebook and 85.5K on Twitter, who he engages daily and whose attention he seems to have captured. This appears to be rattling the President Museveni establishment.
In a country where campaigning against the incumbent tends to be suppressed—Mbabazi’s campaign posters have been confiscated and others pulled down by police, which claims until official campaigning time is declared, displaying posters remains a preserve of Museveni, who could cap 35 years in power if he wins the 2016 elections. Some are beginning to see Mbabazi’s use of social media as ground breaking and a potential solution to suppression.
Soon after Mbabazi’s YouTube video, President Museveni issued a rebuttal both on national TV and newspapers, the same night he arrived from a trip in South Africa where he was attending an African Union summit.
President Museveni has a bigger following online than Mbabazi. But, possibly partly because the President avoids mobile gadgets (fearing that opponents will listen into his conversations, according to sources at State house), he appears not to be exploiting the full potential of the 122,000 followers on his Twitter handle @KagutaMuseveni.
Even his reaction to Mbabazi was not posted on either his Facebook or Twitter page. It only appeared on YouTube after being uploaded by NTV.
“If @SarahKagingo was directly incharge of Social Media at State House, we would be seeing different results & responses!! She had set pace,” observed a one Jac Mutaakuzi on June 19 posted on Twitter.
Sarah Kagingo still works for President Museveni in her capacity as the Special Presidential Assistant for Communication but she posts on her Twitter handle @SarahKagingo and her Facebook page named Sarah Kagingo. It is Lindah Nabusayi, the deputy presidential press secretary, who now handles the president’s pages and also posts on her Twitter handle @lindahNabusayi on Twitter and her Facebook page named Nabusayi Wamboka.
President Museveni’s lackluster online game plan is still reeling from the turf fights amongst his social media handlers.
His Twitter page has continued to carry tweets about his official visits and events and the President’s posts on Facebook have at most attracted about 60 comments. Some of Mbabazi’s posts have attracted as many as 200 to 500 comments.
Specifically, in the battle against Mbabazi, the president’s Facebook and Twitter pages have not carried any posts. It is only the likes of Ofwono Opondo, the Uganda Media Centre boss, Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister of Presidency that have posted reactions to Mbabazi’s activity on their pages.
Mbabazi, meanwhile, appears to have a long term online strategy. For example, his June 10 announcement appears to have started being orchestrated online on May 18, almost a month earlier. On that day, a dark cover picture was uploaded on Mbabazi’s Facebook page. The next cover picture—dark with a single yellow strip came nine days after. His sister-in-law, Alice Ruhindi, described the picture as representative of a “light at the end of the tunnel”.
These pictures were followed with several other teasers which stopped with the upload of the cover picture that garnered 500 comments and his logo—with the words, Go Forward and a flying crested crane.
Go Forward is now one of the most popular hashtags amongst Ugandan Twitteratis (users of Twitter). Since he declared, Mbabazi’s last tweet was the link to his June 14 declaration on YouTube. But on June 22, he added three more tweets directing followers to visit his website www.ammambabazi.com for answers about his role in the NRM and what he stands for. Followers of his Twitter handle @AmamaMbabazi had in a week’s time increased to 85,500 up from 84,200 and Facebook likes also increased by over 4000.
Mbabazi has posted his two interviews with the BBC, which has kept the conversation going on his Facebook page. Since June 14, it is Josephine Mayanja-Nkanji, his spokesperson, who has been in charge of Twitter, mostly returning volleys to Museveni’s supporters and handlers like Ofwono Opondo seeking to discredit Mbabazi.
The Independent could not verify information by a source close to the Mbabazi camp that behind the former Prime Minister’s genius display on the YouTube and the social networks—Facebook and Twitter—is a London-based firm.
What is clear, however, is that Mbabazi has been an active user of the social networks since he joined them over four years ago.
In 2012, for instance, Twiplomacy, a study of world leaders on Twitter ranked Mbabazi, then still Prime Minister as the most conversational politician on the social network. In the same study, Rwandan President Paul Kagame was ranked second to Mbabazi.
The study was conducted by Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations and communications firm. At the time Mbabazi had only 33,268 followers. But the firm revealed that he had 95 percent reply to other Twitter users.
At the time Mbabazi had introduced a Twitter session, AskthePM, where he welcomed and responded to questions about a range of issues.
The Burson-Marsteller study was based on information from accounts of 643 heads of state and other senior government officials of 161 countries.
Whether it is an international firm behind his performance online or not, the efforts are paying off.
It is still early to tell what gains the online efforts will contribute to Mbabazi’s campaign given that of Uganda’s 8.5 million internet users, only 1.6 million are Facebook subscribers and only 25,000 actively use Twitter, according to statistics from sector regulator the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).