At least two ruling party MPs, a minister and some regime functionaries have been named in multibillion schemes tailor-made largely to shine up the president’s rather tainted public image.
The image-polishing plot, according to sources, is supposed to counter the fall-out from the regime’s crackdown on its political opponents. Its origins date back to September last year when President Museveni spoke of some people who had asked to brush up his public image at a fee.
This followed the brutal arrest and prosecution of Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine).
They came here telling me, Mzee, these days, what matters are not facts, it is the appearance – it is the perception… perception… Really! This is how you are developing… that it [idea] is from I don’t know where. There is even PR [public relations], groups come here, that we want to do your PR. PR? I don’t need PR. I am Yoweri Museveni, son of Kaguta, General of the National Resistance Army, I don’t need any polishing,” Museveni said during a televised press conference at State House.
At the time, there were at least three proposals on his desk, each asking for billions of shilling to run a public relations campaign to counter the widespread criticism on social media over Kyagulanyi’s incarceration.
Kyagulanyi was in August last year brutally arrested with 34 others in the West Nile town of Arua where he had gone to campaign for the Arua Municipality MP, Kassiano Wadri.
The arrests were effected amidst claims that the accused’s supporters stoned the president’s motorcade. Kyagulanyi was first charged before the military court martial with treason and being in possession of illegal firearms. These charges were later dropped before he was included on the charge sheet with his co-accused at the Chief Magistrate’s court in Gulu.
On social media, activists started a hashtag #FreeBobiWine, further mounting pressure on government here and abroad. At the time, Museveni was disappointed with the official government spokespersons for not doing enough to defend the establishment.
To Museveni, despite the various government interventions, his government officials remained casual; not speaking about what the government had done, and offering no explanation as to why certain things had not been worked on. For the strategists at parliament and State House, this was an opportunity to push through a PR campaign.
The Observer has heard from sources that one of the groups was led by a youthful female. It included MPs; Moses Balyeku (Jinja Municipality West), Raphael Magyezi (Igara West), Paul Amoru (Dokolo North) and Judith Nabakooba (Mityana Woman). This presented a budget of Shs 13 billion for the job.
Another group comprised NRM social media activists. Led by Awel Uwihanganye and Duncan Abigaba, this particular group had a budget of Shs 6 billion while Vincent Bagiire, the permanent secretary at the ministry of ICT and National Guidance, had a budget of Shs 2.4 billion.
One of the groups suggested to Museveni that they had identified an investor willing to sell to them at Shs 800 million, a machine that would detect negative comments on social media for a prompt response.
Before he flew out to China at the beginning of September, Museveni called the groups separately to a meeting at State House Entebbe with a view of harmonizing their proposals.
What the group members did not know is that Museveni had invited them to the same meeting which also had the state minister for Planning David Bahati and the executive director of Uganda Media Centre, Ofwono Opondo. Museveni invited Bahati, Opondo and Bagiire to back him up.
The invitees arrived at Entebbe before 7pm but waited till about 11pm to be ushered into the meeting room. During the wait, suspicion grew, and indeed, some gathered data about the online presence of their colleagues, now their competitors. This is how the Shs 13bn group led by the female minister was torn down since majority of her group’s membership were not tech-savvy.
But since the MPs were outspoken during the age limit debate, they attempted to use it as bait for Museveni to accept their bidding.
“After togikwatako [opposition campaign against the deletion of the age limit clause from the Constitution], there was a lull among the NRM MPs, because of the blackmail from their competitors and the media, many of them feared visiting their constituencies. So, this group suggested to the president they need a good media campaign to roll back the hostility against them.”
At this stage, an “NRM boy” stood up and told Museveni that the MPs were asking for too much yet none of them is active on social media, and, therefore, could not influence anything. A suggestion came up that instead of funding individual groups; Museveni needed to facilitate the Government Citizens Interaction Centre (GCIC) under the ICT ministry to do the job.
Museveni asked Bahati whether this was possible to which the minister responded, “There is no need for you to look for new money, there is already money in the different government entities for communication and advertisements; we can liaise with the different heads and see how much they can offer for GCIC to do the job.”
Bahati asked to be given up to the end of the third financial quarter (March 2019) to look at the different departmental budgets, talk to the respective accounting officers and find which money is not yet committed so that it can be reallocated to this new PR campaign.
Meanwhile, Museveni agreed to facilitate the GCIC where Uwihanganye, Abigaba and journalist Ahmed Kateregga Musaazi, among others, were deployed.
As the wait for Bahati’s report on possible funding continues, several MPs and NRM functionaries are signing up for social media presence especially on Twitter and Facebook. Some have gone as far as starting online publications because they have been advised that it is the best way they can become online influencers.
The MPs named in this venture did not answer our repeated calls. Interviewed, Opondo confirmed that Museveni is disappointed that government officials are not communicating as well as they should.
While he could not confirm nor deny having been part of the Entebbe meeting, Opondo said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if different people have gone to the president with proposals that they can do the job.”
The fight for the control of Museveni’s social media presence dates back to 2012 when Museveni appointed Sarah Kagingo as a presidential assistant on communication.