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UGANDA’S week began with our 2015 Social Media Awards ‘Most Influential Personality’, John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, who we must call @AmamaMbabazi releasing his long-anticipated declaration that he would be pursuing the highest office in the land in stages starting with the NRM Political Party endorsement.

That was unquestionably hot news even though we have talked about it for more than a year now, but it was made more exciting by being released under the apt title, ‘My Declaration’ on YouTube.

This wasn’t the first time a Ugandan presidential aspirant or hopeful had launched his campaign on YouTube or social media, as Dr. Peter G. Mwesige reminded us here.

But it was significant enough for a couple of media houses to pay attention to that fact – why Social Media? Urban TV Uganda invited me in for their morning talk show, moderated by Gaetano Kagwa, aka Gae, overseen by Malaika Nnyanzi, and produced by Razia Uthman, and we had a vibrant discussion that I must summarise here for those who didn’t watch it.

I “must” do so because it fits the ‘Don’t Blink’ bill, but also because due to the Digital Migration changes, a number of people found themselves unable to watch the programme itself.

@GaetanoKagwa probed quite well and centred the discussion round the question, “Will Social Media be a much greater factor in the coming elections, and is this why @AmamaMbabazi launched his declaration using YouTube?”

The quick answer is, “Of course!”

Social Media platforms are so inevitable that even at kwanjulas in the villages people mention “za Twitter” and “hiyo Facebook” in their vernacular.

It’s trendy, convenient and unavoidable, as anyone reading this online piece will certainly agree. But, I argue, it is NOT the end-all to everything.

@AmamaMbabazi calculated well in releasing his declaration on YouTube on a Monday morning because he captured the day’s agenda and held it for a full day.

Nothing else really mattered on Monday, besides the fact that he had finally made the announcement that he had announced he would be announcing (the jokes around that are nauseating).

And the video itself gathered enough traction to score more than 15,000 views that first day alone – fully half of the biggest newspaper’s (in Uganda) daily circulation, and perhaps even more if one counts the additional YouTube sites that carried the announcement.

Even more, the declaration was also turned into a WhatsApp video that went viral to levels that only the telecom companies can keep count of but will only declare to the Tax Authorities.

As far as Social Media victories go, he achieved a major one on Monday because he was the talk of the world where he was judged as most influential, and the traditional media and other significant players obviously followed the Agenda.

But Social Media platforms aren’t the end-all of everything, especially when it comes to politics. If a curvaceous female had lost her mind and released her nudes any time after lunch of Monday, her hips would have bumped the political agenda off-centre – and by Tuesday evening a number of random timelines that had been avidly political the day before were focussed on the basketball anticipated later on, and even a fairly random tweet of far-less-than-national import.

To make matters worse for @AmamaMbabazi, his now-nemesis, potential rival for the highest seat in the land and former boss and friend, @KagutaMuseveni, returned from ‘outside countries’ and immediately launched a response to the Declaration.

A number of commentators and critics have complained that the President and Party Chairman’s response was too rushed, and that he appeared fatigued, but he was playing a clever card – and a very vital one for Social Media purposes.

He was replacing the Declaration.

If he had allowed the Declaration to stay on the Agenda and timelines of God-knows-how-many computers and smartphones, the momentum could easily have become problematic.

I doubt that he built the numerous negative memes against Mbabazi into his calculations, but if he had then he his quick response was even more justified.

By close of Monday night, timelines were full of remarks, observations and reports of @KagutaMuseveni’s response, rather than the Declaration, so he had scored!

But rewinding a little bit, the Declaration on Social Media had resulted in a clearly unintended consequence – Memes.

And in the list of look-out-for’s below, I mention these as one of the major considerations politicians must keep in mind as they engage with their publics using Social and Digital Media platforms.

@AmamaMbabazi’s team clearly didn’t count on there being so many memes drawn out and spread after the Declaration, otherwise they would have created their own to fill the space.

And rather than reproduce them here, I’m happier sharing the following Look-Out-For’s that all politicians should consider in 2015 going forward, especially in Uganda:

  1. Don’t use only one platform – it never really counts for much. Social Media only makes sense if you understand the interactivity and virality involved – a video on YouTube must be tweeted round, put on Facebook, shared on WhatsApp, put onto TV, reported on in the newspapers, etc…
  2. Don’t believe the hype – YOU created it. Seriously. YOU are the one who started the kaboozi, so if you sit back and believe the people love you because they are re-tweeting you, then you are in for a major shock when the Electoral Commission returns results, if not earlier when a rally is called and nobody shows up.
  3. Don’t read all the praise. Avoid reading the praise because the people you follow and who follow you are already your friends and will always be fawning; instead, look out for those other people and what they say, because THAT’S where your feedback is. So if you have wolves on the ready to attack anybody who appears negative, hold them back – they might be losing you support that you might win with your points.
  4. Those girls with wide hips will bump you off the agenda; so, again, don’t put all your sugar in this kaveera – in any case, buveera have been banned…
  5. But now ask yourself, who are those people who are saying how much they love you and will follow you into hell and beyond with your political agenda? Do they have voters cards? Do they exist? Supposing you are being followed by about 5,000 people who have four accounts each? If you don’t interact with these guys in different forums and have them put something serious where their Facebook likes, YouTube comments and ReTweets are…
  6. As I’ve said in many different ways above, if you are after ReTweets and Likes, you are in the right place, if you are after votes, this is only one very small step in that very long journey – as @AmamaMbabazi should obviously be aware, since the revolution he and @KagutaMuseveni have been involved in for more than forty years did NOT rely on Social Media at all, though it was premised on social capital.

In short, walk the talk, because talk on its own is cheap – even if it does cost a bit in internet data on social media!

Mike Mukula (@Mukulaa), who was well ahead of @AmamaMbabazi on Twitter by the time his profile first read “Presidential Aspirant” has even signed off on parliamentary politics in 2016!

  1. And finally, Memorability on Social Media counts more than presence – which is why @KagutaMuseveni’s return salvo of Monday night was so crucial. I asked a number of ‘serious’ people to recount the eight points put forward by @AmamaMbabazi on Tuesday morning and it was embarrassing. The best example of memorability came when I juxtaposed a comment by the despicable (don’t worry, I have earned the right to use this term openly) Tamale Mirundi, which everyone who couldn’t recount Mbabazi’s eight points somehow remembered yet Mirundi didn’t post it to Facebook, Tweet it or upload the comment to Facebook – the one about a woman who claims to be a Senga being caught sleeping with someone’s husband, and concluding with “Mbabazi Tumuwonye”.

I can’t even confirm whether he said it or not, but it’s memorable and makes for the kind of sensation that keeps social media platforms alive and growing – much more than serious political intent.

‘President of Social Media’ does not come with an office provided for in the Constitution of Uganda, and all politicians would do well to keep that in mind as they embark on political activity here.

  • Brian Kawuma

    Great read Simon. I was looking forward specifically to your views on the features that make social media a handy tool in the political mobilization & participation process. Uganda has about 5 million internet users, most of these are the youth. With the internet going mobile, it is quite possible that more are accessing the internet coz let’s face it, we’ve all shared phones at one point for more than just making a call (damn these whatsapp videos!!) . So I’d look at social media strength from the lense of ease of sharability of information and the illusion of anonymity..(have they caught the real TVO?). Because we believe more when it’s from people we know, I see the 5 million users being able to influence or at least inform another 5 of their kith or kin and thus growing the network or reach. I do acknowledge though, like you rightly said; it’s not an end in its own. In fact social media gives you more work than you thought, it’s hard to keep the youth’s attention if you’re fighting for the same audience as the Kardashians or Wayne Rooney (..okay even our Ugandan girls with kitone)