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Uganda Blocks Social Media As Country Holds Presidential Vote

Facebook and WhatsApp have been blocked, the main opposition leader arrested, and tear gas fired at voters so far during a tumultuous day at the polls.

Posted on February 18, 2016, at 4:10 p.m. ET

Ugandans headed to the polls on Thursday to vote in the tightest presidential election in the nation's history. But things were anything but smooth for those trying to cast a ballot.

Ben Curtis / AP

President Yoweri Museveni — who took power in 1986 — is facing down two other main candidates in the election. Should he win, it would be his fifth-term in office.

Ben Curtis / AP

A delay in opening polling stations in and around the capital city of Kampala — a stronghold of opposition support — led to voters waiting in line for up to seven hours for ballot papers to arrive.

"There has been a delay in delivery of polling materials in some parts of Wakiso district and Kampala capital city. The Electoral Commission regrets the delay," the commission said in a statement.
Ben Curtis / AP

"There has been a delay in delivery of polling materials in some parts of Wakiso district and Kampala capital city. The Electoral Commission regrets the delay," the commission said in a statement.

At one polling station, when ballots finally arrived, they only had places to vote for members of parliament — not president — prompting the assembled voters to destroy the ballots and send election officials fleeing.

Ben Curtis / AP
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The anger was so severe that police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd — though the gas was not used quite as liberally as in previous elections.

Ben Curtis / AP

Frustrating matters further, the Mobile Telecommunications Network (MTN), one of Uganda's leading phone service providers, announced Thursday that they had been ordered by the Ugandan government to disable all social media services.

The UCC has directed MTN to disable all SocialMedia & MobileMoney services due to a threat to Public Order & Safety.

It's not clear whether all telecommunications providers complied with the request, but Ugandans throughout the country reported being unable to reach Facebook and Whatsapp, among other services.

Ugandans responded, though, by using virtual private networks (VPN) to dodge the bans and gain access to their apps, as this opposition politician suggested on Twitter.

Good morning. I hope voting is going well at your polling station? To access Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook use Tunnelbear VPN.

The workaround was so successful that the hashtag #UgandaDecides was able to trend on Twitter.

When an election turns every ordinary citizen into a hacker of sorts! #VPN #UgandaDecides

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All told, as many as 1.4 million VPN programs were downloaded throughout the day.

Uganda orders a ban on social media on cellphones; Ugandans respond by downloading 1.4 million VPNs to dodge the ban https://t.co/LqIye4IkGW

As if that wasn't enough drama, opposition leader Kizza Besigye was briefly arrested on Thursday — the second time in the last week. Besigye was reportedly attempting to show reporters examples of voter fraud when the police raided his home.

Ronald Kabuubi / AP

The electoral commission eventually extended polling times to allow those in line to vote. But Besigye's party called the delays a "deliberate attempt to frustrate" opposition supporters.

Stephen Wandera / AP

Results are expected as early as Saturday afternoon — Museveni needs 50% of the vote to prevent a run-off against the next highest vote-getter. Most polls have Museveni winning, but not by nearly as large a margin as his 68% of the vote in 2011.

Ben Curtis / AP
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