By now you might have seen or heard about the sensational piece of fake news that went viral a few days on WhatsApp, claiming that western Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s home region (with a third of Uganda’s population), had 270 MPs, more than the rest of the regions combined, which had 256 MPs. It was wrong, as western region has 129 MPs, fewer than eastern region, which has 141, almost as many as the north, and only 24 more than central.

The fake news, however, was/is widely believed and, curiously, it took at least a day for the political system and Ugandan truth keepers on social media to counter it. The misinformation was a piece of near-genius misinformation. Many believed it, because the Museveni government has been portrayed successfully as sectarian and many consider it to be “tribal”.

Secondly, it was well-timed when feelings are still running high over the January 14 elections, which rivals have rejected as stolen and runner-up Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) is challenging in court. In the prevailing ill-will, such “news” is likely to be well-received.

Except, this doesn’t end there. In Ugandan history, such fake news has always been an indicator of a wider political contest – and in the early 1980s, ironically, President Museveni was a beneficiary.  Generally, what have now gained prominence the world over as fake news and conspiracy theories, don’t happen randomly or in a vacuum.

It can be deadly propaganda, used to incite violence, but it can also be revolutionary, a weapon of the weak against the powerful. A Goliathan state, frustrated by the enduring popularity of an Opposition figure or his tenacity, will resort to fake news (and trumped-up charges of rape) against him - just ask FDC’s Kizza Besigye. 

But a David-like Opposition or group will also resort to fake news, alleging the President is sacrificing children, has ordered a massacre he didn’t, is plotting to steal a community’s land, has done a corrupt deal with a foreign company, or was behind a car accident in which a famous person died.

By so doing, they heighten hatred for the Big Man, and diminish him. A fellow who loses the affection of a beautiful woman to a rival, will spread false stories about the victor on social media; a woman whose boyfriend takes off with her friend, will unleash fiery lies about them on Facebook or Instagram.

Nativists groups fearing they are being out-numbered by immigrants will spread conspiracies and apocalyptic tales about them, and the liberal politicians who support them. Liberal groups will do the same to loony conservative politicians and forces. The actors understand information asymmetry, or have a savvy of social prejudices and psychological needs.

No one had paid attention to the distribution of MPs in Uganda by region. But the creators of the infographic, also understood there is a yearning to see Museveni’s regime as evil and unjust, and supplied the information that feeds the need.

In the 1960s, as this column reported before, one of the big stories in Uganda, especially in the south, was about alleged mysterious appearances of a giant red lizard called embalasasa (red‐franked skink lygosoma). Being red, the embalasasa is unsettling, even if it wasn’t big. Milton Obote, in the wake of his government’s attack on the Buganda royal place, Lubiri, was deeply unpopular in the region.

Embalasasa would cause panic, and had the State scrambling to deal with sightings. No sighting was ever reported, but it became a force the Obote government couldn’t control. It embodied the regime’s powerlessness.

During Idi Amin’s rule, a tormented country resorted to similar subterfuge. There were so many political rumours that caused panic, Amin’s government actually banned rumours. It was common all over the country for the charismatic former Obote army chief Oyite Ojok to allegedly appear in barracks, in streets, in State House, everywhere.

Amin soldiers would flee roadblocks on rumours of Oyite approaching, and military operations would be carried to arrest him. There was no Oyite. He was ghost that a helpless country threw up to gaslight Amin and make his terror machine feel small.

In the early 1980s, when Museveni was fighting the bush war in Luweero, he caused similar mayhem. There were wild stories about Museveni appearing as a rat or cat, sneaking into Bank of Uganda, and walking out with sacks of money to fight his war.

There were stampedes and mass deployment to catch a Museveni who had been “seen” buying stuff in Bwaise.
Mobile phones, the internet, and social media have highly technologised these old wild rumours. What hasn’t changed are the small people, the tormented and oppressed, playing David and using them as weapons, in this case, against Goliath Tibuhaburwa.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3