Government espionage against Opposition

Uganda’s government has severally been accused of spying on the Opposition, media practitioners and critical citizens by using modern spyware technology to clandestinely tap electronic communications.

President Museveni first hinted at the monitoring of politicians’ telephone conversations when meeting members of Parliament in Kampala in 2003.

Mr Museveni warned lawmakers who were secretly talking to Lord Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group leaders, including Joseph Kony and late Vincent Otti by telephone, that he was aware of their communications.

He accused Ms Cecilia Ogwal, then Lira Municipality MP, of speaking with the then top LRA commander Otti, allegations she denied.

Rattled by the President’s revelation, the legislators and the Opposition accused the government of spying on them. The government hit back, counter-accusing the parliamentarians of involving in criminal activities.

The allegations of spying on the Opposition and government critics have continued.

A 2015 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Africa Review report implicated the Ugandan government in using spyware to carry out surveillance on Opposition leaders in the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party as the country headed to general elections.

The BBC quoted an internal report by a UK firm, Gamma Group, claiming to have sold surveillance technology to Uganda, which was used to carry out surveillance.

The report alleged that Ugandan officials under a programme dubbed Fungua Macho deployed spy gadgets in different areas where Opposition leaders socialised.

“It (technology) can covertly be deployed in buildings, vehicles, computers, mobile phones, cameras and any other equipment deemed worthy for information extraction or surveillance,” the BBC quoted an internal document of Gamma Group.

The document stated that the operation has already gathered secret plans of the FDC.

The government allegedly didn’t spare the media in its surveillance.

According to the report, the aim of the operation was “to manage and control the media houses and Opposition politicians ... which ... may involve blackmailing them.”

The government security agencies denied the allegations and called them baseless.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal investigated allegations that Opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine’s WhatsApp and Skype accounts had been hacked by a Chinese company on behalf of State actors.

Both the government and the Chinese telecom giant denied spying on politicians.  

In 2020 and 2021, it emerged that Kampala had procured and deployed Pegasus spyware technologies to hack into the mobile phones of journalists, Opposition politicians and foreign diplomats accredited here in order to eavesdrop their conversations. Among the targets was reportedly senior American diplomats at the US Mission in Uganda.

The then widely reported digital intrusions prompted the United States government to blacklist NSO Group, an Israel-based company that owns Pegasus.