In May last year when coup plotters besieged Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, he disabled the Internet and launched a twitter fight from an unknown location to snatch back his crown. It was an irony difficult to miss. I wrote about it in this newspaper on May 21, 2015.
Iron-fisted men are not friends of the Internet. Their dislike went a notch higher from 2011, during the Arab Spring, when social networking sites stood out prominently as crucial platforms for organising dissent, resulting in the toppling of aged and long-ruling North African autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali.
On the morning of February 18, only hours after the polls opened, Ugandans woke up to an information blackout. The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) without any public notice, had ordered telecom companies to disable social networking sites and mobile money from their infrastructure. The telecoms, also without any public notice, duly complied disabling Facebook, Twitter and mobile money.
‘‘MTN has been directed by UCC to disable all social media and mobile money services due to a threat to public order and safety,’’ MTN said in a statement when the din from social media users (who had circumvented the blockade) became unbearable.
The Internet and mobile phones have become a way of social and economic life for a segment of the Ugandan population. Internet use in Uganda stands at 20 per cent of the population and phone density at 52 cell phones per 100 inhabitants, according to a 2014 status report by UCC. By June 2014, the number of mobile money account holders stood at 17.6 million. The Daily Monitor (August 8, 2014) quoting Bank of Uganda’s Dr Charles Abuka said by June 2014, there were 445.7 million mobile money transactions valued at Shs22.2 trillion.
Clearly then, unexpectedly yanking off social media and mobile money due to a suspicious and an unexplained public order and safety concern is a disruption to public order because of the impact it has on Ugandans and the economy.
In a 2011 brief titled ‘‘The Dictators’ Digital Dilemma: When Do States Disconnect Their Digital Networks? ’’ Brookings, an American think-tank, noted: ‘‘In times of political uncertainty, rigged elections, or military incursions, ruling elites are sometimes willing to interfere with information infrastructure as a way of managing crises.’’
But the paper also observed that disabling parts of the Internet and shutting it has always had mixed results because the tech-savvy will always find a way around blockades. By some accounts, on day one of the social media blockade, more than one million Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications had been downloaded in Uganda to circumvent the social media blockade. This action once more demonstrated the equalising power of the Internet.
Disabling social media is a double-edged sword. It put government and NRM spin doctors in the awkward position of using VPN to carry on with their work on social media. Embarrassingly for the telecom firms, they too had to partly use social media to pass on information about a blockade they had effected.
As the Internet increasingly becomes an integral part of our daily life, disabling it sharpens its double edges, cutting the State, Ugandans, the economy, our politics, our social life and increases the investment risks in the country.
Authoritarian States disable and shutdown the Internet more frequently than democratic societies. Putting off social media and mobile money at a critical moment when information sharing was most needed is telling about the kind of State Uganda has and the nature of our ‘democracy’.
Mr Odokonyero has interest in media development, communications& public affairs firstname.lastname@example.org