On the eve of the January 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, government without warning shut down the internet. This followed the shutdown of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp earlier in the week.
In his pre-election address to the nation this week, President Museveni said he had shut down social media in response to the blocking of tens of accounts owned by ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) supporters by social media giant Facebook.
He claimed Facebook was taking sides, and as a result he could not tolerate “the arrogance of anybody coming [here] to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”
Facebook in its defence said the accounts violated their rules by engaging in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” and seeking to manipulate debate ahead of the hotly contested elections.
But this is just an example of a wider problem in Africa. Many countries on the continent have previously shut down the internet or blocked social media sites before, during or after elections in what analysts say is a move to stifle dissent.
Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali and Guinea are just some of the examples of countries that restricted internet access last year. In total, the continent registered 25 partial or total internet shutdowns in 2019, as compared to 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017. This points to a worrying trend that has to be paid attention to.
Whereas governments do it in the name of protecting national security, the cost of the shutdowns are too much to bear. In Uganda, for instance, the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic was affected. Testing centres have previously relied on communication by email, but this channel was cut-off following the blockade. Until the internet is restored, testing and updating Ugandans on the fight against the pandemic will be disrupted.
And this is just one example of a sector affected by the blockade. In an era where people are working from home and depend on the internet to deliver their work, this disrupted their livelihoods.
Newsrooms that usually depend on receiving stories from correspondents via the internet had resort to moving flash drives across the country, not to mention how much losses online businesses had to incur, or students studying online who failed to submit their assignments, etc.
In an age where the world is interconnected via the internet, a day offline could mean untold losses for thousands of Ugandans.