KAMPALA – In the wake of slowed internet speed and a switch off of social media platforms, many Ugandans resorted to Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to continue public debate and political participation ahead of the voting day on the 14th of January 2021. The shutdown undermined internet access and affordability, and weakened the potential of digital technologies to catalyse free expression and civic participation in the electoral processes.
The 2021 general elections happened in a total internet blackout that cut off the whole of Uganda from crucial information on the events that took place on voting day and post voting. It was without a doubt that the electoral process was hijacked and unfair to the participants and the citizenry as a collective.
The outright strong hold on the electoral process re-echoed the fact that Uganda needs to revisit its democratic practises in regard to elections and the periodic five year voting routine won’t cut it when it comes to authentic democratic practices. An exercise void of freedom and the will of the people cannot be certified as free and fair.
The increased arbitrary arrests, increased military presence and outright assault of the citizens justified the role of the citizen actively participating in the political life of the Uganda. These in themselves foster and continue the discourse and agenda during the electoral cycle of the Uganda but the continued curtail that “undermines public confidence in the use of online platforms could lead to increased self-censorship by media, civil society groups and individual citizens, as well as to their withdrawal from online discourse.”
While the growing internet coverage has empowered citizens to challenge autocratic regimes, non-democratic leaders have also disrupted internet access to de-legitimize their critics, manipulate the online narrative and stifle freedom of expression.
It is evident that the infringement on access to internet, mobile services during the voting and post voting period was a setback in the role citizen journalism plays in creating civic awareness and civic engagement in the polity of Uganda—in keeping each other informed within the electoral space. The lack of information not only obliterated faith in the electoral process but also in the results of the elections. Without a doubt, we cannot bank on the legitimacy of the concluded elections.
It is important that citizens participate in information gathering as a catalyst to providing accurate news and share important information that can shape the discourse in the electoral process. It is then imperative on the communication houses and the Internet Service Providers to offer these services without further constraint.
Internet shutdowns have become prevalent in many parts of Africa especially during contested elections or major protests. While we have known that these crackdowns stifle citizens’ right to basic government information, and pose threats to the democratic process, recent studies are revealing that internet shutdowns are costing Africa’s economy billions of dollars as well.
It should be noted that Uganda lost two million dollars every day that the internet was shut down in 2016. One can only imagine how much money Uganda has lost in a total internet shutdown, post lockdown and in a pandemic where the reality of the matter has been that business have been trying to recover from a six-month period of no work. It is imperative on us to acknowledge that the recovery process for Uganda’s economy does not need any extra bends lest we continue to fall back and waddle in abject poverty.
On May 30, 2018 Uganda’s parliament passed a widely opposed amendment to the Excise Duty Act, introducing an excise tax of Uganda Shillings (UGX) 200, equivalent to USD 0.05 per user per day for use of Over the Top (OTT) services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. The tax rendered the internet less affordable for many Ugandans, particularly low income earners.
Indeed, three months after the tax was introduced, the number of internet users in the country had declined by five million, thereby cutting the internet penetration rate from 47% to 35%.10 By the same law, a 0.5% levy was imposed on all mobile money cash withdrawal transactions, an issue that has equally caused public outcry and undermined financial inclusion for the poorest.
The litmus paper has been set and the citizenry going forward will continue to question the legitimacy, validity and fairness of the 2021 general elections. Were the elections rigged in the absence of any witness? Ugandans were officially robbed of a chance to participate in a free and fair election.
Going forward, we need to hold communication houses and service providers accountable for the losses and the inconveniences recreated in their quest to fulfil the whimsical wishes of one individual at the expense of millions of Ugandans who disenfranchised at the peak of the election.
The deliberate effort to suppress internet use and in this sense a total internet black-out strengthens the need for Ugandans to rally towards advocacy for their fundamental human rights that are the bare minimal in shaping the electoral democracy of Uganda in our bid towards free and fair election.
The author, Tricia Gloria Nabaye is a resident research associate Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies