Uganda’s social media and mobile money blockage takes us several steps back

February 18th, 2016
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Suddenly all my phones (I confess I maintain more than one phone line!) started going off with numerous notifications in the wee hours of Thursday February, 18th 2016. Someone told me: “The entire internet is off in the whole country”. It turns out the Uganda Communications Commission had blocked access to the main social media platforms, in this case Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. They had also reportedly blocked the mobile money service! All this for “security reasons”.

I agree with all who say the internet is a basic human right! Blocking access to any part of vital communications channels is detrimental to the country’s continued growth. Ugandans on Thursday headed to the polls and there is no better way to foster democracy by propelling access to communications. Citizens need to know where to go to cast their ballots and later on find out the results. In case there is violence, people need to know how to avoid hotspots. For many Ugandans, their essential and main means of communication are via Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter.

Equally disappointing are the reports that mobile money, a service where money transfer is done via the mobile phone was blocked! Someone desperately needed money for an emergency in the village and they couldn’t get access to funds all because of this. Surely the government is not so scared of the populous that they think Mobile Money – with all its spending caps of about 5,000,000 UGX (or $2000USD)- can be used to foster rebellion at the eleventh hour.

Ugandan authorities should realise and desist from affecting the ordinary citizen’s access to information and funds. Several small businesses rely on the social media to serve their clients and in turn support their families. What should a fruit vendor who gets orders via their Facebook page, Twitter Direct Message or whatsapp do? By denying small business that rely on these free tools to make ends meet, we are interrupting the lives of honest Ugandans and their loved ones. One of the incumbent’s central campaign message is that a vote for the Opposition is a vote that can lead to war and the disruption of peoples lives, so at very least let people who bought such rhetoric just get on with things.

Moreover, one thing the Ugandan government has always seemingly understood is there is no stopping a Ugandan voicing his/her opinion. It is why Uganda used to be celebrated amongst donors, despite the Opposition’s claims to a lack of democracy, for the openness of the 5th Estate, whether it be cerebral motor-mouths like Andrew Mwenda (though admittedly less critical in recent years) or always wise worlds of Charles Onyango-Obbo are ever present parts of the discussion. Likewise, There is no stopping this train. Social media is here to stay and it is only a powerful and indeed democratizing force. Ugandans are relentless and have already resorted to alternative means such as virtual private networks (VPN) to access the social media networks.The only way is for the UCC – and Government – to be part of the conversation.


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Posted in: Blog, Ramblings, Social Media