On January 13, two days before Uganda’s presidential election, Uganda Communications Commission sent a letter to all telecom providers in the country, ordering them to shut down all internet access points.
“In exercise of its functions under sections 5(1) and 56 of the Uganda Communications Act of 2013, Uganda Communications Commissions hereby directs you to implement a temporary suspension of the operation of all your Internet Gateways and associated access points. This suspension should take effect at 7pm this day of 13th January 2021 and continue until otherwise directed,” the notice signed by the Commission executive director, Irene Kaggwa sewankambo said.
What followed this notice was a total shutdown of the internet in the East African country, and the resultant consequence goes beyond the people’s inability to share the presidential election events online. Over the next four days, businesses depending on the internet were forced to halt operation as internet service providers who have no choice complied with the order.
In an evident ploy by the government to control information going out of the country during the election, Ugandan authorities gave no consideration to the would-be impact of the order even on the polls. The incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, who was seeking a sixth term in office, was determined to hold on to power at all costs.
The 76-year old who has ruled Uganda for 34 years was facing ten other contestants led by popular singer, Bobi Wine, 38, who has gained global attention due to his bravery against Museveni’s brutal regime.
As the voting commenced, many polling stations were forced to use manual voting and checks after the biometric machines failed to register ballots because of the internet shutdown. But that’s just part of many of the bitter experiences many Ugandans have come in terms with due to lack of access to the internet.
World Bank data shows that three-quarters of Ugandans are under the age of 30 and have never known another president apart from Museveni. This generation of people started to embrace the internet in the late 2000’s, using it to develop new ideas and spur economic growth.
Uganda boasts of entrepreneurship and an ecosystem comprising some of the youngest in the African continent. With a median age of 17, about 77% of the country’s population is under the age of 25, and the tech-savvy generation Z has pushed their tech ecosystem to the notice of international investors.
As of august 2020, Uganda had a total of 190 disclosed startup funding rounds, with a value of $55 million.
COVID-19 outbreak reinforced the commitment of most of the startups and companies to develop digitally. E-commerce platforms like Bringo Fresh, The Online Butchery, payments’ Xente, were among those who became popular online during the coronavirus-induced lockdown in Uganda.
While the companies were relishing their newly found digital fame that has kept them in business, the government decision to shut down the internet has come as a shock that could undermine their future prospects.
Though it isn’t the first time the government is shutting down the internet. In 2016, as the election neared, the government ordered that social media platforms in Uganda be closed until the election was over. It was a pattern many entrepreneurs were expecting the government to follow this time. Unfortunately, it’s a total shutdown of the internet, and the businesses have a high price to pay for it.
“This put our businesses in bad shape, and if the internet isn’t turned on soon, some businesses will be in a really bad situation,” Rapa Thomson Ricky, the co-founder and director of taxi-haling company Safe Boda said.
Ricky said Safe Boda generates over a million mobile transactions with its network of 22,000 drivers in the Kampala metropolitan Area, using the internet. And it has stayed in business through commission derived from each ride. That’s how the startup keeps its business afloat even in the face of the pandemic.
“We are small companies, just waiting for when the Internet returns and we can’t be sure when that will be. Even if we are making Ush50 off transaction, the cumulative effect of this gets big over the number of days we are not running and our riders are not able to earn,” he added.
E-commerce store Jumia, is among those badly hit by the internet shutdown. The chief executive officer Ronnie Kawamara said hundreds of orders including food deliveries as well as parcels of non-food items were either left in transit or not sent due to the arbitrary internet shutdown.
Other businesses including telcos and hotels said the order was shocking and unexpected, as they were only expecting social media channels to be shut down like in the past.
Internet rights groups said the government’s shutdown of the internet in 2016 cost Ugandan economy $2 million, and it set a trajectory that birthed the Jan. 13 order.
Uganda has 17.5 million internet users, who by the order, the government restricted from accessing services. E-commerce, digital platforms and e-payment systems were also shut out of business.
The order has been rescinded, but it sets economic-sabotaging precedent that may dampen the interest of investors in the untapped Ugandan tech-ecosystem.