With each second that passes by, just like in any other part of the world, in Uganda, an important life-changing email is being sent over the internet, a developer is writing their final code before an app goes live, the bank is seamlessly serving its customers, news is being consumed at the speed of light on social media and somewhere a founder is preparing to hop onto a zoom call with his team to discuss something important.
On the eve of 14th January 2021, when Uganda was going to the polls to vote for a President, the country went into a total internet blackout!
For a moment you’d think earth had frozen. Everything seemingly stalled, everyone was confused and wondering if their internet bundles had simply depleted, or their connection was just being shaky, some thought it was just their VPNs. But no, reality had struck, the Government of Uganda had directed for a complete internet shutdown in the country ahead of the polls.
For a moment you’d think earth had frozen.
It all started with blocking access to the Google PlayStore and the Apple App Store after an opposition camp announced an app that would help tally votes during the electoral process. There had been a lot of tension leading to the hotly contested election and everything was being documented online, social media was oozing with photos, videos, op-ed, propaganda, and a lot of fake news about the elections.
On the other side, I was in the middle of the misinformation and fake news flying around across social media platforms and working around the clock to fight it with the facts. A musician cum politician, Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine) was running for President and with him, a legion of fellow youths rallying all their support behind him had only one powerful tool to let the world know about what was happening in Uganda — the Internet.
In the next days as the polls drew closer, access to social media sites was also jammed and Ugandans had to resort to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to find their way around it. And then, the internet was ‘taken away’ for 6 days straight.
Businesses and Education Went Dark
I’m privileged to be some of the people in Uganda who have built a robust career thanks to the internet. Along with like-minded folks, we have combed through the interwebs and have got enormous opportunities and decent livelihoods off the internet.
We have since moved from an era where we were thought to be wasting time on Facebook to giving keynotes about the enormous opportunities embedded on the internet. The internet has become such an important aspect of all our lives regardless of age or class.
Not having an internet connection during the shutdown in Uganda meant that many jobs were on the line, access to basic needs was threatened as bank services too had been heavily impacted and everything that relied on the internet to flourish went into limbo.
I’m talking about the YouTuber who couldn’t amass his views, a blogger whose blog went down for six days, a fintech company whose services went dark, a trader coordinating online with other traders, a digital marketing manager who had spent thousands of dollars for adverts.
For many of my friends who had online exams and classes to attend, the blackout meant that they had to either foot an extra hefty bill for the exam or miss out completely.
It was not the first time the internet has been interfered with in Uganda, in 2016, access to a number of Social Media apps was blocked during the election and the inauguration. The 2021 edition was quite overboard, the internet was completely shut down bringing a halt to a number of services.
After suffering such a traumatic experience with a pandemic clamping us down for the better part of 2020, an internet blackout running for not two or three days but six days was more insult to the injury that most people who rely on the internet were trying to heal from.