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Uganda: internet shutdown amounts to ‘switching off economic engine’

By , Portals editor
Uganda , 10 Feb 2021

Uganda’s recent internet blackout could have far-reaching consequences and the financial impact of shutdowns tends to be underestimated. According to the IDC, the immediate revenue cost to telcos is only a small part of the story.

In January 2021 ITWeb Africa reported that the country had restored internet connectivity five days after it was shut down ahead of the general elections, and digital rights organisation NetBlocks estimated the cost of the downtime to digital services (including mobile money) could be in the region of US$9-million.

The internet was restored 18 January after President Yoweri Museveni was declared winner in the polls, an outcome disputed by Museveni’s main opponent Bobi Wine who claimed the process was rigged.

Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo announced that the unprecedented internet shutdown imposed on 13 January, reportedly for alleged national security reasons, had been lifted, but warned of further shutdowns should there be protests.

During the same month UCC executive director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms.

On 12 January 2021 President Yoweri Museveni confirmed during a national address that his government had shut down social media ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for tomorrow (14 January 2021).

Museveni accused Facebook and unnamed outside groups of “arrogance” after the social media network removed accounts linked to Museveni’s re-election campaign.

Jon Tullett, Research Manager, IT services for IDC Sub-Saharan Africa, said, "There are valid reasons to block access to a social network, but silencing dissent is not one of them. At best it is a last-resort short-term censorship move, but long term it will undermine politics in self-defeating ways anyway."

Jon Tullett, Research Manager, IT services for IDC Sub-Saharan Africa.
Jon Tullett, Research Manager, IT services for IDC Sub-Saharan Africa.

He added that many businesses lose money during this period, due to lost customers, lowered productivity, interrupted supply chains, and so on.

In the short term, there are annoying aspects like access to online content, but there are also critical services using the internet he explained.

“Emergency services often use social networks to communicate because they are exceptionally reliable and bandwidth efficient. Distance learning is important in a lockdown environment – you are setting all your learners back by the duration of the blackout. People communicating in distress, like the sick (it is a pandemic, right?) or vulnerable, may be put in danger of their lives. Health data may be delayed, which is problematic when it is data that will inform vaccine rollouts. Businesses using internet services like Office 365 or SalesForce may see complete productivity shutdowns. The list is as varied as the socio-economic tapestry – so many services are impacted, sometimes severely.”

But it’s the long-term impact on digital transformation that is also a cause for concern, Tullett added.

“Long term, it is largely a trust and confidence issue. Businesses in a country where the government is willing and able to inflict a blackout on its citizens are going to be much less enthusiastic about embracing internet and cloud services. That reticence holds back digital maturation, and digital maturity goes hand in hand with digital transformation. If trust in the telecom regulator’s ability to maintain connectivity fails, trust in other areas of digital risk is likely to drop too – areas like privacy and protection of personal information.”

Tullett said COVID-19 has highlighted just how critical the internet is to keep economic engines running.

“Switching it off is turning off that engine. Long term, there’s reputation damage to local firms, political damage to the incumbent party, undermined trust in the regulatory bodies, and international fallout impacting FDI, damage to political goodwill, potential sanctions, and more. Internet shutdowns do not happen in a vacuum after all – it is in the context of the entire social environment which led the authorities to pull such a drastic move in the first place.”

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