A short History of Uganda’s ICT Revolution and the Law of Unintended Consequences

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The history of ICTs in Uganda is a short but intense one. Uganda started embracing ICTs as part of its economic development strategy when the first mobile phone service came onto the Ugandan scene in December 1994. The telecom company Celtel, using the GSM 900 technology mainly targeted high end users like business people and the diplomatic community. The cost of owning and maintaining a mobile phone was so high that that having a car was estimated to be a cheaper undertaking. Owning a mobile phone was a status symbol.

Things began to change however, with the entry into the market, of the South African giant Mobile Telecommunications Network (MTN) in 1998. Calls became cheaper, and the network was extended to rural areas, going beyond Kampala as the hub for the mobile telephone industry. More players like Airtel, Warid and Zain entered the marked with more diversified products making communication even cheaper. More internet providers also came on the scene and the cost, while still one of the most expensive in the world, became much cheaper than before.

Since then, the ICT sector has grown rapidly. The industry Grew by 30.3% in the 2009/10 financial year accounting for 3.3% of the GDP. Over 50% of the population are subscribed to mobile phone service provider and the number of internet users increased from 2,475,812 in 2008 to 4,178,085 in 2010 (168% of growth). Millions own smartphones, a fact driving digital penetration even in the rural countryside. Internet users are estimated at 6.5million as of 2012, accounting for 18.5 percent of the country’s population of 35 million. The increase in internet usage has been further fueled by the country’s youth bulge. Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with over 78% below 30 years. These are more embracing of ICTs than their older, and inevitably old school, parents.

siemensThis 1996 ad in Uganda’s Monitor newspaper shows a $850 cellphone!

The liberalization of the communication industry also led to an increase in FM radio stations which now number in hundreds and as a result up to 80 percent of all households especially in the countryside now rely on radio for news and information. The “Ebimeeza” (people’s parliaments) call-in talk shows were popularized and people began to freely debate the most important political and social issues of the day. There also dozens of TV stations and a couple of daily newspapers serving different audiences in the country.

The explosion in ICTs was aided by friendly ICT policies which created an enabling environment for ICT entrepreneurs to blossom. The National Information And Communication Technology Policy of 2003 was intended to help the government implement more successful long term national development programmes like the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), the Plan for Modernization of Agriculture (PMA), and others, by ensuring that timely and relevant information is available at all levels of implementation.

The Ministry of Information and Communications was established in June 2006 with a mandate of “providing strategic and technical leadership, overall coordination, support and advocacy on all matters of policy, laws, regulations and strategy for the ICT sector”.

Developments in ICTs have dramatically changed the way information is collected, stored, processed, disseminated and used, thus making it a powerful tool for modernization and development.


Inevitably however, the growth in ICTs also culminated into social, political and economic situations that were not equally desirable for all the stakeholders

The free discussions by ordinary people of social-political issues on several radio stations did not augur well for some in the government who decided to start clamping down on these discussions. Ebimeeza were banned by the Broadcasting Council in September 2009

Radio and TV stations as well as newspapers that were deemed to “spread inflammatory material” were threatened and some were closed which forced others into self-censorship

Then came the explosion in Social Media growth. Million of Ugandans are signed up on facebook, twitter and many young elite activists are endlessly sharing their opinions on blogs across the internet. This is aided by the increasing ownership of smartphones that are replacing old, ‘call-only’ handsets that are now derided as belonging to ‘stone age’. Facebook and Twitter were blocked by the government during the 2016 presidential election over fears that people might announce premature results. Officials are still warning of the potential dangers of social media to Uganda’s stability.

Cyber crime is also increasing in Uganda. The country’s Tax collecting body, The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA)’s systems were hacked into in 2013 leading to an estimated sh2billion ($700,000) tax loss in vehicle registrations. The telecom giant MTN also lost sh15 billion (US$5.7million) in Mobile Money fraud, a scam made possible by insider collaboration.  Many companies desist from reporting such crimes for fear of scaring away potential clients so it’s possible the problem is more widespread than reported. Such crimes are complex and difficult to prosecute by a justice system to which they are a completely new development.

This has created a dilemma for the government; how to protect information users while not appearing to clamp down on freedom of information and expression the country’s laws unabashedly support.

The government has so far failed to walk this fine line. Sweeping legislations have been put in place that are threatening the rights of individuals’ constitutional rights to privacy and self expression

The regulations put in place and their enforcement sometimes go beyond their mandate. In March 2012, the Government of Uganda tabled the Communications Regulatory Authority Bill, a major piece of legislation ‘intended to consolidate and harmonise existing and overlapping laws’

Citing what it calls ‘security ramifications of online activity that  have begun to permeate the national consciousness’ Government under the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology developed a National Information Security Strategy (2011) which aims at addressing security challenges that are envisaged in this era of technological advances.

Other laws that came before or at the heels of this strategy include: the Regulation of Interception of Communications (RIC), 2010, which parliament hurriedly passed in the aftermath of the July 2010 bomb attacks, and allows for interception of communications and possible intrusion into personal communications. It also requires telecom companies to collect customers’ information, including name, address and identity number, and to take other measures to enable interception. A registration of all SIM card owners in Uganda exercise concluded on May 31, 2013, which made the monitoring easier. As a matter of fact, an explosive report by the BBC last year stated that Uganda’s government had been spying on the opposition and the media for years, using spying equipment supplied by a UK technology firm.

The Anti-Terrorism Act No.14 of 2002 gives security officers powers to intercept the communications of a person suspected of terrorist activities and to keep such persons under surveillance. The scope of the interception and surveillance includes letters and postal packages, telephone calls, faxes, emails and other communications, as well monitoring meetings of any group of persons. Others powers include the surveillance (including electronic) of individual’s movements and activities, and access to their bank accounts.

Older laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act (2002); Press and Journalist Act of 2000 and the Regulation of the Interception of Communications Act of 2010 remain on the books to negate these freedoms.  Since 2010, a number of other restrictive laws have also been drafted such as the Public Order Management Act (2013) which seeks to regulate the conduct of public meetings as well as discussion of issues at such meetings and the 2010 Press and Journalists Amendment Bill intended to enforce annual registration and licensing of newspapers by the statutory Media Council.

Even those laws exclusively focused on fighting cyber crime are suspiciously viewed by some due to the dubious language in which they are crafted:

  • The computer misuse act of 2010 is intended to “ensure the safety and security of electronic transactions and information systems and other related matters
  • The Electronic Transaction Act 2011 is “to provide for the use, security, facilitation and regulation of electronic communications and transactions and to provide for related matters”
  • The Electronic Signatures Act, 2011 aims “to make provision for and to regulate the use of electronic signatures and to provide for other related matters”

 It is those “other related matters” that analysts believe may in the end make these laws go beyond the limits of  their jurisdiction, and negate some of the freedoms enshrined in other government laws that guarantee  peoples’ freedoms to use and benefit from the country’s ICTs revolution

Government therefore needs some self restraint to avoid overzealousness in controlling people’s enjoyment of the information age. The ICT industry in Uganda has a number of stakeholders who play different complementary roles. These include the Government that plays regulatory role, private sector that invests in technology and establishes ICT businesses, the donor community that supports the sector financially and technically, civil society and the media, while citizens consume and use the proceeds from the industry. A framework needs to be worked out to protect the stakeholder roles and promote positive interrelationships in the ICT ecosystem and thus increase the positive impact of ICTs in Uganda without harming the interests of any stakeholder.

I research Politics and Governance in Uganda including how technology and other factors are affecting governance trends in the country and the region. Email bernardsabiti@gmail.com 

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