The “powers that be” decided last week that social media and mobile money services were a risk to public order and safety, so the telecoms turned them off on “orders from above”. Personally I got the news at about 8:30 as I walked away from the polling station, weaving through the crowd of people waiting to cast their vote, cutting through the lines.
You must be wondering how I managed to leave the polling station at 8:30 am! Well my wife and I woke up early and by 6am we were at Kisaasi Muslim Secondary School, trying to make out the figures of the people who we’d be jostling with for 1st place in the line. I saw the voting materials delivered at 6:24 am and watched as the team struggled to get ready. Voting only started at about 8:15, and I was close to the front of the line since I was there early.
Of course as we waited I kept tweeting, posting on Facebook, scrolling through my timeline, but I didn’t see much cause for concern. In fact I thought that other stations had started on time! I remember how at 6:50 am I approached Joel, the guy in charge of the team and asked him to show us where to line up since it was nearly time! And for the next hour we were getting impatient seeing them running around, moving furniture, moving the ballot boxes from one end to the other then back. We then turned our guns on the Police officers who turned the pressure on to the polling officials, and finally we started. Very bitter that we had been waiting for hours!
As I walked to the car, I got a phone call that made sense as soon as I hang up. People were busy trying to write about the delays at their stations but were having difficulties which at first were attributed to network issues. In fact a friend that I’d been lining up with thought his bundle was done and loaded a new bundle! Nope! Still no Facebook!
Now I didn’t want to delve too much into the politics of the election or the sense of turning off a service like Mobile Money, which in addition to having capacity to facilitate either the opposition or some terrorists (we’ll never know which of these two was identified as a threat to national security or public order and safety) it is an important component of many Ugandans’ lives.
For example there’s over 300,000 people who were thrust back into the past that they had left behind when they got ReadyPay solar. ReadyPay has enabled offgrid homesteads to get solar power and pay for their equipment in installments, daily, weekly or monthly via MTN Mobile Money. Now realistically, most of the people targeted for this service can’t afford to pay for a week in advance, so with no advance notice, they had to go back to candles and “etadoobas” that they had stopped using simply because “elections”!
Actually closer to the city, a few kilometers away from Kizza Besigye’s newly christened “State House”, I got home on Wednesday night to a dark house. You see, the house help called earlier to inform us that “power had gone off”, so I assumed it was some sort of Umeme thing. They do that often! So as I tried to call the helpline with one phone and the other opening Twitter, I thought to ask how many units of Yaka we had at last count. Long story short, I had to drive to the nearest point with a PayWay machine because Mobile Money was not working. I thought it was because everyone was rushing to make transactions ahead of the election break. You know how paranoid Ugandans stocked up on groceries for a year…
Now with all the confusion, frustration and anger that the social media and mobile money blackout, many Ugandans refused to be contained by the government’s directives. I’ll mention a few categories of Ugandans here:
Tweeting in France, voting in Uganda
Now this is the category of Ugandans who, either are tech savvy and knew about VPNs or even already had them running on their devices, or know people who are tech savvy. Word got round quickly and people started proudly announcing their presence online. Then the news trickled down to the rest of the online population, and by end of day publishers of VPN apps for both mobile and desktop knew about Uganda.
— Ben Parker (@BenParker140) February 18, 2016
It’s reported that there were over 1.5m installations of VPN apps on Android only.
— Charles Onyango-Obbo (@cobbo3) February 20, 2016
These are the people who refused to be denied social media, and emerged more informed about VPNs and the benefits beyond bypassing UCC restrictions.
Because of these “criminals”, the #UgandaDecides hashtag was trending much earlier in the day than I expected. I wonder whether it would have piqued as much interest globally if social hadn’t been blocked.
Old school Ugandans
On the other end of the spectrum are the Ugandans who either didn’t figure out how to install Tor or how to use it, or got online and were bored by the silence since their friends were offline. So this category of people went old school. They loaded airtime and called their friends and family, sent them SMS and visited. They slaughter birds and small animals, or bought the kilos from the butchery and made roast. Others were more conservative, and had modest snacks and meals together. But generally, that’s how things used to be done back then before social media! And when they were together they talked and laughed together, and later turned on the telly to catch up on news and collectively complain about our country.
I talked to a young lady called Martha who braved the journey from Entebbe to Kiwatule just to be with her cousins and friends on Thursday evening because “It was too quiet online, I just had to meet my crew in person.” She doesn’t know that back then that was the only option!
When life gives your business lemon, make lemonade
Now many businesses that are in many ways connected to Mobile Money screeched to a halt on Thursday morning, but some entrepreneurs decided to use the disaster to their advantage.
UseRemit.com, formerly Remit Ug, describes themselves on twitter as a “Fast, convenient, secure & affordable way to send money from your VISA or Mastercard to mobile money on any phone in Africa.”
Ugandans in the diaspora use services like UseRemit to send money to their friends and family back home, directly to their phones. Imagine the anxiety that grips a guy expecting funds from his brother in the US and has made commitments, when he realizes that the money has been sent but he can’t receive it, because “elections”.
UseRemit decided to deliver the cash door to door for some of their customers. Now imagine the smile on that guy’s face when he’s told he’ll receive the cash at his home, at no extra cost!
During the mobile money shutdown, we did door to door cash delivery for some of our customers. We are so happy re their reactions of delight
— useremit (@RemitUg) February 22, 2016
I don’t think his brother will ever send money through another service when he has seen the extra mile that they will go to make sure his relatives receive the money.
Surely we emerged from the social and mobile money ban stronger! Maybe next time the government will turn off the internet and we’ll have to all go “Old School”.
Tell us in the comments, how did you fare during the black out?