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What do Uganda’s Presidential Candidates Plan for ICT?

After previously despising the presidential debate as a high school “speaking competition”, Uganda’s incumbent President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni attended the second presidential debate of this year’s State House race on Saturday, along with the other seven presidential candidates.

The debate had been intended to focus mainly on “peace and security, foreign relations, East African integration, the Great Lakes region and terrorism,” according to a post on the State House website late Saturday.

It had been scheduled as a follow up to the first debate that mainly dealt with the public sector, i.e. education, youth, health and the economy. The latter is what this article would like to investigate.

When asked what the candidates’ plans were to boost Uganda’s economy, some answers were eradicating corruption, capitalizing on Uganda’s over 77% youth, enhancing infrastructure to increase efficiency and hence profit, and lastly and predominantly investing in agriculture such that Uganda can blossom into a strong competitor as an exporter on the global trade market.

This World Bank report explains that agriculture still accounts to an average 25% to GDP in developing countries and that growth in the agriculture sector is necessary for overall growth in economies at their early stages of transformation. However, although agriculture has accounted for about one-third of growth in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past 15 years, World Bank has observed that “as GDP per capita rises, agriculture’s share in GDP declines, and so does its contribution to growth”.

One sector that remained unmentioned was Information and Communications Technology (ICT). With Uganda’s presidential elections now just hours away, we wanted to look at how the candidates have addressed this in their manifestos and find out what advancements Ugandans can look forward to pertaining to the ICT sector.

To some degree, this general tendency to not pay attention to ICT is reflected when you think of the campaign rallies held so far as well as when looking at the candidates’ manifestos. For this article, only four of the presidential candidates’ manifestos were examined, as they were the only ones we could find online.

Three of Uganda’s leading 2016 presidential candidates, Rt. Hon. Amama Mbabazi, Rt. Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye and Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni

Yoweri Museveni:

The NRM manifesto outlines the achievements that have been celebrated in the past years of its governance and then elaborates on how these will be built upon, as well as what new milestones are set to be reached.

NRM celebrates the development of the National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) which is said to have increased operational efficiency in service delivery “tremendously” by connecting districts, ministries, public office sites and universities in terms of data sharing and communication. Further achievements are the reduction of the average unit cost of internet bandwidth reduced from $650 per MB per month to $300, and the establishment of several ICT Innovations Centres through cooperation with foreign or private investors e.g. the Korean Government and the Ugandan ICT umbrella organisation. It should be noted that there is currently no ICT Innovation center that is government-owned.

The manifesto paints a very rosy picture of NRM’s contribution to ICT. However as one Ugandan asked on Twitter, questions have been raised about how much of the said ICT growth has been a direct result of government effort.

NRM promises support for existing innovation hubs and the creation of more, but what would also be interesting to know is what the party envisions for the everyday Ugandan pertaining to the field of ICT, especially with regards to access and affordability. Seeing that the more people are connected, the wider information can be disseminated and the more people are able to be motivated to participate in discussions and activities surrounding ICT as well as the innovation process as a whole, thus increasing the potentials for growth in the sector.

The ruling party actually points to its coorperation with Uganda’s ICT Association (ICTAU) – a private sector-led umbrella organization – as a key milestone over the last five years, a relationship they pledge to consolidate.

“I am pleased that the NRM recognizes this and intends to strengthen such collaboration. But the sectoral challenges are numerous – ranging from skills gaps to inadequate budget allocations. Real ICT development goes beyond connectivity of government departments onto a fast internet connection. The end-to-end delivery of e-services is a question that still needs to be answered,” said Albert Mucunguzi, a founding member of the Association who worked as its Secretary General between 2013 and January 2016.

“We worked closely with the National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U) and the Ministry of ICT, and were able to aid the government’s planning processes, specifically regarding the ICT Ministry’s Master Strategic Plan in 2014,” Mucunguzi added.

Nevertheless, Albert Mucunguzi notes that when announcing the 2015/16 budget, Government stated that “as part of the ICT sector reforms, plans are set to establish a one stop center for investment linking National ID, the integrated Financial Management System, Government Payroll System, and Computerized Education Management System (CEMAS), among others.”

As presented in the NRM manifesto, a national ICT Park and Innovation Centre was also to be constructed at the Namanve Industrial Park.

“That is a sign that there is some commitment by government to develop the sector”, Mucunguzi says.

Dr. Kiiza Besigye

Besigye and the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) barely address ICT in their plan “to trigger our economy to leap forward.” The party says it aims to accelerate the pace of development to create equal opportunity and shared prosperity by ensuring high levels of public investment in five key sectors of the economy: education, agriculture, energy, transport, industry and urbanization. ICT is left out here and even in further elaborations, it is not mentioned.

Only modest allusions to ICT can be observed in the section on “Quality Education and Accumulation of Skilled Human Capital”. FDC’s plan is to adopt measures, including financing arrangements, to increase the number of students enrolled in science, technology and engineering courses to at least 40 percent within five years.

At least this would train talent from an early stage, that can then develop into innovators and human resource to be employed in the ICT sector. But where and how will they find jobs if the sector is not being cultivated and the necessary resources are not put in place?

Dr. Abed Bwanika

Presidential Candidate Dr. Abed Bwanika

Going by the information available on the official website of the Electoral Commission, the People’s Democratic Party and their candidate Dr. Abed Bwanika omit ICT altogether, there’s merely mention of establishing a National Intelligence and Acumen Centre as a means of utilizing the best human resource in guiding the country in research, design and analysis, which is to serve as an “official Think Tank of the nation within the best brains in the country.”

What topics this centre’s research and knowledge delivery will focus on is, unfortunately, unspecified.

Amama Mbabazi

Amama Mbabazi‘s Go Forward camp seems to be the only one that takes a comprehensive and all-encompassing approach to ICT in their manifesto. They believe “that Information Communication and Technology is a public good and that all Ugandans have a right to it,” and thus plan to “transform our economy, education, government and society through radical ICT interventions.”

The goals for ICT are defined in a trifold: creating a knowledge and information-based educated society that is globally competitive and productive; strengthening existing legal frameworks and policies supporting the sector; and lastly promoting enhancement of Uganda’s ICT sector to level up to 21st century standards.

A model for the Advanced Sub-County (ASM); as depicted in Amama Mbabazi’s manifesto.

Borrowing from international best practices, Go Forward hopes to incorporate ICT in various fields ranging from education, healthcare systems management, agricultural and commodity exchange, tourism, taxation, business, land and property registration as well as business, financial services delivery and governance. An example is their Advanced Sub-County Model (ASM) –  referred to as “the crux of our development programme” which aims to strengthen the interface between government and citizens. In this model they propose a computerised Community Information Management System and the establishment of community centres with at least 10 computers each, including libraries and reading areas with free Wi-Fi internet access.

In contrast to Museveni, Mbabazi’s plans, albeit topline, seem to cater to the ICT needs of the everyday Ugandan.

However, what is missing here are the meticulous details seen in the NRM manifesto concerning implementation. How the transformation will be achieved in concrete terms, how it will be funded, who the key actors or partners from the various sectors will be are questions that remain unanswered.

ICT Momentum in Sub-Saharan Africa

Globally much impact on economies is attributed to the ICT sector, for instance with each 10% increase in high speed internet connections, there’s a 1.3% percent increase in economic growth, “a report by World Bank found. Taking this into consideration, this reflects poorly on the presidential candidates who make no mention of the ICT sector or merely do so in a by the way manner; and should in general make us Ugandans critical to see the sector not receive the attention it deserves.

Moreover, in this age of start-ups and big data, digital connectivity is becoming increasingly important – if not even essential for societies to function and advance. Hence, the role of the ICT sector too, is gaining significance.  ICT has not only become an almost indispensable part of modern societies but also harbours immense potentials for development, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa where we have seen a mobile explosion over the past 5 – 10 years.

Mobile money, for example, is helping provide alternative means of financial inclusion for Sub-Saharan Africa’s unbanked population while Kenya has implemented an e-government system facilitating mobile access to public government documents and services, thus elevating transparency, convenience and productivity.

In Uganda apps like Brainshare are helping create a more integrated and centralised school curricular as well as enabling higher education to people in rural areas through mobile or e-learning. In general mobile connectivity and the internet are contributing to a more convenient, easier and efficient lifestyle. What’s more is there are several prospective facets of ICT still untapped for instance in public administration, public health management and many others which could benefit Uganda and propel further development.

Yes, Uganda has other more acute battlegrounds like corruption, peace, security and infrastructure. Nonetheless, it is important to balance ironing out issues and seizing opportunities. While one deals with problems, one cannot forget to ensure the nation is growing and competitive at both regional and global level. In the age of exponentially surging tech connectivity, one cannot sleep and miss the momentum to claim a fair share of the digital (r)evolution.

It was a shame we did not see the candidates touch on the subject during the second presidential debate either but let’s hope that whoever emerges as Uganda’s President after the elections on Thursday, will have an extensive vision and strategies to strengthen and advance Uganda’s ICT sector during their five-year term in office.

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