A kid in a posh home somewhere in Kampala probably switched on his PlayStation around 1900hrs on 13th January 2020 to play an online game with friends only to realise he/she couldn’t connect even though the home WiFi signal was as strong as ever.
Ditto for an exhausted developer in a different suburb who was trying to commit his day’s work to his software repository on Github or a similar platform somewhere in the so-called cloud. That work may have been a long-awaited feature update to his startup’s flagship product or a bug fix arrived at after hours of wrestling with lines of code and consulting numerous Stack Overflow pages.
Yet somewhere else, the staff of a few technology companies were in an absolute panic having received numerous system warnings about failing connectivity. For some of them, those warnings were being delivered via email or app alerts because their mobile internet was still active. Shortly afterwards, the warnings ceased – not because the systems were back to normal but because their mobile internet was also finally off. And they were now flying truly blind, unable to log on and at least “stanch the bleeding” in a technical sense. Those tech companies, many of which may be little-known publicly, provide essential business services ranging from payments, communications to hosting for a host of entities including the largest companies and organisations in the country.
In yet another corner of the city, the proprietor of a betting company was initially unsure of the impact of the shutdown – scrambling to see which fixtures were on various league schedules. His heart stopped for a full second when he remembered Liverpool vs Man U was coming up in a few days. “Surely, the internet will be back by then” he consoled himself. Naturally, in accordance to Murphy’s Law – it wasn’t back by then.
Moving further afield, spare a thought for the clearing agents in Malaba or in their kiosks at Nakawa who were rendered idle for close to a week. Many of them were expecting payments from the clients whose goods they were supposed to clear during that time and so it is possible that a few of them were unable to take essential groceries home on some of the days. Some of their clients were probably trying to clear critical supplies – including medical consumables and so it is not wholly inconceivable that some lives were lost as a result.
Probably, none of these situations was as needlessly painful as the freshly admitted student of a US-based institution (for a distance learning programme) whose time-slot for selecting courses of their choice was set for the 15th of January. Not being able to select a course within the allotted time means he/she will have to embark on a lengthy email exchange with the institution pleading for a slot. If there’s none, they will have to reschedule their start for either May (summer term) or September (autumn term).
I kept thinking about the various scenarios such as the above that no doubt played over and over in many places during the internet shutdown. It is hard to describe the sinking feeling some people felt when they saw their hard work come crumbling down just because of the outage (and I can relate). There are many others of course – we all heard of stories of people unable to access funds via ATMs, unable to connect to their workplaces after months of acclimatising to working remotely, of e-commerce service providers unable to dispatch goods already ordered for, unable to submit critical work/school assignments, file taxes and so on. We were those people! But the first scenario, that mental picture of the privileged kid sitting at his game console and failing to connect kept coming to me because I imagined this was actually happening in some of the homes of those who ordered the internet shutdown. Let’s call them the Switch Off’ers. That kid might be the Switch Off’er’s child or grandchild. And the question that kept popping up in my mind – and is still doing so – is: when the console failed to connect and the child asked what the problem was, what did the Switch Off’er tell them? Did they lie? Did they tell the truth? What kind of conversation ensued? (Obviously, not all Switch Off’ers were completely disconnected – there would have been no reason for Orwell to write Animal Farm if the world were like that).
The original title of this post was “0 Days To Go: So What?” and I had planned to publish it during the course of Election Day (14th January). But we all know what happened – the internet was completely shut down on the 13th and so I didn’t get the opportunity to publish on schedule. In that post, I’d intended to argue that:
- the Presidential election was just an expensive distraction that would not bring about any change at the top simply because the occupant of the seat is so firmly welded to it that a mere election would never part him from it. Seriously – does anyone think the SFC would lay siege to and invade Parliament to force the lifting of the age limit only to let their boss lose power thereafter? Few people, even in our oftentimes gullible society, are that naive.
- the Parliamentary elections would probably provide some drama and excitement through a few upsets but that, ultimately, the House would continue to be the least effective arm of government and an unjustifiable drain on public resources.
- our problems as a country are much bigger than many of us know and fixing them will require a total rethink/reset of everything we take to be the norm now – including the governance systems under which we hold utterly useless elections every 5 years. As a technologist, I don’t like the word “disruption” given the propensity to misuse it all the time. However, Uganda truly needs total disruption if we are to climb the ladder from third world to something better.
My draft for that post was probably 70 or 80% complete by the time the internet was shut down. Initially, I regretted not having completed it in time to schedule it for publishing at 0700hrs on Election Day. However, the shutdown made me realise something profound – it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else writes – the status quo will remain. I have generally always been a rather optimistic chap and I’ve always put my utmost into all I do in the hope that (1) it will work and (2) things will get better. The shutdown brought me back to reality – nothing and no one matters to the regime in power except for the president. And he is willing to do anything to maintain his grip on power even if “anything” means destroying us all. Collateral damage is what they’d call us. Therefore, all this writing is not very different from shouting for help in the middle of a desert hundreds of miles from any form of civilisation. And so I scrapped the draft and, now after a few more days of reflection, I’m writing this just to close the Election series and move on.
But how does one move on from this? As we speak, sites like Reddit, LinkedIn and even Github (on some networks) are still switched off ostensibly because social media is supposed to be blocked. Many users have reported noticeably degraded quality of service from their providers and yet the service wasn’t great to begin with. Some of my friends are actively exploring emigration options. I confess I too have given the matter thought (since the events of November). However, having turned 40, I guess the window of opportunity is a few years at most. How ironical it is that I used to see that as an absolute No-No-No especially since it would involve doing an English Language test that I’ve always considered to be the kind of indignity that I was too proud to kowtow to. Maybe I should have swallowed my pride back then – at least, I wouldn’t be feeling the intense disappointment and disillusionment that the shutdown triggered.
Let’s see what the next few years bring. This will be the last politics/governance post from me for a while.