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Democracy & Digitalisation - A Ugandan Perspective

Roslyn Fuller interviews Patricia Namakula, Head of Research and PR/Communications at the Centre for Multilateral Affairs in Uganda.

RF: Hi Patricia, it is great to be able to speak to you in person and thanks for doing this interview. Perhaps you could start things off by telling us a bit about yourself and your work with the Centre for Multilateral Affairs?

PN: I am a researcher by profession. My education background is in international relations and diplomatic studies. Public policy analysis and communications. I currently head Research and Communications at the Centre for Multilateral Affairs. We are a think tank that does research and analyses hinged on independent and objective inquiry that covers thematic fields of policy discourses from a broad spectrum of domestic, regional and global perspectives.

RF: I know that part of your mission at the Centre is to ensure a Global South perspective in policy discussions. What should we know about digital policy in the Global South generally and in Uganda specifically?

PN: When it comes to digital policies, I am sorry to say that in Africa we are lagging behind. I think African governments haven’t appreciated technology enough as an enabler to other sectors. Governments should be trying to ensure that more people are able to afford and access internet, but many policies are regressive in nature and are instead making the internet expensive. For example, the Ugandan government introduced a tax on the internet which to me is double taxation. As a result, the internet is expensive for many ordinary Ugandans.
There are also other policies that are often discriminatory in nature, such as the Computer Misuse Act in Uganda. It mainly victimizes people who criticize politicians. So, freedom of speech online is limited with the laws the governments are coming up with. We are also still struggling with issues of gender violence and we see this online as well where women are bullied, mostly by men, and silenced, and there are no laws protecting them from that. Instead, the laws protect those in power. But if women are bullied online they have a hard time getting justice. In addition, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania introduced new rules requiring the licencing of social media and online content creators. I think such regulations hinder digital transformation and the result will be digital colonization, where Africa lags behind in terms of technological innovations and inventions. Without an enabling environment, the continent’s burgeoning youth will be denied an opportunity to use technology to solve Africa’s many development challenges.
RF: You mentioned an internet tax – is that a tax specifically on internet use?

PN: Yes.

RF: So it is not a tax that applies to everything?

PN: The government introduced a 12 per cent tax on internet data; it is more like double taxation. Each time one buys data/internet the tax is added to the cost of internet. I think it’s double taxation because the internet service providers (ISPs) do pay taxes. And because of this tax, many people especially the youth (majority of which are unemployed) and women have been forced offline because they can’t afford it.

RF: How expensive is the internet and how does that affect the number of people who have access to it? Specifically in Uganda, but in other countries as well, if you have that information.

PN: In the 2020 Affordability Report, Uganda’s data costs are higher than the African average, with 1 GB of data costing up to 8.07% of an average Ugandan’s monthly income compared to Sub-Saharan Africa’s average of 3.1%. I was looking at the January 2021 statistics and this was research done by the World Wide Web Foundation. Findings were that in Uganda 25% of men in the country are online compared to 19% of women, so more men are able to access the internet than women, a fact pointing to a gender digital gap.
However, internet access and usage in Africa is further affected by internet shutdowns that are becoming common. For example, during general elections in January 2021, Uganda experienced a total internet black-out for some days and Ugandans could not access any social media or use the internet. Up to now, over a year later, Facebook is still limited and one needs to use VPN to access it. Imagine how many people were forced to go offline because they switched it off, how many businesses of young people were impacted just by that. Many young people run online businesses and most of them market their goods and services on Facebook, because it has so many users compared to other social media platforms. Many of these people were pushed out of business. So, when you look at all this and how it is closely related to policies, you realize that the future looks bleak, because these governments are failing to realize how important the internet is as an enabler and as an equalizer in giving people more opportunities, the opportunity to do business, to study or even to acquire services online.

RF: Was there a reason given for why they switched the internet off?

PN: Of course, they attributed it to ‘national security’. But you know governments use ‘national security’ to get away with so much. Governments use the word ‘security’ because it is abstract. But since we were going into elections and since the main opposition party was using social media to gather support and for campaigning, they decided to switch off the internet. Although they said ‘national security’ as the reason, I really think the main reason was there was going to be a lot of vote-rigging and with the internet on, it would have been easily recorded. Two weeks later when the internet was switched back on, videos were circulating, but the winner had already been declared, so there was nothing people could do. So, the reason was to not really bring out the vote-rigging and ballot stuffing as it was happening during the voting process.

RF: This is also something I wanted to ask you about, because here, as you know, we generally use paper ballots, which are regarded as very secure, and there are quite lax checks on people voting. When I vote I usually have to show my passport, because I have a foreign accent and the election officials ask to see it, but a lot of people just go to vote without really any serious checks. I have been reading a lot of articles about election security in various African countries recently, and I discovered that some people view using technology in the sense of biometric checks on voters, for example, thumbprints, etc. as a possible means of preventing fraud. I was also surprised to find out how rigorous some of these things were – all kinds of ID cards, scans, etc. were apparently in (partial) use. Do you think this helps?

PN: I don’t think so. People are quite desperate, thinking ballots can be stuffed and they can be put in the boxes prior to the election. So, I guess we are trying to think outside the box. Perhaps technology can help. But I am very sure that even if technology came, I know governments will buy a software from either China or Russia and find ways to still rig the vote even with technology, which also has its shortcomings. I don’t see technology replacing the ballot paper very soon but maybe in the future. Technology is ever evolving but I think this will be in the future.

RF: So, looking at the situation generally, you wrote in one of your articles that multi-party politics was something that many countries had to accept post-Cold War because holding elections was a condition of getting foreign aid. Do you think there are other democratic alternatives to multi-party elections?

PN: Democracy right now is all that we have and it remains an ideal, even though it is far from a reality in most countries. If you look at countries like the United States, they are some of the foremost fighters of democracy, the ones that started pushing democracy before the rest of the world. But in 2020-2021 there was a lot of controversy with claims of vote-rigging and then you ask yourself, are they ever going to have an election again where vote-rigging claims won’t come to the surface?
When it comes to Africa, I think we were never ready for democracy. There wasn’t a fertile ground for democracy. It was something that the political leaders at that time agreed to because it was necessary to get financial assistance and again Africa has a rough history. From the slave trade to colonialism and then all of a sudden to independence. And then from that period a one-party system. And then at the end of the Cold War we come to a period where the IMF and World Bank had all these conditionalities for support. And democratising, was one of those conditions to get support. So, they moved towards democracy, but it didn’t come from a well-meaning place, from the leaders, and that is why democracy in its real sense remains far from reality. When it comes to elections, the citizens themselves don’t know their rights. They don’t know that with their vote they can bring about positive change. That’s why you find that during campaigns, voters are bought with sugar or salt. Candidates and in some cases political parties give these to supporters, spending a lot of money during the process, but when they get elected into office they instead use their time in office to recover their money instead of providing services to their constituencies.
I have thought about the possibility of a federal system. The federal system ensures a separation of powers and a better understanding of local issues and demands, but it has its shortcomings. When you look at Africa, you realize that economic development is not evenly distributed across the nations. Many regions in a country like Uganda are not developed and they are kind of secluded. Development is limited to capital cities and other major towns and cities. So, the federal system of governance would solve some of these problems, but it has its shortcomings.
So, democracy remains an ideal form of governance that we should look up to despite its shortcomings, but with the young generation who are more educated, we can hope that they will do better than their predecessors by being better leaders. Then democracy, in this case multiparty democracy, will carry more sense and answer our issues as nations or as a continent. Because we know what needs to be done. Perhaps we will come up with better leaders, or an environment where people are informed and they make informed decisions about the leaders they elect into political office.

RF: To come back to vote-buying, if I understood you correctly, you said that people would trade their vote for a kilogram of sugar?

PN: Yes, they do that a lot here, especially the poor people in rural areas.

RF: I guess that only works when people are poor to the extent that this seems like a good bargain.

PN: Yes, poverty works in favour of the politicians. If you keep people poor, you can easily manipulate them or buy them with a kilogram of sugar.

RF: Another thing you mentioned was regionalism and federalism. So just to dig into that a bit more: you said there are more secluded regions in Uganda that have their own issues and that are extremely undeveloped compared to say, the capital, Kampala.

PN: Yes, we have a lot of rural-urban migration, where people leave rural areas and come to the cities. The cities become very congested. Young people who would be developing their areas, they chose to leave and move to Kampala or other cities and then the rural areas are left to the older population, and as such no serious development takes place. Rural areas tend to lack good health facilities and good schools. So, if we were to bring in a federal system, because there is that imbalance in development across the nation, it might not be favourable. Some areas are endowed with natural resources while others lack. This would create issues of contention.

RF: In some countries, usually the richest regions have to make a financial transfer to the poorer regions.

PN: That would be an ideal, but this may not work in Uganda. The Buganda Kingdom, for example, has been pushing for federalism because based on its strategic location that order of things benefits it, but then other kingdoms are not developed in terms of infrastructure. So, the idea of financial transfer to lesser developed regions would work, but I don’t see Uganda moving to the federal system.

RF: So, at the moment, everything is centralized in Uganda?

PN: Yes, everything is centralized. When it comes to democratic principles like the separation of powers, this isn’t the reality in Uganda. Because the executive, the government in power, wields a lot of power and controls the legislature. For instance, in Uganda the government controls the house of parliament with a majority, so that means when it comes to policy-making in parliament, they have the majority vote. When it comes to the judiciary which ought to be independent, the President picks the Chief Justice, a fact which tampers with its independence. So, with that reality there is nothing like a separation of powers. The opposition remains weak, with some political parties funded by the same government they want to unseat. At the end of the day it’s like some kind of joke.

RF: I assume this is true, but wanted to ask you, is there then a very strong divide between rural and urban standards of living for example, access to electricity, water, etc.?

PN: Yes. For example, access to tap water, health facilities, schools and a good road network remain a challenge for many people rural areas. The government has done some work, but a lot still needs to be done and there is a tendency of some rural areas to be more developed than others. For example, Western Uganda has a good road network compared to other parts of Uganda.

RF: You’ve also written about women using the internet. I suppose people often present this issue in two different ways: one is to point out the more positive aspects of being able to be present online without other people being able to stop you or speak for you, and the other is that women are often harassed and bullied more online. I’m just wondering what your perspective is on that?

PN: When you monitor and follow discussions online, much of the time you find a man shutting up a woman for freely expressing their opinion and you need a thick skin not to be easily bullied into keeping quiet. I saw a report where 60% of women who are offline were asked why they remained offline and they said they do not have the skills to use social media. When I look at the older generation, women especially, many use smartphones for making regular phone calls, because they lack the skills to fully utilize smartphones. And then there are other women who are harassed and bullied when they share their opinions and they choose to go offline, because online life becomes draining and depressing so for their mental health, they chose to go offline.

RF: To switch the topic, in the beginning you said you have a background in international relations, I’m curious as to what you think of the international situation at the moment. Considering there have been renewed tensions between Western countries, Russia and China, particularly over the last year, do you see a way for there to be a more resurgent Non-Aligned Movement in the Global South?

PN: Yes, I see that happening. Already there are conversations about this. China now is very powerful. During the Non-Aligned Movement it was Russia against the United States, and there was the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc, but now Russia has an ally in China and there are other countries you feel are likely to join, like North Korea and some countries in the Middle East, that are anti-USA in their policies, and countries like Turkey. So, there will be that bloc and the typical Western bloc that we know made up of allies like UK, France, USA, South Korea, Japan, etc.
When it comes to Africa, which is at the receiving end, right now Uganda is pursuing a neutral stance. The President keeps saying he is ready to cooperate with everyone. But that’s not how it works. So, I think as relations between the two blocs deteriorate, very soon African governments will have to pick a side. And I see our leaders preferring to lean on the Chinese or Russian side of things, because they won’t be forced to be democratic in nature. So, superpower rivalry between the U.S. and China is here already and I don’t know how it will play out between the two contenders, but one only hopes that we don’t go back to the Cold War days that left Africa as a battlefield.

RF: So, do you feel like Western countries failed to support African countries enough during the past decades and failed to offer a deal or incentives that aligned some countries to them more?

PN: I don’t think the Western world has failed.
However, one thing is that when you look at foreign aid, when it comes a lot of the money is spent facilitating the lifestyle of [Western] expats who live here. A big chunk of the money goes to facilitate them and then perhaps it’s 30% of that money that is used to bring about development. With that state of affairs and with corruption tendencies due to accountability gaps, it is hard to tell how much aid money actually serves its purpose.
At the end of the day, I don’t see Africa rising from the bottom and being able to start influencing debates or decisions on the global level. Instead, I am seeing us being trapped in debt where many generations have to pay it off. Our leaders are making wrong decisions, because they are not patriotic enough.

RF: Do you think it is particularly difficult for smaller countries or countries that are weaker in economic terms to be democratic since there are so many outside forces to contend with?

PN: I think it is hard when you are poor to see that your vote has an impact. I think poor people are more concerned about food for today. But the ideals of democracy are about ensuring that there is a separation of powers, that elections are free and fair, the citizens can participate in policy-making, that they are informed of what is happening in parliament. So that when elections come they can say, ‘OK, this person did not serve our needs. Let’s vote them out’. However, in Africa even the education system needs revamping.

RF: To turn that around and look from the other side, is there any practice in other African nations that you admire and would say that has achieved something towards democracy?

PN: Yes. I admire countries like our neighbours in Kenya and Tanzania, because they have changed leaders quite often. In Uganda, things are different, the constitution has been tampered with so much that we have had the same president for more than 35 years. So, I look at our neighbours like Kenya and Tanzania where their Constitutions have provisions for term limits, where however good you are, you have two terms and you are out. In those instances, I admire those checks and balances. Also, in Ghana where leaders come and go.
Ugandans are longing for that. We are longing for change. We want it to be peaceful. We have not had a peaceful change of power in our history as a nation. I hope the President is giving serious thought to transition and the legacy he is to leave behind. We all hope for a peaceful transition because we know how devastating conflict can be, we’ve been there. So, for countries that are able to transition peacefully, I really do admire them, despite the challenges they face during the whole election process. You can always fix them along the way, but just to usher in new leaders would be something.

RF: It has been so interesting and informative talking to you, and I wish we could go on, but I am conscious of the time. Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered?

PN: Regarding women in technology: it is a male dominated space and for women I think the main issue is that you get criticized in society, because people still think women are supposed to stay home, raise children, and sacrifice their career. So, women that have really gone out there and achieved success in male-dominated areas are likely to be discriminated against by such traditional-thinking in society. But it is changing because more women are proving that a woman can do both, build a career and raise children if they choose to.
And then, there are gender-biases in workspaces. For example, when women get pregnant, after child delivery, they need safe spaces to breastfeed, yet in male-dominated spaces such services may not be available. And then of course sexual harassment. Many women are victims of sexual harassment but many are speaking up and these issues are being addressed.

RF: Yes, the reality on the ground tends to be a lot worse than the official mantras would have one believe. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this, and I am sure our readers will find it as fascinating as I have.


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