MWANGI: In between bouts of buffoonery, will Uganda ever rise?

Uganda Decides

By Isaac Mwangi, Arusha, Tanzania

Although the dust from the Ugandan presidential election has all but settled down, the treatment accorded modern technology in that election will be hard to forget.

The shutting down of communication systems by President Yoweri Museveni’s government was as unexpected as it was comical. It became the subject of jokes and astonishment, but one that showed the low regard with which an archaic leadership views modern technological progress.

In order to ensure that the opposition could not quickly organize or communicate effectively, the Ugandan government shut down social media and disabled mobile telephone systems. Certainly a dumb decision by all considerations, but perhaps driven by genuine fears.

Those fears can be traced from the manner in which social media has become a powerful force in society. The flames of the Arab Spring were driven far and wide by social media, through which hundreds of thousands of desperate youth in the Middle East organized demonstrations that quickly sent long-time dictators tumbling down like a house of cards.

Uganda’s military might would certainly be no match for the Egyptian military machine, yet the latter could do nothing to stop the waves of change that quickly swept Hosni Mubarak from power and transformed him into a criminal in the dock. But in the thinking of Museveni and his henchmen, Uganda isn’t Egypt – or Ivory Coast or even Kenya for that matter.

And just as expected, Ugandans did not behave like the nationals of these three countries. That will perhaps embolden some of the leaders in the country’s neighbourhood to try Museveni’s way of doing things. Kenya’s election, for example, will be coming up next year. President Uhuru Kenyatta has time and again sought to consolidate power in the presidency, with mixed success. He has also sought to strengthen the country’s security apparatus, with obvious understanding from the population given the Al Shabaab menace.

Only thing the leaders in Kenya must again remember, of course, is that Kenya isn’t Uganda; its political tradition hasn’t exactly got to where Egypt is – thanks to ethnic politics – but people who have tasted freedom won’t take the loss of their liberty lying down.

Back to the youth and the social media craze. Today, everyone can be a journalist of sorts. The place to get all sorts of information isn’t in the newspapers. No, you need to cultivate a wide network of friends and social groups that will constantly feed you with the news that many decent newspapers have no time for. Even when newspapers report events, you still need to log into these social media if you want to get all the wild and juicy perspectives.

And so, let’s move over to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and a host of lesser-known social media. Here, the only form of censorship is from the group administrator, who will often play absent and leave the participants to hurl abuses at each other. There’s little fear of arrest, although a few bloggers in Kenya have in recent days been arraigned in court.

To be fair, many positive things happen on social media. Fundraising events for medical bills and college fees, alumni gatherings to help their alma mater, charity groups, and women empowerment activities all find room in social media. There are also those memorable events that have provoked the imagination of East Africans, such as the “My Dress, My Choice” reaction in Nairobi to the stripping of scantily-dressed women. Social media outlets have been at the centre of many such events.

Moreover, there is no denying that the world is moving very fast ahead in technology. Those who lag behind in this new frontier will be greatly disadvantaged. It is the desire of every administration that cares about future generations to equip youngsters with right technological skills and aptitude right from an early age. That is the way to go in the modern era.

Still, because our democratic political culture is still at infancy, it should not surprise us when governments react foolishly when they sense trouble. If citizens continue remaining aloof and hiding in their ethnic and religious cocoons, it won’t be a surprise if one of the Big Men decides that well, it is time to completely shut down the Internet.

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