As Uganda neared its presidential elections that took place on 14th January 2021, President Museveni’s government ordered a shutdown of the internet. What started as a partial shutdown on 12th January 2021 quickly turned into a complete wave of internet darkness for the entire nation as all platforms could not be accessed even with VPN. The only persons that were able to access the internet during the five-day shutdown were those with access to satellite, and these do not account for even one percent of the nation’s population.
Businesses came to a standstill, people lost communication with loved ones, and different forms of life sustaining initiatives were rendered inoperable during this time. Like the rest of the country, Uganda’s LGBTIQ community that is unfortunately already marginalized on so many fronts was thrown into an even deeper pit as people’s sources of livelihoods were halted and their access to medication deterred. We spoke to a few community members that shared how the internet shutdown affected them.
These testimonies are just a few of what the community experienced during the five-day shutdown. It should also be remembered that this was not the first time that despot Museveni has ordered for internet to be turned off during elections. A similar scenario occurred in 2016 although the effects have been far reaching this time around as people were just getting back on their feet after the COVID19 lockdown
“As a HRD, l feel like it was an infringement on our rights, because no matter what the excuse is no leader had the right to restrict people's voice and opinions in the name security and protection of the citizens. I pray we reach a level in our country where humanity, and freedom of voice are respected because with what transpired during this internet shut down, the political violence on women, the trauma and tension we experienced, we need a lot healing interventions,” shared Carol.
“We were unable to reach our patients since we had transferred most of our work online due to the covid pandemic. Many of our patients are dealing with mental illnesses and it is fundamental that they keep in touch with their therapists. However, this was impossible during this time and we are now seeing a rise in depression and anxiety cases.
There are patients who could not adhere to their HIV medication during this time. This was not by choice but with lack of communication and these security situations, people were unable to come to our clinic for treatment. We are now working hard to correct the damage that was done by the internet shutdown,” a medical officer that runs one of the drop in centres for LGBTI persons shared.
Eric Griffin Ndaula, ED Let’s Walk Uganda
"Basically, the internet shutdown came abruptly. We didn't expect it. We thought it would work like in 2016 when they just shut down the social media and not the entire internet so that we could actually read emails, probably even write a proposal and submit things like that. The effects were that some people were expecting some grants to be approved. A donor sent us an email already but we couldn't reply and their deadline was also running short so they had to consider someone else for funding. So, we lost some funding. Secondly, we also couldn't submit our proposals. Definitely also in our day-to-day work, we couldn't reach out to our members especially online for online counseling and other services. We had to go into forced lockdown because there was literally nothing we could do as the internet was off. Basically our work runs around the internet and we couldn't do anything. We had to wait until the government deemed it fit to return the internet."
Diane Bakuraira, Linking and Learning Officer SMUG
"The internet affected me in a way that it was a bit difficult for me to use certain applications that I use for communication to our community and also get updates on what's going on especially during the election period which was vital for us to know. Not all of us have TVs. It was just a mess for me as an individual. The fact that the internet was aloof in regards to the information flow, I didn't know how my people were. I just felt like I was cut off completely. As an IT student through conversations with other students, we had been able to figure out ways on how to use some VPN bypass through certain procedures which eventually also got blocked. Also as a person handling the linking and learning at SMUG, it's been very difficult to connect with my community to understand their thoughts or see any updates on their experiences and real time updates on how elections are going for them. There have been a lot of accusations and allegations that we are anti government and supporting the opposition. We have been continuously blamed by society. People usually use the internet to vet out their emotions, give their perceptions and have an understanding of the debate on elections versus the allegations being made by the incumbent. So, as an activist, it was rough but I was fortunate to be in close corners with people that had constant updates on what was happening."
Kasha Jacqueline, ED KTMG
My life was turned upside down because I use the internet for personal business and in those very days it was shut down I missed out on clients for my farm products plus my online money investment. It’s been a very depressing period that I don't even have energy to do any of my other work like activism. My brain is still processing the economic impact on my household and how we are going to recover in this dire economy of this country.
Maggie, activist and business owner
It affected my business since most of my customers are got online and then I couldn't deliver my products due since safeboda and bolt which have fairer transport charges were both inaccessible. I am still trying to recover from the losses we incurred during this time.