Peaceful and tough times bring goodies to EA citizens, firms

Wednesday September 15 2021

The purported jobless boda boda rider turned out to be a powerful political operative in a northern Uganda city. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and even stone age man shaped stone to make tools and weapons in search of a safer, better life. High school debates of whether peace or war caused more advancement often were won by the latter side. But has East Africa made its advancements more after turbulence or after a stretch of peace?

Since this is the communication age, let us look at a couple of examples from that sector. After nearly a century of telecommunications in East Africa, Kenya in 1984 got the International Subscriber Dial.

Old timers will recall that before that, you needed to call the operator (now a dead/non-existent profession) who you gave the number you needed to call outside the region to connect you. On that momentous occasion, President Daniel arap Moi made the first International Subscriber Dialling (ISD) call ever from Kenya. Television showed him using the classic ornamental handset in State House to call his ambassador to Paris. “Hello, is that Mwangi?” he said with a lot of charm in his unmistakable voice. The nation applauded. Kenya Broadcasting Corporation television should avail that clip to whoever may want to make a documentary for a telecom anniversary one of these days.

Uganda was to get ISD almost a decade later. This had not been possible in the years of turmoil as the country endured military rule and fought civil wars. But after peace prevailed, indigenous experts who had been working in developed countries started returning home and those who were absorbed into Uganda Posts and Telecommunications figured out a tech mix that helped the country get ISD at a small fraction of the cost that the big boys out there had been quoting. It was peace that moved the way we communicate to a better level.

Now the Covid-19 pandemic has been here for close to two years, forcing people to stay home for months, and is set to keep making ferocious comebacks called waves that will lock them indoors for stretches of time. The use of Zoom and similar platforms has become normal, the new normal. These have been private sector driven. One wonders if it was left to government to enable people to operate in virtual meetings, things would have happened as effectively and in as timely a fashion as they did under Kenya/Uganda Posts and Telecommunications days.

Without government involvement, we have seen many schools keep teaching children in virtual classrooms. Many companies continued working virtually while government offices were closed. Now as government starts hosting virtual international conferences, billions of shillings are being budgeted for them. Hopefully they are all justifiable expenses and we shall not be reminded of the Malawian Justice Minister who flew to Geneva for a Zoom conference.


After coronavirus struck, governments world over moved to arrange rescue packages for their people. The United States released the first One trillion-dollar payout using printed physical cheques to 35 million of payees. Let us not go into the little matter of the cheques’ bearing Donald Trump’s name as he did not even win the election in which he was running when they were issued, and stick to the fact that the US did not wire the money digitally to the individual recipients. Well, Uganda government chose to digitally pay the recipients via mobile phone last month, and well!

Recall President Moi’s victorious phone call to ambassador Mwangi? This year, Uganda’s new Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja almost pulled off a Moi moment, this time after the sending of the first digital stimulus/relief payout for the vulnerable to the first recipient, an out-of-work boda boda rider.

Unfortunately, the purported jobless boda boda rider turned out to be a powerful political operative in a northern Uganda city. It transpired that the ‘mistake’ was not an isolated case as hundreds of high ranking local governments’ personalities too had been paid the money for vulnerable persons. And thus the government’s attempt to take payments to a higher level failed and the new premier was embarrassed by incompetent managers of the country’s databases.

Have we then answered the question whether it is good or bad times that enable East African societies move communication applications to a higher level? Apparently both. Government in good times and private sector in tough times.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]