Why SIM Card deactivation will disenfranchise voters in Uganda’s forthcoming election?

By the Unwanted Witness team;

Have you ever thought of spending hours or even a day without a cell phone? Well, Mobile phones are no longer luxuries but they are daily part of our lives and with the current internet enabled mobile (smart) phones, one can easily get connected and communicate to the world anytime from anywhere. Initially mobile phones were used as voice communication tools until the introduction of Internet enabled mobile /smart phones that have multiple functions. They are regarded as emerging powerful tools that increase citizens’ participation in social, economic, cultural, civil and political issues for change.

This technological device is essential in fostering accountability and transparency in an electoral process once applied effectively. Mobile phones world over are used in reporting voting results, they may not necessarily be used as official preliminary results but rather as means to regularly update the commission and other stakeholders.

Mobile phones have been used by Philippines, Thailand, Spain and South Korea to influence elections. During February 2006 elections in Thailand, the Thai election commission sent messages to 25million cell phone customers reminding them to vote.

It was a successful mobilization strategy for Thailand. While countries like Thailand used mobile phone technology to promote citizens’ democratic rights 10 years ago, the reverse is true for Uganda. With only two months to the country’s general elections (Feb 2016), Telecom service providers are under pressure from government to deactivate all SIM Cards and internet enabled devices that are not registered by November 30, 2015. But before this deadline, MTN Uganda has already disconnected over 300,000 subscribers.

Voting and Mobile phones; Uganda Independent Electoral Commission has in the recent taken steps to embrace new technology. After realizing that some voters in the country have failed to participate in the exercise because of inconveniences with the process especially at registration and verification stages, the commission in August 2015 launched an online tool that helps voters to easily check their votability. This utilizes either voter number, national ID number or application number to inform voters including polling stations.

However, this easy and faster way of checking for one’s voter registration status and polling center is no longer applicable for the 300,000 MTN disconnected subscribers. This means that with the absence of an updated voters’ register and the lack of civic education, the disconnected mobile users are blocked from enjoying their democratic rights and thus disenfranchised.

Why many Ugandans will be disenfranchised during the 2016 general elections? When the Ugandan government carried out the National ID registration the entire 2014, many if not all registered Ugandans provided their SIM numbers as a primary point of contact. The same data was shared with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The electoral body through captured mobile phone contacts has been reaching out to a big number of voters if not all. The said mobile is going to be no more as the Uganda Communication Commission has ordered telecom companies to deactivate all ‘unregistered’ SIM Cards. This means a reasonable number of voters will be cut out from receiving electoral related information especially at this time when Uganda does not have a National Voters’ Register. The result for such actions will be a number of voters will not vote due to lack of information. Double Standards; SIM Card registration exercise began in March 2013, but after registering active SIM Cards of people who managed to participate, telecom companies continued selling unregistered SIM Cards on streets throughout the country with clear knowledge of the Telecom regulator, Uganda Communication Commission (UCC). It is therefore questionable for the same UCC whose management and regulation has never changed to wake up now, after over 2years and demand for deactivation of unregistered SIM Cards. This is a critical moment for the country and citizens where communication about the electoral process is much more needed than ever before.

Related Links. https://www.unwantedwitness.org/over-300000-mtn-unregistered-subscribers-disconnected-in-a-fresh-wave-of-fighting-anonymity-by-government/ UW StatementThe Petition