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You can read this article, many Ugandans cannot, and Nigerians should be worried

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Museveni and Bobi Wine. Photo: Daily Post Uganda

The people of Uganda have just gone an entire week without the internet.

And when the online blackout ended, Ugandans discovered their democracy may well have been stolen whilst they sat in the digital dark.

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And the lesson to other authoritarian nations is as clear as it is concerning: Controlling the internet allows you control your people.

Which is why Nigeria must amend its constitution to publicly state that such blatant violation of our democratic rights will never happen here.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last weekend claimed his sixth successive election victory – despite widespread allegations of election fraud and voter intimidation.

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Traditional presidential elections see candidates promising the policies they will enact if elected, poster campaigns, public speeches, debates and political advertising.

President Museveni prefers to control Ugandans’ access to the internet, blocking social media and messaging services during elections and even, it seems, ordering a nationwide internet blackout preventing the population from accessing important information at a nationally critical moment.

Museveni has total control over the mainstream media in Uganda, forcing his opponent Bobbi Wine to rely on social media to get his message out.

With no internet, this became impossible in the final days of an election campaign.

This makes democracy impossible.

As it stands, Wine is confined to his home, unable to contest the election results and only able to communicate with the outside world in social media posts only visible to people outside of Uganda.

The internet shutdown also appears to have hampered international observers’ efforts to ensure the legitimacy of the elections.

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In previous elections, as we saw in Nigeria during the #EndSARS protests, Ugandans have evaded digital censorship with VPNs – software routing their internet use through other countries. But it seems that the Ugandan censors have caught up, and this time VPN servers were blocked too.

Uganda is not the only African nation to experience sudden internet shutdowns which magically coincide with elections. We have seen similar “coincidences” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

In fact, one campaign group recorded over 200 international incidents of intentional internet shutdowns in 2019, describing them as “blatant violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information”.

Which is why Nigeria must show continental leadership and amend our constitution to guarantee that our citizens will never have their access to the internet unreasonably or unavoidably restricted.

We would not be the first country in the world to do this – Greece has made a similar constitutional amendment and countries from India to Costa Rica have publicly recognised the human right to the internet – but we would be the first country in Africa.

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As such this is a rare and important opportunity for Nigeria not just to be a regional role model, but to signpost to the international community that we are a nation which believes in democracy and digital human rights – not to mention a safe and stable country in which to invest and with whom to do business.

And such a simple move could have a profoundly positive impact on public trust in Nigerian democracy too – trust which study after study has shown to be worryingly low.

Just think of the impact if Nigerian politicians of all parties and ethnicities came together as one to say the same thing. Whoever you are, whomever you vote for, we will never deprive you of your democratic rights. Though we believe in different things, we are all committed to the same democratic values. And we are enshrining this value in law.

At the digital democracy campaign I lead, our mission is to harness digital technology to improve democracy.

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We have created a free app – Rate Your Leader – which puts verified voters in direct contact with their elected leaders allowing them to build two-way relationships of trust and transparency and to work together to improve both our communities and our country.

Rate Your Leader lets politicians know what is happening in their areas and what matters most to the people who elect them. It also allows voters to get important information directly from local leaders.

This sort of communication is critical to the integrity and effective functioning of our democracy in 2021.

In recent weeks we have seen plenty of debate about the democratic implications of world leaders such as former US President Donald Trump being banned from social media platforms.

But the banning of entire nations from the entire internet in order to prevent them from expressing their hard-won democratic rights is an altogether more alarming and sinister development.

Nigeria must use our position as Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation to stand against it.

Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and the creator of the free Rate Your Leader app. Follow him on Twitter via @JOPOPOOLA

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