Social Media: Uganda’s chance at an Indigenous Civil Society

Human Rights

A simple definition of ‘Civil Society’ is enabled by truncating the term into two words Civil and Society. When we say something is Civil, we mean that it is non-Military or non-Government, we mean that it relates to ordinary citizens. A Society is a group of people linked by common interests and activities. When we say Civil Society, we should mean a “community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity”.

The term Civil Society is popularly used to refer to Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), and Community Based Organisations (CBOs).The mushrooming of NGOs and CBOs as the prominent face of Civil Society was partly sparked by a need by Western Civilizations to promote Democracy and Development in Africa using the Organizational models that they (Western Civilizations) were familiar with. Consequently, most of these Civil Society Organizations in Uganda are not genetically engineered (a phrase coined by Armine Ishkanian to mean that the organizations sprouted because of foreign funding and not because of the community’s collective contribution.)

Although most NGOs and CBOs focus their projects and programs on public interest issues such as eradication of poverty, gender equality, access to education and health, they have failed to rally the collective interest and participation of Ugandan citizens. For instance, when attendants are invited to participate in projects by NGOs, they demand transport facilitation or a stipend without which many choose not to attend. An Indigenous Civil Society would not make such demands because individuals would willfully act collectively to achieve social good, sometimes even contributing hard-earned money.

Social Media, on the other hand, avails a platform for Ugandans to collectively handle their social or political problems without necessarily depending on external funding. Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp have been used to successfully achieve social causes and therefore Social Media presents a chance for Ugandans to have an Indigenous Civil Society aimed at the attainment of Development and Democracy.

In 2015 a Social Media campaign was started to save Rose Mary Nankabira and a total of UShs 134, 501,252 was collected from citizens who willfully contributed money for the treatment of the cancer patient. Unfortunately Rosemary passed on but fortunately, the balance after settling hospital bills was used to construct a waiting shed worth UShs 64,851,898 for patients at the Cancer Institute at Mulago Hospital (a public hospital). Through Social Media, Ugandans collectively contributed to the building of a Health sector infrastructure that today acts for many as an infirmary while they wait for days or months to get treatment.

Social Media was the major avenue for citizens to participate in the political processes of Uganda in the 2016 Presidential elections. Although the state ordered a Social Media shut down towards the voting days, it cannot be denied that there was vibrant civic engagement without the requirement for mobilization by NGOs for external funding.

Uganda is one of the first countries in Sub-Sahara Africa with full internet connectivity although the internet penetration as at June 2016 was only 42.5%. Civic engagement through social media requires internet connectivity and 42.5% is not too small a number to start with. In fact, it is impressive. There is a window of opportunity to tap into here because if 42.5% of the population can be reached through Social Media which has been tried and tested as having the potential to cause change, then we are on our way to social and political transformation through indigenous civic engagement.

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