The world stands at the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab is famously quoted as saying that there has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril, than today.
In a nutshell, the revolution is about the merging of the physical, digital and biological spheres. For Uganda where half of the population is below 15 years of age, navigating the country into this new era is probably the most significant role of today’s leadership. For the way this is done will determine whether our children and grandchildren will compete favourably or on equal terms with the rest of the world – a world of disappearing borders – or be doomed to unimaginable condemnation of a life where even the most menial of functions will be performed by artificial intelligence.
So far so good. The NRM leadership, President Museveni in particular, has been very supportive of the development of the ICT sector. A fully fledged ministry was established and has oversight roles over the most important state and non-state actors including the telecoms and the broadcasters. The government has been supporting and continues to support innovations in the sector. Today, Ugandan students are creating digital apps and building Artificial Intelligence gadgets of all types. And these innovations are not for mere academic pursuit but have immediate application in the lives of the people. Consider the way transport ordering apps like Uber and Safeboda are rapidly transforming the way we move from place to place! It is believed that children being born today in the developed world will never learn to drive, it will not be necessary and human-driven cars for general use will phase out in their life time.
But despite the massive investment government has made in the ICT sector, it is still characterized by widespread disconnectivity, rendering the investments largely non-beneficial to the people and to the economy. Achieving that connectivity, to allow the scattered databases start talking to one another is the most urgent step that the government has to take. The new minister, Honourable Judith Nabakooba, needs to read all her KPIs in light of this urgently needed connectivity.
As at now, the national identity card that we proudly carry is not much more than an introductory letter telling whoever it is presented to manually that the bearer is so and so. While it is designed to be a hundred times more than that, the government and the citizens are yet to feel its role beyond what an LC letter can do.
There is massive computing capacity scattered in different agencies where millions of Ugandans are registered. The early leader in this was Uganda Revenue Authority. But every taxpayer knows that even without attempting to connect to another agency, transacting with URA online can be a nightmare. There are even allegations that sometimes the system failures are not accidental. Many persons who have tried to do something as simple as registering for a TIN online have given up and had to ‘pay’ somebody ‘connected’ to URA to help them do it.
Another agency with a massive personal database is the Electoral Commission, quite topical now that the general election is hardly a year away. Then there are the mobile phone service providers who most likely have registered more persons than the identity card issuing authority, NRA. The commercial banks, the immigration directorate/passport office, the transport ministry’s arm that issue driving permits with a company called Face Technology, the National Social Security Fund the examinations authority UNEB are all government agencies with data for over a million people each. But sadly, we cannot yet list the national health insurance among such agencies. There of course is the Uganda police which has fingerprints of some five million people some of them still stored only in physical form.
Anyhow, the connectivity of these multiple agencies, possibly to be powered by yet another authority called NITA, will make sense out of the massive investments that have been made. But it is not only efficiency of governance and business that would be achieved. If a small fee of a few shillings were automatically levied for every interface with the system, trillions of shillings would be raised thus boosting the collection revenue massively.
As Klaus Schwab said, it is a time of great promise and potential peril. But it cannot be both for an individual country. Hopefully, ‘Afande’ Nabakooba, with her police background, her journalism background, her political mobilization background, and her steering the most critically sensitive parliament sectoral committee background, is well poised to drive this task and connect the vital dots to ensure Uganda ends on the promise rather than peril side of the fourth industrial revolution.
There are many minefields in her new role and her predecessor who deserves credit for bringing the ICT this far and leading the formulation of solid policies, the honourable Frank Tumwebaze, is still in cabinet and on hand to give her valuable insights. For it is a snake pit in there, infested with fast talking conmen with rosy proposals how to provide solutions. Coordination between agencies is another problem! Right now there is dispute over the Google balloons for boosting internet power which the Internal Security Organisation has vowed to bring down. Citizens are wondering why ISO is raising its protest late after the balooons are being deployed, for even if they had been left out of the inter agency plans, by their very mandate they should have known what was going on. Otherwise ,they would have let down the nation if those balloons were to be used for other purposes than the stated one.
All this underpins the importance of coordination. Like every other Ugandan, the Honourable Nabakooba must have been saddened when our president had to complain openly over the foreign telecoms’ activities including outright tax theft and dangerous espionage. If there is proper monitoring of customers’ data, such an embarrassing situation of government while collecting its revenue being at the mercy of a mere (moreover foreign) phone company that can even be replaced. We have also seen parliament paying rent to bogus owners of premises for which government paid compensation ages ago to deported Asians, a situation that wouldn’t arise if identities or persons who do business with government were instantly verifiable.
Fortunately, the new ICT ministers can count on the highest level of support for the president is fed up with corruption. Revenue collection for example will undergo a massive leap if there is minimized interface between taxpayers and tax collectors. Today there is a massive difference between the personal income taxes paid by most businessmen and government officials and their lifestyle. The policewoman in Hon Nabakooba should enjoy helping the IGG and URA to narrow this difference between taxes paid and real earnings. Although this is under the audit functions, but it is a functioning ICT sector which makes it possible.
In a nutshell, the ICT sector is the most critical at Uganda’s stage of development. The ICT minister is the super minister. Thank God Uganda now has a God-fearing woman with a security background to head this function.
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