Nation Building in the Age of the Internet: The Phenomenon of "NationNets."

Dr Alex Tindimubona, ASTEX, Kampala, Uganda <>


One of the key challenges of the Internet is the difficulty of predicting its

future use, after basic connectivity has been achieved. Such prediction is of major interest not only for technology forecasters and strategic planners, but also for producers, consumers and supervisors of the Internet as it grows. It is particularly challenging in a unique continent like Africa, where the Internet indicators are still so low as to be almost unmeasurable, and where the socio-cultural, economic and political situation may be sufficiently different from other continents as to render transferrability of models unreliable.

This paper discusses an Internet activity that could be an indicator of future growth of the Internet in Africa: national Internet discussion groups such as UgandaNet, ZimNet (Zimbabwe), KCI-Net (Kenya), RwandaNet etc., which deal with all issues of nation building (or destruction) in Africa. It appears, from anecdotal observations so far, that after personal communication for professionaldevelopment (e-mail), participation in these general discussion groups (conferences, lists) is the next major use of the Internet by Africans, followed by Web browsing.

Preliminary impressions of these "NationNets" will be shared, with UgandaNet as the case study. Their role in nation building in a rapidly democratizing and liberalizing Africa, and their interaction with actual developments on the ground in those nations, will be discussed. Recommendations for promoters of African Networking will be made, the first one being: "every nation should have one."


In the early 1980s when we participated in bringing the first microcomputers into Africa (Tindimubona, 1990), we were subjected to surprises in the way the new technology was taken up by the people. We had conceptualised and predicted their use in a university chemistry environment to be deep computational chemistry, such as modelling of chemical phenomena; artificial intelligence for molecular and drug design; automation of experimental data acquisition and analysis; computer assisted learning; and other high-level applications.. However, we were quickly driven off our computers by hordes of "computer illiterate" lecturers and students, simply wishing to do wordprocessing! This "trivial" use of our precious computers initially shocked and abhorred us, but in the end we had to give way.

We were able to rationalise it by realising that about 40-60% of an active lecturer/researcher's life is actually wordprocessing, as they write and distribute course materials, exams, proposals, theses, reports, conference papers etc. Any technology that improves efficiency in this segment increases overall productivity. This realisation is now widely accepted, as microcomputers worldwide are used mostly for wordprocessing - over 90%.

A similar surprise is emerging for the Internet in Africa. In 1990, we at the African Academy of Sciences were involved in strategic planning for development of the Internet in Africa. In an early conceptual design, AFRINET (Bellman and Tindimubona, 1991), we gave much emphasis to the "higher-level" applications like collaborative research, professional interaction, distance education and development stimulation. But now, as components of AFRINET have began to be put in place by some our colleagues and former students, concerns about African content on the Internet have emerged. These higher level pursuits seem not to be putting African content on the Internet as fast as expected.

We now believe we have discovered a major, hitherto un-reported, source of African Internet content which is growing very fast, but very quietly and with impacts still to be evaluated and tapped more for Africa's benefit. This is the phenomenon of "NationNets".


"NationNets" are discussion groups such as UgandaNet, ZimNet (Zimbabwe), KenyaNet, NigerNet (Nigeria), SudanNet, RwandaNet etc. <We don't know yet the full number of countries with active such lists>. From anecdotal evidence, these are e-mail based (listserv or majordomo) mailing lists, typically set up and administered by African students or workers in America, Europe, Australia and other developed countries and hosted on university computers in those countries. Aside from personal notices and making contacts with long lost friends, they discuss serious national issues, typically fuelled by comments on regular (typically bi-weekly) newspaper stories from the home country, which participants undertake to feed into the list.

Ugandanet is typical. Set up by Kiggundu Y. Mukasa, a young Ugandan engineering student in the USA, in the early 90's, it was hosted at <> until 1996 when he finished his studies and returned home to Uganda. In the same period, Uganda went completely purple (full Internet) with at least 4 ISPs, and so he is now hosting the list at <>. According to Kiggundu Mukasa (personal communication), his aim in setting up Ugandanet was to help reverse the brain drain by keeping student, exiled or expatriate Ugandans in touch with the country and each other, and as a forum for contributing ideas for the development of Uganda. The list has attracted a virtual community of over 3,000 Ugandans living in all continents, with only a few (possibly 10%) resident inside Uganda. Most participants join "for the lively debates and news from home," in the words of one participant. They pay a small fee which seems negotiable (sometimes to zero). A typical day brings about 30 Ugandanet messages to a participant, quite enough food for thought.

And the debates, are they ever hot! First, they cover all facets of Uganda's situation and development, mostly as reported in the local papers. Although discussion covers issues from the sublime to the profane, most of the discussion has been social, political and economic. And the language is completely unfettered, unmoderated, and uncensored. Exchanges are usually hot, emotional, sometimes biased and definitely unparliamentary, if not outright seditious and treasonable. Nasty personal attacks and hate mail are not uncommon.

Kiggundu Mukasa lets it all go in. For he decided right from the beginning that he would not interfere with the battles of ideas and emotion that erupt periodically on Ugandanet. He firmly believes "netters" should engage and argue with whatever position they oppose, and convince everyone that their position is right until the other side backs down. He has rarely used his power to cut off a participant. Even the "Lord's Resistance Army" rebel group fighting the Uganda government regularly post their communiques on Ugandanet and try to get converts. One of the few rules Ugandanet has is the 3-word rule: if you use more that 3 words in another language, you must translate into English, the national language, so others can understand.


But the debates can get out of hand sometimes, since they mirror the situation in the country itself. Like the day one group seceded from Ugandanet. This was during the 1994 constitutional debate at home, and Ugandanet was closely following and participating in the debate. One group of delegates in the Constituency Assembly, failing to get their demands of a federal (and feudal) status for their region/kingdom, walked out of the talks and refused to ratify the national constitution. There was a real threat of physical secession, civil war, and the country's break-up.

On Ugandanet, the supporters of this faction also broke the 3-word rule. Frustrated netters put pressure on Kiggundu Mukasa to close Ugandanet down (equivalent to abolishing the country?). He resisted. Soon after, the federalist faction acrimoniously seceded and apparently formed their own regional net, promoting their region's interests including the right to speak their own language on the Internet etc. Back in Uganda, the crisis on the ground was ably managed and never escalated to breaking point. National unity prevailed. In cyberspace, similarly it is believed that some of the secessionists returned to participate in Ugandanet.


The national culture and traditions are a source of much engagement on Ugandanet. Many of the stories being fed into Ugandanet come from the liberalised, free, and sometimes sensational private press of Uganda. One particular story caused a real furor on Ugandanet during the presidential election campaign of 1996. It was reported that in a remote region of Uganda, two men bet one hundred thousand Uganda shillings (equivalent to US$ 100) on different presidential candidates. One man did not have the cash, so he bet his wife. He lost the bet. The case went for arbitration and the elders decided his wife must go to the winner.

Whether true or not, the whole saga was gleefully reported on Ugandanet, with appropriate running commentary and fiery debate, some not so complementary to the culture and traditions of the people of that region. Finally, one professor on Ugandanet living in the diaspora, who had been watching the debate quietly, could not stand it any more. He came out and angrily offered to pay the one hundred dollars himself, so that the woman could stay with her husband. Offer accepted, conflict resolved, subject closed. Most Ugandanet conflicts also usually get resolved, some more neatly than others.


1. Nation building and conflict resolution

In our view, Ugandanet and the other NationNets have proved their value in national consensus building, conflict resolution and hopefully the development of shared values and a national vision for the African future we want. Their "grassroots" approach and free-wheeling style has made them compatible with the new trends in democratization, transparency, accountability and good governance. Their impact on national life is probably much greater than what is visible, because we know that the participants have much influence among their relatives, colleagues and friends at home. Also, local media watches them and uses them as a source of news, opinion and comment which the publish. So Africa is now more connected to global trends in ideas through these NationNets, and is hence enriched. Every country should have a NationNet. And then, they should exchange content more, until all of Africa is connected..

2. Domestication of technology: whose internet, whose content?

It is necessary to affirm that although science (knowledge) is universal, technology (application) must ultimately become local in the way it is adopted, adapted, owned and utilised by a particular society (Tindimubona, 1993). This is the case with agricultural, transport and other classical technologies. The NationNets hint at this need and process even for information technology. To us the technology forecasters, this gives much hope that Africa will be able to domesticate the Internet technology and utilise it for the most pressing and relevant priority needs at this conjuncture in our socio-cultural development. In so doing, Africa will create her own content, and ultimately make her Internet her own. The participatory nature of the NationNets makes them a good instrument for showing us the way. We look forward to more surprises.


Bellman, B.L. and Tindimubona, A. (1991). Global networks and international communication: AFRINET. 34th Meeting of the African Studies Association. Later version in Linda Harassim (Ed.) . Global networks. MIT Press. 1993.

Tindimubona, A. (1990). A laboratory for computer applications in chemistry. Discovery and Innovation 2 (3), 15.

Tindimubona, A (1993). Establishment of a science culture in Africa. Science and Public Policy.

ART 15-6-97

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