Nation Building in the Age of the Internet: The
Phenomenon of "NationNets."
Dr Alex Tindimubona, ASTEX, Kampala, Uganda <email@example.com>
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."
I. INTRODUCTION: SURPRISES IN TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION
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
II. THE PHENOMENON OF NATION NETS
"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 <firstname.lastname@example.org> 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 <email@example.com>.
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.
III. NATION BUILDING (AND DESTRUCTION) OVER THE
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.
IV. INTERNET AND CULTURE: THE MAN WHO BET HIS
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
2. Domestication of technology: whose internet,
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.
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