Last month when my colleagues and I torched our MTN SIM cards in front of the media, we raised many eyebrows across the country as people wondered whether we were misdirecting our frustration for failing to unseat the NRM government. Not as many eyebrows were raised when opposition members of the 8th Parliament walked out in protest of the cleansing of four cabinet ministers for their wrongs during CHOGM. That action sealed the legacy of the 8th Parliament and that unfortunately is how we shall remember it. A disgraceful and disreputable lot save for the few who could only demonstrate their outrage by walking out of the House in protest.
The two protests though different in execution are part of the opposition’s strategy of nonviolent action to create awareness and gradually erode the pillars of authoritarianism in Uganda. The parliamentary walk out was easy for the public to relate to because most Ugandans have followed the CHOGM heist closely. Amanya Mushega a former minister of education put the UGX 500 billion theft into perspective for me. He says a good secondary school like Ntare School, in Mbarara could be constructed at a cost of about UGX 500 million. So the CHOGM looters got away with eating 1000 Ntare schools which translates into nearly one Ntare school for every sub county in Uganda!
The boycott of MTN products and services is still not clear to most people because our history of boycotting corporations is fairly new. Elsewhere in the world, successful boycotts have a rich history of reminding big corporations that their corporate social responsibility requires them to plan for three Ps: Profits, Planet and People. And here ‘people’ refers not only to customer interests but also the interests of a wider society in which they operate.
Now as a consumer I have certain rights. The right to service requires a service provider to be responsiveness to my needs and problems. I also have a right to refuse any services offered. My wider freedom of expression allows me to protest loudly when corporations disregard my consumer rights. Corporations know these obligations and the importance of a pristine corporate image and that is why they have marketing, public relations and customer service departments.
My personal beef with MTN (and I say personal because I relate to MTN as an individual customer and not a party member;) is that I witnessed a merger of their corporate identity with that of the ruling party during the election campaigns. Nowhere was it better demonstrated than at Kololo Airstrip where the billboards of candidate Museveni were beautifully laid out in complementary pattern with those of the company. Many of those same billboards have since converted back into purely MTN billboards. Now some say the outdoor advertising company coincidentally rented them to the candidate and the company in unison and consecutively. Yeah right! When they chose that morphed identity, MTN ceased being just another company and became an extension of the ruling party which rigged elections last February. My colleagues and the press have reported a host of other outrageous stories like the 60000 MTN SIM cards that went only to NRM agents the night before polling day while opposition MTN lines were disabled the next day and the free MTN bonanza for NRM leaders at Namboole.
As a population many of our rights and freedoms have been eroded and we cannot control the outcome of even a local election. The phone companies know that we are a people with an oral culture and will go to lengths to stay in touch through word of mouth. They are making a profit from our talking culture. Conversely, that culture gives us power as a big block of consumers of airtime. Individually we spend a few thousand shillings weekly on airtime, together we spend billions. As consumers we represent perhaps one of the few interest groups that government must engage through persuasion rather than force. The government may come to power via a stolen election, it may deny us jobs and shut our businesses to force us to accept its authority; but a government cannot influence our spending patterns by force in a free market environment.
We can take that power as consumers and turn it into a negotiating platform because the corporation’s bottom line impacts government’s tax collection. We are resolved to use boycotts and other nonviolent means of protests to destroy the pillars of authoritarianism in Uganda.