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COVID-19: Former NITA-U ED, James Saaka, Dead

James Saaka, the former Executive Director of the National Informational Technology Authority (NITA-U), is dead. He was 58.

Saaka, who recently left NITA-U after ten years at its helm, succumbed to COVID-19.

The deceased was hospitalized at Case Clinic in Kampala a fortnight ago.

“He has just passed on,” a close associate of Saaka told ChimpReports at around 2:00pm this Wednesday.

Saaka presided over the IT revolution in Uganda which saw the rollout of the largest and most stable optical fiber cable network aptly named the National Data Transmission Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) with presence in over 40 major towns and districts.

He oversaw the maiden Tier 3 Cloud data center project and ensured Government Ministries and departments had functional websites.

To date, the ICT sector is growing at rate of 25 percent, the fastest growing sector in the economy.

“If we wake up one day and all the 40 million Ugandans can access all government services online, then we can perhaps call it a day,” said Saaka in 2019.

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“Until that day, we and our partners will continue to strive to entrench the e-Government culture within not only our systems but our core beliefs,” he added.

Saaka’s death has shocked Uganda’s ICT sector in which he was known as a genius.

The development also underlines the deepening COVID-19 pandemic crisis in the country.

Official statistics show COVID-19 has so far killed 207 people in Uganda since March 2020.

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In August 2010 when Saaka joined the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U) as Executive Director, it was just a year after NITA-U had been established by an Act of Parliament.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

With expertise in IT Management, Information Security, IT Strategy, and Business Services Management the stage was set for a challenging yet, as he admits himself an “electrifyingly exciting” ride.

This was about the time that the cabinet approved the strategy of rationalization and harmonization of utilization of ICTs in order to eliminate wastage of resources arising from duplication of efforts and initiatives within Government.

One of the priority interventions emphasized under this strategy is the use of the NBI as the primary vehicle for all Government data, Internet and voice services. It was clear to Saaka that his first task was to operationalize the NBI.

True to that motive, NITA-U undertook a competitive bidding process to procure bulk Internet bandwidth for Government from upstream Providers.

In January 2014 the provision of Internet bandwidth to Government entities commenced at a price of USD 300 per Mbps per month with 27 Government offices connected to the NBI.

This was an unprecedented feat since prior to that, government was spending a whooping USD 1200 per Mbps per month.

The momentum was set. Much as savings had been made, according to Saaka there was still big room for further improvement.

That is why in December 2016, using funds from the World Bank under the Regional Communications Infrastructure Programme (RCIP), NITA-U negotiated and procured bulk Internet bandwidth which saw a further reduction of cost from USD 300 to USD 70 per mbps saving the government more than 5-billion-shilling s annually. This pricing is 56% cheaper when benchmarked against regional pricing which is USD 158 per mbps on average.

This drop in prices to government also precipitated a momentous drop in market prices. The effect of this drop was not only felt on an accounting level, but was able to be felt by numerous government entities since by then, NITA-U had extended the NBI to reach 49 districts and 480 government offices across the country.

NITA-U with Saaka at the helm knew this and worked with their partners to see to it that the NBI is extended to reach every part of Uganda.

The NBI had only 27 government offices connected at the time NITA-U started its operationalising it.

With phase IV complete, the NBI has been extended to 480 government offices including district local government sites, hospitals, universities and training institutions.

By the end of the financial year 2020/21, seven hundred more government offices will be connected to the NBI.

Seven major border posts of Uganda with its neighbouring countries have all been connected to the NBI i.e.; Uganda – Kenya at Malaba and Busia, Uganda – South Sudan at Elegu and Oraba, Uganda- DR Congo at Mpondwe and Vurra, Uganda – Rwanda at Katuna and Uganda – Tanzania at Mutukula respectively. This has facilitated regional integration, cooperation, communication, and trade with our neighbouring countries. The story doesn’t end here though.

The NBI generates income for the government, generating 29 billion in the 2019 alone.

“What will we, the civil servants of the day, tell our grandchildren in future when they are still enduring long lines to access government services? This is usually a manifestation of bureaucratic inefficiencies and not embracing technology. We have the opportunity and time to change this,” said Saaka at the time.

Saaka also spearheaded the authoring of digital laws which include Electronic Transactions Act (2011) and its attendant Regulations (2013) b) The Electronic Signatures Act (20110 and its attendant Regulations (2013) c) The Computer Misuse Act (2011) Uganda.

He also oversaw the implementation of the National Information Security Framework to protect MDA resources and systems from potential cyber-attacks and associated risks such as cyber terrorism.

NITA-U plays a coordination role alongside various stakeholders to strengthen Information Security Governance, Risk Remediation Planning and Response. As a result of such efforts, Uganda ranked 1st in Africa in the National Cyber Security Index, signifying that Uganda has the most secure cyber space in Africa.

“Give a colony of ants a mound of soil and they’ll transform it into an ant city within a week. If ants without any technology can do that out of sheer will and organization, what about us who are blessed with technology that our forefathers could not even dream of?” Saaka opined.

NITA-U under Saaka embraced a culture of organized hard work and innovation.

It is in the same spirit the E-Citizen’s portal which the single reference point is offering 106 citizen-facing e-services was designed.

That’s how e-PAY, an electronic payment gateway that enables online payments for all public services was rolled out.

And it is because of this determination that a project is underway to integrate all government IT systems to enable data sharing across MDAs in a rational, secure and efficient way, such that citizens are able to access government services conveniently without delays caused by lack of data and data verification processes.

These and many may more innovations underscore the Saaka era at the helm of NITA-U.

In the ten years as the custodian of the drive to digitize Uganda, Saaka not only laid the foundation, the brick work too is up and rising at a steady pace.

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