Explaining Uganda’s Population Explosion

Many commentators – experts and non-experts – have rushed to the conclusion that Uganda cannot develop and become a middle class economy and society unless it drastically curbs its ‘exploding’ population growth. The current rapid environmental degradation in rural and urban areas and rising crime among other problems are being blamed on rapid population growth. However, it appears that nobody has convincingly explained the causes of population explosion. So let us begin by looking at the components that contribute to population increase.

Population increases in a particular space – a village or a country – when the number of births exceeds the number of deaths; and the number of in-migrants exceeds the number of out-migrants – that is those who come into the village or country exceed those who move out.  

Uganda’s geographical location, resource endowments, employment opportunities and tolerant government policies since colonial days have resulted in more migrants into than out of Uganda. Since the 1920s or earlier, Uganda has received many people from her neighbors in Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and especially from Rwanda for economic and political reasons. People from Burundi and Rwanda have been moving into Uganda in search of work as cultivators and herders and later as refugees since the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of those who came in chose to stay permanently, get married and have families thus contributing to population growth.

Political disturbances in Uganda’s neighbors particularly in Rwanda, Sudan and DRC have resulted in many refugees with their livestock coming to Uganda and settling among Uganda communities rather than confined to camps with the understanding that when the situation improved in their home countries they would return. The districts that border DRC and Rwanda such as former Kigezi (now Kisoro, Kabale, Kanungu and Rukungiri) have attracted many people from these two countries, who have spread to other parts of the country. This influx also explains in part why these districts have particularly experienced rapid population growth and a very serious shortage of land with unwelcome developments such as conflicts between host and immigrant, which is taking on political dimensions.

If records have been kept by immigration, labor and statistical authorities as well as United Nations refugee agencies, it should be possible to determine their numbers and contribution to Uganda’s so-called population explosion.  

Studies have shown that when a population suffers major human losses during wars, epidemics or other forms of instability, there is a natural tendency to increase fertility to replace those that have been lost. There is evidence that the period of slavery in Africa was associated with the impulse of population growth. Further, “The period of colonial conquest, from approximately 1885 to1910 generated a …major component in Africa’s population history. Much of this conquest was accomplished through destructive warfare. Moreover, in the wake of military intervention, African populations experienced a measurable decline from famine and epidemic disease. As is generally the case with catastrophes caused by famine, disease and warfare, Africa experienced a quick demographic rebound from these early colonial traumas. Thus, in many regions during the 1910s and 1920s a ‘baby boom’ occurred, which restored local populations to their pre-colonial numbers” (Harvard International Review. Fall 1994).

Since the 1970s, Uganda has experienced wars, epidemic diseases such as AIDS and famines with adverse demographic consequences. In such circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect rapid population decline. Besides, the politics of Uganda which revolves around tribes, population numbers are still essential. Religious factors have also played a significant part.

That is why leaders in some regions are encouraging their populations to have as many children as is biologically possible to fill the land and keep out immigrants and have many constituencies for elections to boost their numbers in parliament and enable them to access more economic benefits.

There is also overwhelming evidence that poor, illiterate and rural societies tend to have more children than well educated and better off urban dwellers. Infant mortality rate is higher in rural than in urban areas. And economic conditions in rural areas involving collecting water, fetching firewood, raising animals and cultivating crops for domestic use and sale require more hands than in urban areas. Therefore producing many children in such an environment is a rational decision. Those who voluntarily seek family planning in rural areas are usually couples that already have many children.

Another factor favoring large families is culture which is still very strong in rural areas. Once a girl drops out of school she gets married and is expected to have children without delay. The desire for boys is also still high. Accordingly, couples that produce girls will go on producing to the limit of their biological capacity. Further still, the number of children a couple has, the higher is its status in the community and old age security.

The current controversial debate regarding the economic benefits of large population size and shortcomings connected with a rapid population decline as in Europe, Russia, china and Japan have forced a reexamination of population policies.

In those countries where the population has declined efforts are underway to stimulate higher fertility. Because of these developments, countries where populations are still growing are increasingly becoming reluctant to embark on genuine efforts to curtail population growth to avoid rapid population decline as their counterparts in most of the developed world have experienced.

For Uganda it is suggested that authorities should first and foremost identify, quantify and disaggregate the major causes of population growth – excess of births over deaths and in-migration over out-migration, examine conditions that have led to the maintenance of high fertility before determining the concrete course of action to take to achieve optimum growth rate in the long term.