Is today’s Uganda better or worse-off?

Before Ugandans head for the polls on February 18, 2011 to elect a president, members of parliament, district councilors and mayors, it might be helpful to consider the following developments.

1. The general standard of living of Ugandans has not reached the level attained in 1970.

2. Fifty two percent of Ugandans live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day (HDR 2010).

3. Some twenty percent of Ugandans in the lowest income bracket have become poorer.

4. Economic growth has fallen short of 7 or 8 percent required as a minimum to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

5. Seventy percent of Uganda’s GDP is generated in Kampala and its vicinity with a population of some two million. The remaining 31 million Ugandans contribute a mere 30 percent of GDP.

6. Household income distribution is highly skewed with 20 percent in the highest income bracket taking over 50 percent while 40 percent in the lowest income bracket taking 15 percent. Urban areas have performed relatively better than rural areas and southern has performed relatively better than northern Uganda.

7. Low economic and jobless growth, skewed income distribution, export-oriented growth with a high component of foodstuffs, economic liberalization, high interest rates and reduced expenditures on social sectors and infrastructure have created serious social, infrastructural (poor roads for example) and environmental challenges.

8. Youth unemployment stands at over 80 percent and some sixty percent of them are university graduates.

9. Over 80 percent of primary school children drop out of school before grade seven in large part because they are hungry. Despite NEPAD decision that African governments should provide lunches, Uganda government has refused to comply with serious damage to human capital formation and prospects for reduction in population growth as drop out children marry and begin families in their teens.

10. Twenty percent of children are underweight with permanent physical and mental handicaps.

11. Infant mortality which is an indicator of economic health has increased from 81 to 88 per 1000 live births.

12. Maternal mortality has increased from 527 to 920 per 100,000 live births.

13. Ten million Ugandans go to bed hungry while Uganda exports mountains of food to neighboring countries and beyond to earn foreign currency to meet the needs of few rich families.

14. Over thirty per cent of Ugandans suffer from neurological disorders including insanity. The main cause is poor diet (eating too much cassava and maize without nutrient supplements) plus stress.

15. Forty percent of children are undernourished with serious abnormalities.

16. High interest rates have discouraged borrowing and investment in labor-intensive activities by small and medium scale enterprises that are the main source of employment. This policy has resulted in low economic growth and exploding unemployment especially of youth.

17. Export diversification into fish, beans, and maize etc has deprived Ugandans of adequate and balanced diet. Traditionally fish and beans have been major sources of protein. Their reduction in the domestic market has resulted in high prices and acute under-nutrition. Undernourished mothers produce underweight children with permanent disabilities. Brain development that takes place during the first three years of human life from conception is being stunted in Uganda because of inadequate and unbalanced diet.

18. Uganda’s economic liberal policy has resulted in domestic industries outcompeted by cheap imports including used items like second hand clothes (Uganda’s promising textile industry is being suffocated). Uganda is therefore de-industrializing. Some factories have closed down, others have relocated to other countries and the rest are performing below installed capacity. Massive devaluation of Uganda currency has made imports (consumer and intermediate goods) very expensive. Businesses that depend on imported inputs (intermediate goods) are finding it difficult especially small and medium scale enterprises and have either closed or scaled down and retrenched workers. De-industrialization has kept Uganda a raw material producer and exporter and has not benefited from value addition. Without value addition Uganda will remain handicapped (earning inadequate level of foreign currency) and forced to depend on aid with stiff conditionality including directing the development of Uganda’s economy and society as has been the case so far. Oil is not a panacea because it too is a raw material. There are many cases in Africa to confirm that.

19. Poor policies and sheer neglect of the environment have resulted in massive rural degradation with serious hydrological and thermal changes characterized by frequent and destructive droughts and floods. FAO has estimated that if drastic corrective measures are not taken Uganda could become a desert within 100 years (that is three generations from now – this is a short time!). Urban development has been dualistic: modern houses for the rich occupied mostly by foreigners and sprawling slums that harbor all sorts of problems. Poor urban planning has resulted in chocking drainage channels that colonial authorities had carefully designed and protected against encroachment. NRM government thinks this is a waste of space and a luxury it cannot afford. It has been built up and the result is frequent urban flooding especially in the nation’s capital city of Kampala.

20. Makerere University which was once described as the “Harvard of Sub-Saharan Africa” has lost its glory and is being compared to a two-year community college. V. S. Naipul (2010) first visited Makerere in 1966 and returned in 2008. He has graphically described the appalling conditions in his book titled “The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief”. His message regarding the second visit is compressed as follows: Makerere was not recognizable. It had become part of the crowded dusty town. University fences had been knocked down and not fixed. Garbage was not regularly collected and had attracted many marabout storks. Students are crowded together in mildewed halls and dormitories hung with sagging lines of laundry. Students lived helplessly among garbage. Sanitation was a thing of the past. The student body had increased from four thousand to thirty thousand. Not least, incidents of murder had also occurred at Makerere University.

21. In this environment of food, education, health and environmental insecurity; slow economic and jobless growth and skewed income distribution, raw material exports, focus on Kampala as the growth centre (as if Uganda was a city state like Singapore) and on labor-saving service sector, Uganda has no chance (if it continues on this trajectory) of generating the required human and non-human capacity to compete in a globalized and knowledge-driven economy. Massive brain drain has made matters worse. Liberalization and structural adjustment development model adopted in 1987 turned out to be a disaster and was abandoned in 2009. For purposes of elections, NRM came up with a five-year development plan which in essence is not different from the structural adjustment model recently scrapped. Mobile phones that have been presented as a success story have become more of a consumer than a producer of goods and services driving many into rather than out of poverty. In sum, this is the product of NRM government that has been in power for 25 years and is seeking re-election for another five year term on the same manifesto (except sending some Ugandans to the moon!).

22. Voters have a choice on February 18, 2011: (1) to return Museveni and NRM to power or (2) to try someone else. The choice is yours – and yours only. But you need to remember that whatever choice you make you will either be part of the solution or the problem. Therefore think carefully and objectively before you decide to vote for a particular candidate – not because the candidate is your relative or friend or because he/she gave you a kilo of salt or a match box – but because that candidate can make a positive impact on you, your family and your country.