Ugandans have a habit of pleading ignorance when things go wrong

I have devoted some time to studying and writing books on Uganda’s political economy. One of the findings is that when things go wrong at the individual, community or national level, you hear those involved saying that if they had known, this or that would not have happened or would have been done differently. I have heard Ugandans regret that if they had known, they would not have dropped out of school or married early, or sold their land or abandoned their families or ignored their parents’ advice or voted for so and so to represent them at the district or national level or neglected environment issues in Uganda’s economic growth. Another common observation is that when events do not affect certain groups, Ugandans tend not to bother. For example, those who have comfortable jobs do not care about the unemployed. They even blame them for being lazy or drinking too much. It is only when they are directly (or family members or relatives) affected that they care and actually complain that the government is not doing enough to resolve unemployment.

Uganda is going through a lot of changes at the national, regional and global levels that need to be carefully discussed in a transparent and participatory manner before final and binding decisions are taken or corrections are made early to avoid regrets later on. Here are a few illustrative cases.

1. It is recognized that the impetus for development in any country in time and space comes from within the country. Uganda governments need to make an effort to utilize their human capital to that end – and there is plenty of it lying idle at home or working abroad. The NRM government chose to rely more on foreign experts and advisers particularly in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and the Central Bank without adequate knowledge of Uganda’s history and culture. In many cases wrong advice was provided and implemented with adverse outcomes. The advice to focus on mass education at primary level in a knowledge-based globalizing world was a mistake. The advice to focus on controlling and stabilizing inflation at 5 percent per annum has resulted in very high interest rates that have discouraged small and medium enterprises that create jobs to borrow and invest in new businesses or expand existing ones. Consequently, Uganda is now saddled with over 80 percent of unemployed youth of whom over fifty percent are university graduates.

2. There are no short cuts to development. Countries that are developed went through the manufacturing phase. NRM government’s efforts to leap frog from subsistence to service industries based in towns has created problems including unemployment since service industries tend to be labor-saving. The British colonial authority developed the energy sector (HEP) and Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) as a foundation for industrial/manufacturing development. It realized that the agricultural and service sectors would not provide adequate jobs for the rapidly increasing labor force. But since independence Uganda has focused on static comparative advantage of exporting raw materials in exchange for manufactured products. Uganda needs to embark on the manufacturing sector beginning with agro-industries (which need to be protected against unfair competition as appropriate) in order to add value, create jobs and promote backward and forward linkages in the economy.

3. The development of human capital does not begin with entry into school. Scientific evidence has concluded that human capital formation begins with the health of women before they become pregnant. A malnourished woman or one that was born underweight will most likely produce an underweight infant with permanent physical and mental disabilities. Brain formation takes place during the first three years of human life from conception. This is the time when mothers and their children must consume adequate and balanced meals of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and (safe) drinking water. NRM’s policy of encouraging food production for cash and not for the stomach is misguided. School feeding programs in developed and developing countries have proven that they keep children in school and improve their performance especially of girls. That is why NEPAD of which Uganda is a member adopted a resolution calling on African governments to launch school feeding programs, using locally produced foodstuffs to boost peasant incomes. Uganda government needs to implement the program rather than commission studies on whether or not school lunches work. The school feeding program at Ruhiira in southwest Uganda has demonstrated beyond doubt that school lunch works!

4. Studies of economic integration and political federation have shown that if they are not done properly they can create serious unintended outcomes. Some member states could end up worse off than they were before. In the East African context there are issues like land and jobs that need to be tackled with great care. The free mobility of human and animal populations could overwhelm countries like Uganda which is surrounded by neighbors with acute shortage of land. Before negotiations on economic integration and political federation advance further, Ugandans need to draw lessons from experiences of the European Union, NAFTA, SADC and even the Tanzanian federation between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. While getting an East African passport to facilitate mobility within the region is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition. Similarly, while in theory the East African integration is expected to offer opportunities for expanded trade, in practice there are potentially serious problems. Countries that are more industrialized and have skilled human power are likely to reap disproportionate benefits at the expense of others. This is in fact one of the reasons that the first East African Community collapsed. Ugandans need to do more work in a transparent and participatory manner about the actual benefits and costs. Finalizing negotiations against an inflexible deadline could become counterproductive in the long term. The political federation issue is particularly sensitive and needs careful debate and should not be left to heads of state and respective ministries engaged in the negotiations.

5. The issues of restoration of Mpororo kingdom in southwest Uganda and creation of Tutsi Empire in the Great Lakes region should not be taken lightly. The reappearance of Mpororo Kingdom on Uganda maps without explanation should raise an alarm. According to a report in the Business in Africa magazine dated April 2001, Tutsi Empire is believed to be Museveni’s dream. If this is not true President Museveni should formally clear the air so that the matter is laid to rest. Otherwise it will continue to be raised.

6. Scientific evidence demonstrates that small holder farmers are productive, efficient, environmentally friendly and socially least disruptive. Since Uganda is a country of small holder farmers, they need to be facilitated by government rather than abandoned in favor of large farms. While technology in agricultural development in terms of high yielding seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation is essential, care must be taken to avoid negative consequences particularly those associated with GMOs. Lessons from India would shed light on what to avoid. The government needs to take all the scientific, economic, social and environmental findings into account before final decisions are taken. Leasing or selling Uganda land to foreign states and/or corporations to produce foodstuffs for their people should not be entertained because land is the only asset and source of livelihood that peasants depend on in the absence of functionally literacy. The case of Madagascar should serve as a warning in this regard.

The above illustrations were given so that Ugandans take appropriate action to avoid regrets later on after things have gone wrong. Given the significance of these issues every Ugandan should get involved because they cannot be left to the central government alone.