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Demography vs economy as Uganda heads to the polls


Kampala, Uganda | AFP | Wednesday

Labyrinthine and cacophonous, Kampala’s sprawling Owino Market is private enterprise unchained, a place where Ugandans struggle daily to survive and thrive.

And after three decades of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule, his election promise of jobs and wealth rings hollow to many here.

Peasants digging for a living.

Francis Ssendawula is a trained schoolteacher, but after failing to find work he moved into the informal sector and is now the proprietor of a wardrobe-sized second-hand shoe store on one of Owino’s narrow mud alleys.

“We need the chance to participate in our national cake,” said the 29-year old who, like many of the capital’s urban youth, will vote for opposition candidate Kizza Besigye in Thursday’s polls.

Ssendawula has little time for Museveni’s election promises. “You should not mind about more jobs with this government,” he said.

Instead Ssendawula has made a job for himself, selling his stock of shoes -– designer knockoffs imported from China -– in the hope of earning enough to make a living and perhaps start a family.

“On a good day I can make something like 50,000 (Uganda shillings, $15, 13 euros), but other days no coin,” he said with a shrug.

Since seizing power in 1986 Museveni has emphasised peace and stability, contrasting his rule to the preceding decades of strife and civil war under Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

‘Make jobs for ourselves’

The dominant political narrative portrays Museveni as the guarantor of peace and bulwark against chaos — and it has been effectively drummed home.

“Stability is the catalyst for everything else,” said Levis Nuwemanzi, a clean-cut 33-year old.

“Where Uganda is and where Uganda is going, we are not doing bad,” said Nuwemanzi, who studied economics at university and now sells jeans and shirts in Owino.

“Progress isn’t a boom thing, it is continuous, gradual,” he said echoing the president’s campaign slogan, ‘Steady Progress’.

A short way up the same tight, tarp-roofed corridor a barrel-chested former security guard, Eddy Mupere, said the lack of economic opportunities meant it was time for a change.

“The government has not created jobs for people! We make jobs for ourselves,” said the 38-year old, who has sold secondhand T-shirts here for a dozen years.

Boda boda rider. PHOTO BY

“The government has done nothing, completely. That’s why some guys have degrees and yet they are working here,” he said, gesturing towards Nuwemanzi. “We have got bad leadership and that means a bad economy.”

Uganda has not crashed, but nor has it taken off. Foreign companies have found billions of barrels of oil beneath Lake Albert, yet none of the thick crude has been extracted.

The economy is growing at more than five percent a year but remains dependent on exports of agricultural products such as coffee, tobacco, fish and tea. Inflation is below eight percent.

But demographics are against the country, and Uganda is failing to supply the jobs that its youthful, fast-growing population needs. More than half of Uganda’s 39 million people are under 16, with estimates of the proportion of jobless as high as four out of five.

With population growing at a staggering pace, Uganda is predicted to reach 100 million by mid-century.

Peace is not enough

Fred Muhumuza, an economist and former finance ministry advisor, blamed Uganda’s five-year election cycle, patronage politics and mismanagement for the economic stagnation.

“Talk of oil has been on for 10 years now: no progress. We talk of railways: no progress. All these five-year plans, you might as well just change the dates. That is a great failure,” he said.

Muhumuza was impressed with Museveni’s first decade but the advent of competitive elections in 1996 meant, “populism took over and development became secondary.”

Patronage politics –- the purchase of support in parliament and among the people –- took centre stage and, “You don’t build effectiveness through patronage,” he said.

After 30 years in power and a series of electoral victories, Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party are complacent. “The government is so comfortable, it has relaxed,” said Muhumuza.

Uganda rural women digging. PHOTO

Far less comfortable are ordinary folk like Benon Muyomba, a 32-year-old self-employed driver of a motorbike taxi, or boda-boda.

Five years ago Muyomba took a $580 (520 euros) loan to buy his first motorbike, starting a business that can pay much better than formal employment: as much as $9 (8 euros) on a good day, versus the $26 (18 euros) a month he used to earn as a hotel bellboy.

“We are happy with the peace that we have – but it’s not enough,” said Muyomba, a Besigye supporter, who says successive governments are failing to provide the basics of healthcare, education and employment.

“As long as those are there we don’t want anything else,” he said.

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