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The real problem of Uganda

Educated Ugandans can’t see they don’t need a perfect policy environment to become prosperous

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | There are two suffocating beliefs among the vast majority of educated Ugandans. The first is that a university degree (does not) just provide someone an opportunity to search and compete for a secure well-paying job but that it guarantees (or should guarantee) such a job. Hence it does not matter whether the person concerned has the requisite skills that are demanded by employers; what matters is the piece of paper out of a university.

The second is that the source of individual and collective prosperity is the state’s welfare programs. Listen even to the most enlightened Ugandans, they will tell you that the problem of Uganda (or Africa for that matter) is political leaders. That the citizen is simply a passive victim of bad leadership, not an active participant in shaping his personal destiny and that of the country. So, for individual citizens and the nation to be prosperous, they need the state to create jobs, pay for their education and health, provide seed capital for investment etc. while they do nothing in return.

To drive this point home, many Ugandan (and African) intellectuals cite Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or South Korea’s Park Chung Hee or Dubai’s Sheik Mohamed Bib Rashid Al Maktoum as the leader-heroes who transformed their nations. There is always a contradiction: the very people who want this transformative leader-hero are also the same people who want checks and balances on the exercise of executive power. Yet if transformation is to be leader-driven, such a leader should be free to exercise power for the good of his country without being checked and balanced by political institutions or other societal forces.

I often ask: if political leaders are drivers of prosperity, who was the leader of Belgium or Holland or Norway or Sweden or Denmark or Austria or UK or USA or France or New Zeeland or Australia or Italy or Germany or Japan, that made any of these nations prosperous? Besides, if Lee Kuan Yew is the explanation for Singapore’s success which leader is responsible for Hong Kong’s prosperity – since both countries have similar per capita GDP? The only common thing I see between the two countries is that they are both predominantly ethnic Chinese; Hong Kong is 92% ethnic Chinese while Singapore is 76% ethnic Chinese.

When I see China racing to global dominance, I feel inclined to look at the shared culture, mentalities, attitudes and motivations of ethnic Chinese more than the competences of individual leaders. Ethnic Chinese are a tiny minority in many countries of East Asia yet hold a disproportionate share of the economy: 2% of the population of Brunei but have a 24% hold on its economy; less than 1% of the population of Cambodia but have 92% hold on the economy; 14% in Thailand with 81% hold on the economy; 2% in Vietnam with 41% hold on the economy; 1.8% in Philippines with 62% hold on the economy; 3.3% in Indonesia with 62% hold on the economy; 22.6% in Malaysia but 63% hold on the economy; 1.4% in Burma with 76% hold on the economy; etc.

Even outside East Asia, Chinese communities tend to be successful in many societies they migrate to. Ethnic Taiwanese (who are Chinese) come second behind Indians as the second highest earning ethnic group in USA, people from mainland China come 16th ahead of Japanese (17th), Swiss (19th), Italian (21st), Greek (22nd) Israeli (23rd), Swedish (30th), Norwegian (32nd), Scottish (33rd), Danish (35th), English (38th), Korean (43rd), French (59th).

In spite of a long history of political and economic discrimination in USA, Chinese have never produced ethnic leaders championing their cause. There has never been a civil rights movement for the Chinese to produce a Martin Luther King Jn, or affirmative action. I really do not know what makes them successful but there must be something in their culture, attitudes, mentalities. It is possible that the Chinese are successful because they do not look to political agitation through the state as the source of prosperity but their individual and community networks in the market.

I am not making a racial argument here. India is a dysfunctional state yet Indians are very successful wherever they immigrate. As already mentioned, they are the highest income earning ethnic group in the USA. They are equally very successful in other countries like Kenya, Dubai, Uganda, Tanzania, Mauritius etc. where they have migrated. The same applies to Pakistani (10th highest income earning ethnic group in the USA) although their country is rated as one of the most failed states.

What explains the success of Indians (with a per capita income of $127,000) and Pakistani ($87,000) Ghanians and Nigerians ($69,000) in USA when their home countries have per capita incomes of less than $2,500? It is possible the accommodations and compromises that make politics work in their countries also constrain individual and collective economic prosperity. May be the educated in these countries are always looking to politics for personal and collective advancement. But when in the USA, they recognise that this path (of political agitation) is not available hence they rely on their wits.

Go downtown Kampala and you will find the entrepreneurs with huge turnover of businesses are equally people with the least education. Why? They recognise that without academic papers, one cannot get a job in the formal private sector or in government. Forced onto the street, they have no expectation of entitlements from the state or multinational corporations that dominate our economy. So, they go onto the street to do business.

Most of these entrepreneurs begin small; often as vendors, hawkers, kiosk owners etc. Through hard work and ingenuity, they climb the economic ladder. It is they who hire the educated, again demonstrating that education is important but not the only predictor of success. My point is not that education is useless but rather that it imparts upon us very dysfunctional mentalities such as entitlement to a job or welfare from the state. Our educated people spend too much time in political agitation when they can do better exploiting available opportunities in the market.

Many educated Ugandans spend a lot of time complaining that the policy environment is hostile to business. There are many examples to prove this. Yet many less educated Ugandans and immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, India and China come to this country with little or nothing and build large fortunes. How come this bad policy environment does not stop their prosperity? The lesson is simple but powerful: we do not need a perfect policy environment to become prosperous.



  1. I open Mwenda’s newspaper on line weekly mostly to read what he has written in his last-word.

    As one reads this guy’s writing, one is struck with his contradictions in his arguments and the disdain, contempt and cynicism he holds Ugandans in especially the educated.

    I have a few comments regarding this article.

    1- Make your own Opportunities you Wannabes / Lumpens from University. Do not look at any one to give you employment.
    Interestingly, when Mwenda graduated he looked for employment. He did not go out to make his own opportunity until he had settled ; maybe saved money or someone invested in him to start his own newspaper. He did not come out of University and was immediately a “tycoon / Entrepreneur” as I have seen some people addressing in some forums. He was a struggling young man like these new graduates that he treats with contempt in his article and other articles he has written about educated Ugandans.
    Maybe we can ask Makerere University and Monitor Newspaper whether Mwenda was a Rich-Kid when he was an under graduate and when first employed at the latter. Assuming he was a Rich kid (which he was not ) that money would have been his parents not his and so somehow goes to prove the point that he would have been given a leg up the ladder. He is now at the “top” of the ladder and stamping on the fingers and hands of those who are at the bottom and trying to find space to get on first step. No wonder because that is the attitude we have seen over the 36 years of NRM rule – The Twalire class. Their attitudes to Ugandans not near their dinning table or even in their dinning room to get crumbs from the table is : dont-bother-us ; lump-it- because -nothing -is -gonna -change- here. (I can write more but I will leave it at that)

    2- Mwenda , who was in the 90s and early 2000s hated by the NRM government because he was anti everything Kaguta and his family(I say Kaguta and his family because Uganda is under this whole family not just Tibahaburwa )did , has now got himself close to the seat of power and has forgotten about the role of the government. He is now telling those who care to read his articles that the government has no role for its citizens apart from collecting taxes from them and then spending it on the first family and all those who are its friends. I wish , before he wrote this article had had educated himself first about the roles of an accountable government and then written a balanced article that explores whether those roles are being met in regard to all spheres of public life.
    One of the roles of any sane and accountable government are:

    Ensure that as many people as possible are employed. That employment could be in the private sector or public one. In in real Democratic countries (like in the West ) no government survives the next election unless they have a good record on employment.

    The government does that by creating the right environment in the private , public and civil societies to thrive so that this ideal is realised.

    In the private sector, it is like working on the economy to ensure the banks are consumer friendly and are lending to people ; the interest rate are affordable for people to borrow and start various activities etc…..

    Here in the West, nearly all governments have a policy of Apprenticeship [ Mentorship]where by kids from universities or coming from tertiary education or those with other talents and interests are given the necessary experience by working with the professionals mentors in the field to acquire the experience they need to go on and get jobs or set up on their own. The Organisations or business people taking on people on these programs are subsidised by the government from the tax payers’ coffers- either those organisations/ individuals pay less tax or the government pays some incentives to each person doing apprenticeship.

    The government also makes sure they create a conducive atmosphere for SMEs [Small to Medium sized enterprises] to thrive because these are seem as engines of growth and they employ quite a good number of people. [ Summary]

    Wow betide a ruling government going to the electorate asking for votes at the end of an election cycle, with a reputation of not having addressed the employment issue. But of course that cannot be said for Uganda where there are sham “elections” because M7 has the guns as one minister put it “amagye”

    Another role of the govt is to invest in education and other training facilities. [ again a lot to write about ] about Mwenda should know that the government he supports and tell lies for spends more on defence and President’s office than on education .

    3- Mwenda seems to denigrate the value of education in his article. He comes across as telling his readers -Forget Education and degrees and go to Kikubo etc… there is a lot of money to make there. In short – how many people has he seen who have made money and pulled their families and communities out of poverty from opportunities that Kikubo offers as compared to education. There is no doubt that many in HIS government all came from poor backgrounds and through education have gone ahead to attain positions where they are able to steal and loot as they are doing in this NRM government

    4- He Praises the Indians , Chinese , Ethiopians , Somalis etc…. without any researched evidence of how they came about to be successful . I can only advise him from where I live – the Indians and Chinese like everyone else work hard on their studies , graduate and look for jobs and that is how they are successful.
    In the USA and across the whole of Europe 95% of the successful people be they Asians , Whites or African are ones who have studied and got jobs when they completed their studies.

    I can write a thesis on this silly and biased article but will stop here. BUT it no longer surprises me for a man who used to disdain corrupt and leaders who rule with impunity is one one who is applauding ands encouraging them – from Russia to Africa.

    A question for Bwana Mwenda – when Muhoozi eventually imposes himself on Uganda with the help of his father in a sham election, what will your position be – Vice President or Minister of Information??

    • None of these wannabes in museveni’s pay role need to be reminded. Once they get into the pay role, they throw their conscience and moral values out of the window. Mwenda talked about misrule of museveni in a Ted Talk many years ago. But he constantly comes here trying to deceive himself with glorifying the killer regime. Good for him, this is his own establishment, so I guess he can write whatever he wishes, it’s us the reader for lack of better word lacking what to do to even give it a chance of reading. Any idiot can google what the role of a govt entails. This govt has achieved nothing, irrespective of what Mwenda wants the villagers to believe. Compare it with Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya and tell us what the achievement of Uganda is

    • Treasures Ewila

      Your first argument does not hold in light of what Mwenda stated. Whereas you confer the idea that Mwenda sought employment after graduation, not looking to “make his own opportunity”, the essence of his argument is that Ugandans mistakenly perceive that tertiary education “guarantees (or should guarantee)” them a job. Mwenda seeking a job after graduation does not negate his point that attaining a degree builds up a false belief that one deserves a job—regardless of “the requisite skills” employers demand. In other words, seeking a job after graduation isn’t the issue; more so is feeling entitled to a job. If you read critically, you’ll understand why he states that education “imparts upon us very dysfunctional mentalities such as entitlement to a job or welfare from the state”. Ergo, his call to “make your own opportunities”, as you so stoutly put, is to dispel the notion that the state is a nanny, to which Ugandans must demand services at the snap of a finger—even if we could, the Ugandan state doesn’t possess the basket of goods and services big enough to accommodate its citizen’s needs (cf. Our anti-corruption pretense, Ponder why he asserts that the uneducated are those “who hire the educated”. I would go on to disprove the premises of your other arguments, albeit your myopic viewpoint addressed in your first would render it taxing to analyse the rest.

  2. “The lesson is simple but powerful: we do not need a perfect policy environment to become prosperous.”

    Andrew you shoot yourself in the foot. You just stated the the Indians fare better in USA than at home: Institutions and institutional arrangements matter a lot.

  3. Need to add religion to the mix.
    Africans who were just recently introduced to Christianity by the muzungu are now more Christian than the teachers.
    With all we know now about the real intentions of the muzungu in coming to Africa, one would expect an educated individual of any race to sit down and go through every word handed down to us by the white man.
    If after the inquisition, we still believe the word then so be it but an inquisition made up of African open minds must happen first.

  4. Andrew, you have highlighted extensively in your past articles how white people treat/ed specifically Africans with stereotypes e.g how they would refer to African men as boys because they were inferior and had ‘little brains’ to deal or solve anything complex. By this level of your consistent attack on educated Ugandans and Africans -and the level of kind of showing; why were you then complaining? Regarding the write up, Pinto raises good view points. Government plays a very important role to impact the level of development-be it in private or public sector as he explained. As for the black race world over (including African countries); their failure to develop cannot be narrowed in one small lense. True, some problems are internal and require the sense of agency from black people. But the major ones are the external -which are embedded in wider social, economic and institutional exclusion of black people to access opportunities such as trade, western markets, employment, immigration, capital and loans, and investments. The external reinforce even the internal ones to lead to the current state of affairs of the black race. But the African race is developing—-looking at how far they have come. And it is important that their focus needs to tackle not only the internal, but also the external. Was any human race traded as a commodity like the black race?

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