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Uganda is now a boda-boda economy

By Arthur Larok

Today it’s more profitable to ride a boda-boda or run a small restaurant in town than engage in agricultural productivity in fertile rural Uganda.

Very early on May 10 morning as I travelled from Kampala to my home district of Gulu for a meeting with the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies at Gulu University, I reflected on a long established view I had about the ‘death of the rural’ and was struck by what has become of Rural Uganda and its 31 million inhabitants. For the most part, whether you travel up North through Luwero, Masindi, Lira to Gulu or South through Masaka, Mbarara to Kisoro, or even East through Mukono, Jinja, Iganga, Mbale to Soroti or indeed on any highway to any ‘upcountry’ district, scenes of Ugandans selling food stuff by the roadside are a common sight. Upon entry to any upcountry town leave possibly for Fort Portal you are treated to a few kilometres of potholes and then avalanche of boda-bodas (commercial motorcyclists).

Beyond the Boda Boda and roadside petty business, there’s no much production going on in rural Uganda today. The rural is gradually dying because policies under the NRM government have created incentives for the growth of the most haphazard ‘urban development’ I have seen anywhere. Agriculture which remains Uganda’s backbone despite the forceful argument that Uganda is industrialising has suffered a double blow under the NRM. First investments in the sector are insignificant and misguided by political rather than productivity objectives. Key players in government especially in the Ministry of Finance have colluded with donors to undermine agricultural transformation through ill-conceived and corruption ridden programmes like the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), promoted at the expense of strengthening the traditional agriculture ministry and its infrastructure. Secondly by killing the National Cooperative Movement nationwide, replacing it with many consumer and politically patronised receiverships called Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies, the government and its sponsors the World Bank have killed collective bargaining and left individual farmers isolated and vulnerable to exploitative middlemen who have become the real beneficiaries of the sweat of our toiling farmers.

Beyond this though is a more profound reality: Today it’s more profitable to ride a boda-boda or run a small restaurant in town or sell MTN airtime as part of the government’s touted growing the service sector than engage in agricultural productivity in fertile rural Uganda. Agriculture and the millions of Ugandans that live of it are not being adequately supported through policy. The death of the rural sector invariably means condemning 82% of Uganda’s population to poverty, illiteracy and disease, among other human created calamities.

The ruling elite seem to be happy with this as their response has been symptomatic – welfare incentives like Universal Primary Education which is touted as a success story! However, before we run around praising an ill prepared UPE dolling out below average Ugandans, and before we flag a string of health centres without drugs and medical staff across the country, we must ask why most Ugandans have no option, but to send their children to UPE schools. We must ask why they cannot afford Shs60,000 per year per child (which is the average the government pays) to send their children to a UPE school.

The death of the rural sector through misguided policy choices and incentives by the government is a legacy that we shall struggle with for a long time because beyond the ‘success story-based’ development paradigm of the current ruling elite in charge of the State, Uganda is not transforming as a nation. There must be a change within or of government for a new beginning for this country. There should be a  beginning that will see increased investments in agriculture so that Ugandans working in rural areas are rewarded higher than those riding boda bodas in towns, a beginning that will see us revive the producer Cooperative movement across the country so that farmers make the most revenue earnings possible from their sweat and thus improve their welfare and also be able to send their children to get a good quality education, rather than succumb to half-baked education training in the free education government schools.

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