Tuesday , March 21 2023
Home / COLUMNISTS / Andrew Mwenda / Uganda’s biggest handicap

Uganda’s biggest handicap

How low levels of skill impact our nation’s ambitions in government, private sector and our homes

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | A friend has lived in America for the last 15 years, having left the country in her early twenties. Before, during and after her graduate studies, she worked in private companies in America and international organisations around the world but mostly in Washington DC. Thanks to COVID, she has been able to come live and work from Kampala even though her office is in DC, via zoom. But it has also been a tough period of adjustment for her. Most of the people she has had to work with have frustrated her to exhaustion.

She fired her first housekeeper within a month because she was slow and incompetent. She is now on her third. Her personal assistant was the same and now she in on a fourth and still dissatisfied. She hired someone to redesign her garden, who took her money, did a shoddy job and then disappeared. The second gardener delivered materials, did little work and disappeared on the first payment. The third gardener she has now engaged often does not pick her calls, makes appointments but shows up late and never meets his commitments as promised. The plumbers, electricians and masons she has called to fix the myriad problems left by her contractor in her house have been just as frustrating. The only person she is satisfied with is her driver who keeps time and drives well.

My friend has been under constant frustration because for most of her time as an adult, and all her working life, she has lived and worked in development countries. These countries have high levels of human capital. And human capital is much more than years spent at school to acquire formal skills. It also involves experience, buttressed by pressure of the environment which leads to the development of values, attitudes and mentalities that foster hard work, passion to achieve set objectives all leading to high levels of labour productivity. This is partly because labour in rich countries is expensive. Therefore, companies and organisations need one person to produce more and more (high levels of marginal productivity of labour i.e. high output per extra unit of labour input).

From the beginning I advised my friend to be tolerant and patient with the people she was working with. I told her that Uganda has low levels of human skill even in mundane tasks. And because we have a very young population (the median age is 16 years), we do not have a large number of people with formal skills backed by years of experience to do jobs well. Working with Ugandans requires a lot patience to train them to gain the competences you seek.

With time, and under rigorous and relentless pressure, many people improve their skills, attitudes and values. They begin to honour commitments, keep time, work hard and not invent excuses to explain their failures. They seek perfection in what they do.

Initially, my friend would retort to my advice by saying I have become complacent. Once, she said she was not surprised I am no longer as critic of President Yoweri Museveni as I used to be. “You have become very Ugandan,” she once told me, “Now you accept mediocrity and then rationalise it.”

I told her that I have grown older and more experienced and reflective. I have run companies and learnt from my mistakes. I told her a story of one of my staff whose competences she admires. Initially, I threatened to fire him eleven times. He was saved by others among my senior management who kept asking me to give him a second chance. It turned into eleven chances. When I see him doing an excellent job today, I wonder how much we would have lost had I had my way.

In his 1996 manifesto, which I believe is the best Museveni ever wrote, the president deals with his problem. He says that a leader in our context suffers the disadvantage of dealing with inexperienced staff. He/she has, therefore, to adjust his ambitions to be consistent with the realities. Working closely with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda sunk this message home. He has big dreams for Rwanda. But he is constantly frustrated by the inability of his staff to deliver even small and obvious things. There is a famous video clip where him and I clash on this point; he expressing his frustrations and me saying he is being unfair to his staff.

It is here that I find Ugandan intellectuals (and African intellectuals) seriously limited in their analysis of our problems. This is especially intriguing because what I am saying is a reality we all live in and suffer daily. We cannot change our human capital overnight. It takes years or even generations to train highly skilled and experienced staff. And when such a person in government or a private company gains high levels of competence, international development organisations (World Bank, IMF, ADB, UNDP etc.) or multinational corporations snatch him/her. Why? Because the government of a poor country just cannot compete with these organisations and corporations in both prestige and salaries.

Ugandan journalists are most vocal in criticising government for the incompetence of its police, teachers, medical workers, name it. But read any newspaper in Uganda including this, The Independent. It is difficult to find a single sentence without a grammatical or factual error, spelling or punctuation mistake, etc. Watch any television newscast and a similar experience stares you in the eye. Then listen to or watch our most loved radio and television shows. The host and panelists make little effort to be factually informed and barely add any meaningful or novel intellectual insight into the issue.

I always tell my fellow journalists to avoid the holier than thou attitude. They accuse me of whataboutism. I have written a column on this issue of whataboutism before. Since most of our journalists are nominally Christian, I tell them the statement by Jesus Christ in Chapter Seven verse One in the book of Mathew. He asked why one would seek to remove a speck from a friend’s eye when they have a log in their own? The point is that the weaknesses we see in the state do not originate from its disinterest in serving the citizens well – that would be a small part. The bigger issue is that our country has low levels of human capital. Most people lack skills, experience, values, attitudes and mentalities to do a good job.



  1. Thanks, Andrew. A good reflection, even if I am similarly frustrated so many times each day…..!

    Keep up the good work.

  2. 1.Naturally mankind is supposed to be kind but what i have noted is that most Ugandans easily get fed up of being nice.This consistency is only in the Aviation business.
    2.I used to wonder why most companies only hire and train young and fresh graduates its because they are hardworking and full of life but with time they get used to the company and familiarity and laziness begins.
    3.In Uganda if you want headache work with people who trained in Vocational training Institutes especially those who studied carpentry and Joinery,Plumbing,Electricians,Mechanics,Tailors,Cookery and of late wannabe events managers.Its like there is a course unit called dishonesty.I have seen women seated behind trucks of Stones,bricks and sand to avoid being cheated by builders yet there are the likes of men like Rajab who should be seated behind those trucks.
    4.The wife to one of the wealthiest lawyers in Uganda runs a successful business.She asked me to recommend to her a presentable front desk manager which i did.What does the lady do?She begins disrespecting the owner of the business comes in late and absenteeism is now frequent as if that is not enough;she begins dating most of the clients in the end she gets sick.when she later on heals she even has the nerve to request me to ask for leniency from the owner of the business .I told her that she really tested the patience of the boss yet she was a good lady from one of the prominent Buganda families who even prays from Watoto.What lesson did i learn from this incidence?Please hire a professional person to manage your business.
    5.Of late most small businesses in Uganda are managed by close family members meaning Mum,Dad and educated children.Surprisingly they are doing well because the children know that their livelihood depends on the business .This is evident in the Textile, furniture,catering,hardware businesses.
    6.Competition has really made Ugandans at least become more serious in their businesses.The customer care in some hospitals,hotels ,saloons,schools is unbelievable.Such little acts are a characteristic of a middle income Nation.
    7.Ugandans tend to despise each other may be because they know each other’s capabilities.But when they get jobs in International companies they outdo themselves.

  3. I partly disagree with the simple reasons highlighted in the article to explain underperformance. What we see in Uganda today is largely a reflection of what happens at the top. When Uganda had leaders who led for the good of the country, the level of dedication among Ugandans was high in spite of low salaries. Our own columnist dad is a good example and so were our parents of that generation. Another case example is seen in the first years of Obote and Museveni from 1987-1995. Even to some extent Obote two had dedicated chiefs and all. Most of the time, integrity and meritocracy and to large extent hard working mattered. What we see among Ugandans today is quite similar to what was in Kenya under Moi or Zimbabwe under Mugabe. There is general discontent among Ugandans because of what they see happening at top where the president and those close to him steal the public resources, which spreads to the private sector and even to the lowest person. Look at the appointments: The current prime minister! Then the recently appointed CEO of Uganda airlines-in a very competitive sector like the aviation industry. You think she is going to perform? You think staff working with such an incompetent person will be motivated to deliver? Certainly not. Most of Uganda is like that and it should be viewed in that lens. Ugandans have shown in the past that when they are mobilized, they are capable of working hard and achieving.

  4. What is happening in Uganda is peculiar. The ministry of education that the wife of Museveni heads; the salaries of science teachers were increased four times at ago, and the salary of arts teachers with the same qualifications was not increased. In the army, headed by president Museveni and his son Muhoozi, plans are under way to increase army officers-some by four to five times at ago. Where else in this world do such crazy things happen other than in Uganda? You think technocrats didn’t advise and were ignored? Don’t you think such kind of policies affect way Ugandans view things and work? Doesn’t it affect morale and motivation among so many Ugandans that are unfairly left out and the general population? Things are read bad

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *