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Uganda’s painful truths

Youth practising carpentry.

Why the always-blame-government-for-every problem mantra is popular but destructive

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW MWENDA | Many Ugandans are angry feeling the country is not going in the right direction. This is especially so among those who feel they can do better, which is understandable. However, they always attribute their frustrations to factors that are politically convenient and emotionally satisfying to them. I have learnt over the years that the pursuit of accurate knowledge and the pursuit of ideological or emotional satisfaction are inherently conflicting goals.

Many people want information that gives them emotional satisfaction, like pundits who attribute every failure to the government; especially the person of President Yoweri Museveni. There is no doubt that many routine functions of government in Uganda are characterised by corruption, incompetence, absenteeism, laziness, apathy and indifference. However, morally important issues like these are not necessarily decisive causal factors of Uganda’s poverty and misery but merely characteristics of it.

This is not to say such moral issues are not important. Rather it is to underline the fact that confusing one with the other and imagining they can be combined into one politically attractive package is not an approach that leads to understanding. For example, most of the discussion about “development” in Uganda focuses on the state. While I think the state is important to economic development, I also believe its actions are limited to the capacity inherent in people that make up that state – their skills, values, norms, work ethics and social attitudes i.e. human capital.

The standard of living of a nation depends more on its output per person than on the money received as income for producing that output. Otherwise the government could make everyone rich by just printing money.

The challenge of low income earners is not because government has not created wellpaying jobs for them but because they have low levels of productivity.

A Chinese textile worker produces output six times higher than her counterpart in Kenya, nine times higher than a Ugandan. That explains the differences in incomes of workers in these three countries. Sadly this has little to do with government policy.

In the face of low labour productivity, Chinese investors in Uganda seek to increase the output of Ugandans by making them work long hours. This is inhumane and Ugandans will organise politically to reign in Chinese investors.

However, I am inclined to believe this inhumanity is necessary for our development – the short term cost to our long-term prosperity. In the heated and often bitter debates over Uganda’s development, we forget that progress comes as much from public policy as it does from shared mentalities. Our country is suffering from the legacy of indoctrination in the nanny state ideology.

From home to school to traditional and social media, people are taught that their misery is because of government not doing things for them. No one tells young people that personal advancement comes from having the right social attitudes and marketable skills, not from government babysitting people.

At Makerere and other universities, lecturers pump students with socially dysfunctional ideologies about government being responsible for people’s wellbeing. Meanwhile they impart students with skills not demanded by the market. When I need a plumber, a carpenter, a gardener, a mason, an electrician or a mechanic I can hardly find a Ugandan who speaks English; meaning these vital jobs have been left to “jua kali” who speak only Luganda, the proxy for low education achievement.

Uganda’s education system and our country’s intellectual climate are not conducive to progress. Academics, journalists, intellectuals, civil society and social media activists pump our people with a sickening sense of entitlement.

Ugandans think they are entitled to a well-paying job simply because they have a university degree. When this expectation is not met, it gives them an even more insidious sense of grievance that government is responsible. This explains why they rally around demagogues in the naive and blind hope that they can deliver them salvation.

Ugandan elites tow this politically correct line because it makes them look and feel “cool” as pro “the down-trodden”. This non-judgmental leniency towards individuals and groups that are always sitting idle and blaming everyone else for their misery is the problem.

Take the example of Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine: he grew up in the ghetto but became prosperous by exploiting his talents. The current system that he is so keen to criticise did not block his journey from poverty to prosperity.

Yet he keeps telling his followers that their own journey from misery to fortune is somehow blocked by the government, not their lack of marketable skills. This sense of victimhood is dysfunctional. A dependent voting constituency is valuable for politicians to exploit for their own ends.

This is especially so when a politician has a captive constituency indoctrinated with the belief that they are surrounded by enemies who are keeping them down. This is because the politicians who do this position themselves as the defenders of the poor in exchange for their votes.

When someone wants to help you, they tell you what you need to hear; what you must hear. And that is what I do in this column. But when someone wants to help himself, often at your expense, they tell you what you want to hear. Those politicians who want to use poor Ugandans as ladders to power will massage the egos of popular classes.

This is the reason demagogues are loved. Yet while these arguments make the poor feel a sense of gratification (someone is helping me fight the enemy keeping me down) they do not help them deal with the real challenge of their personal progress i.e. investment in developing the requisite skills.

For many Ugandans, political activities such as demonstrations, rallies, marches, protests and posting insults on social media offer instant gratification and solidarity with like-minded people. Many urban Ugandans use such events to present their grievances as a righteous crusade against presumed enemies (Museveni and his corrupt confederates in power) ostensibly responsible for the bad situation.

They do this because it is easy to do even though not productive. The solution to the plight of many unemployed or underemployed Ugandans would be to invest in personal development by putting all their energies in acquiring the requisite education, skills and self-discipline vital for success. But this path to success can be a lonely process of unromantic drudgery with no immediate gratification as solidarity with others voicing opposition to presumed enemies. Moreover this alternative to political protest can produce a painful sense of one’s own inadequacies. That is the challenge for Uganda’s youths.



  1. “Otherwise the government could make everyone rich by just printing money.”

    IS this a statement coming from someone who is educated.

    SO , according to M9 you can just make a people rich simply by printing money?

    SO money is not rated according to what it buys, but rather by the ZEROES at the end of the figure.

    “When I need a plumber, a carpenter, a gardener, a mason, an electrician or a mechanic I can hardly find a Ugandan who speaks English; meaning these vital jobs have been left to “jua kali” who speak only Luganda, the proxy for low education achievement.”

    SO there are no jua kalis who speak RUTOORO?

    Just asking, because I am sure you would find it easier to deal with those than those who speak LUGANDA , a language and probably along with its people, you seem to hate/despise.

    • I thought this post is for us YOUTHS.?

    • You don’t have to be angry with Mwenda Ejakait, just considerate. The Uganda Mwenda is speaking of foxes me. I meet slipper-footed watchmen on project sites speaking impeccable English ….not once but severally. I bargain with Bodabodas in English and their language is good….When I go to Musabodygroup in Katwe for anything, and I do that regularly, I use Luganda due to habit but everyone there and I mean everyone I meet speak English well…better than these Indians and Chinese. So, Mwenda either does not meet them or he is lying to drive a point aka making the conclusion fit the facts which is lying. Luganda is like swahili and lingala just lingua franca of convenience and many people who speak English use it between themselves to sound insiders. As for printing money, I think Mwenda did not write this. When congolese pestered Mobutu that he should do something about their poverty, he promised them that in less than a year, all who wish would be millionaires and he did it. But the millions also bought goats of millions so the moey was really of no value though it was plentiful.

  2. While I think the state is important to economic development, I also believe its actions are limited to the capacity inherent in people that make up that state – their skills, values, norms, work ethics and social attitudes i.e. human capital.

    Well stated.

  3. The capacity inherent is built by who?
    Also mwenda would have done well to tell us how Margaret his sister IS DIFFERENT from kyagulanyi since she is nearer to him and is also an MP……may be we wouldn’t think he is telling us what he ‘wants us to hear’

  4. I really like your articles.but never feel weak when a few can chew and digest the hidden information in such.most people negating this articles are not even youths,they are not different from aleader who doesn’t inspire us to follow a line he followed to become what he is of now rather sends us into a “junta belief” which is irrational. Next time make this post available for 35 and below yrs so that thoz pushing us away from interpretation of core ideas may b side linnex.

    I won’t write beyond this comma (,)

  5. Mwenda is better than this. Luganda has never been a language for jua Kali. Mwenda knows far too well how the hate speech precipitated the Holocaust, he is also aware how codifying and classification of people led to genocide. Mwenda could be short on facts but that doesn’t entitled him to cartwheel politics or yellow journalism. To remind him, there are professors of linguistics in Luganda at Makerere university. Economic classification can only be based on economic aspects. In Europe specifically in UK, people who are engaged in odd jobs are referred to as “Chavs”, in Uganda, not long ago we know who were the ” cart pushers” and their “pet names” attached but that’s all stereotype and it should be discouraged.

  6. There’s some degree of truth to this. Our human capital lacks the inherent skills, norms and values. However, let’s not forget that the state has a big role to play in influencing these very values in its society. The given example of China’s remarkable productivity compared to Uganda’s productivity, is reflective of the very fact that the Chinese government greatly influences and controls it’s society’s norms, values and education reforms. The argument as to whether this kind of control is either good or bad depends on what we want to achieve as a nation. But the truth of societal norms, work ethics, values and the spirit of nationalism remains to be seen as a direct result and sole responsibility of the State and the way it is governed.

  7. Dr Eng Kant Ateenyi

    Mwenda – well spoken. I am on my now – semi annual conference presentations among people whose cities hardly sleep (China and its satellite lands – Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.). The discipline and hard work of these seemingly physically weak people is really out of most ugandans’ imagination. Take a simple example even of shopkeeping: Mid morning to afternoon: Both Man+Wife in shop, Evening to early morning – one of two at work in shop; Early morning to mid morning the other rests until midmorning when cycle resumes. How many of our countrymen and women couples or families work like that, day in – day out?
    Meanwhile, in many of other African countries I have had chance to stay for long (including the long ‘admired’ Botswana – and lately Ghana), everyone looks to government to do this and that; create and distribute wealth to them —- that is why you hear complaints on ‘sharing the national cake’ but not ‘baking’ the cake. What is wrong with us Africans?
    As a transformative pan Africanist engineering educator, I try to banish this kind of thinking from my students’ minds – but it is not easy. As for my own children and nephews save for education, they have to earn whatever else they need from me by working for it. There cannot be a free this or that after education!

    • Dr Ateenyi, of what use would labour be if there is no time to enjoy the proceeds, the accruals? What is the use of a palace fitted with gold toilets to a bedridden invalid in St Mary’s Hospital London attended to by the best physicians and nurses but on morphine? To work longer than 8 hours is slavery and when you live like a slave, you think like a slave and die like one. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. When I was 10, I grew cotton on a 10 by 10 yards piece of land and at every harvest I earned no less than 30 shillings. However, adult parent had to sell it for me together with his because I did not have the right to sell to the cooperative society (not being a member) but we knew how many pounds(metric system kilogrammes came later) it weighed. But we worked for no more than 6 hours per day. It is something I recall so well as though it were yesterday. Rise very early at cockcrow, go to the field, then by 11 when the sun starts to heat up, you are back at home, bathe and change and go to tonto,kwete or malwa (mostly at someone’s home and at times at a local joint). This served as a social gathering and irrigating at same time. People rode Raleigh bicycles,Vespa scooters, paid graduated tax and sent children (don’t mind the numbers) to schools and still saved. District Administration paid bursaries to applicants. I was in Tororo College and Bunyoro District Administration paid part fees for me following just an application form given to me by Mr Oguti Bichachi, no lobbying,bribing or even knowing from which office it was processed. The bursar Mr Odot just calling me and telling me, “your fees have been paid by Bunyoro District Administration, don’t bother parents next term”
      Police patrol cars (kadenge) and police motorcycles (maumau) were patrolling towns 24/7 without fail. You dialled 999 and they would be where you called from in a very short time… Mulago Hospital ward C(lowest rung) had customised meals as prescribed and radios on every bed (with individual earphones). Work ethos died when civil servants started being recruited on nepotism basis and money stolen and kickbacks demanded and given so people had means to live opulent lifestyles…….thereby spoiling their children and wives. I bet your children call you a dictator worse than Museveni behind your back. Work is sweet when the results are realised and when you are resting but these easterners (orientals not Ejakaits) are workoholics and crooked both in mind and soul. I have lived with them long enough to know how their morals are. So Ateenyi there is nothing to praise in restless work…. especially in a crooked system where most of what you produce may be extorted by the government. Corruption means decayed,foul and smelly stuff fed on by scavengers…..that is what has spoilt things.
      Poverty is caused by government because they exploit citizens more than colonialists did and don’t give back enough even to fool people. If you found your wife was siphoning most of what you brought home to her lovers or even stashing away depriving you and your children of the goodies you sweat for what would you do? Do you sincerely believe of Lake George (being internal) turned into ‘diesel’ any citizen would get anything? It would be cordoned off and people as would dare to even peep would be shot. The proceeds would be banked in Europe and only very smart thieves would benefit from droppings. Once a government(group of people who govern) is composed of greedies (to whom even the whole world is not enough) poverty (state of commons) is inevitable, ineradicable and permanent no matter how had you work or produce. Poverty and Wealth are cause by government.
      I at times wonder why Mwenda never mentions that there are people out there who forage for survival but are discouraged by censure…..hawkers, roadside food vendors. The government does not have means to employ people and then it stops them from self-employment…. You have failed to buy clothes for your child, then you stop the same child from wearing plastic paper he picks from the neighbour wastebin………….that is the near exact comparison of government logic.

      • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

        My good friend, fellow elder and OB,
        I tried replying to you on 19th but somehow this China network here, could not let me – at the time. Any way, I’ll try to answer why I still labour that much: you are not the first to have asked so. First, I do not know exactly when I started digging – but I know at age 8, I started grazing cattle alone (because that is when in P2, my father brought them home from some old friend of his). At 12, I had to defend those cattle against a lion which attacked our kraal at night. I was the only ‘man’ in the house – as my father had gone to Kasese to buy their salt (kisura kya Katwe). In later primary, 32 km from home in Kyegegwa, I would on weekends go to the forests to get passion fruits which I would sell to Kla-F/P UTC bus passengers at 2 pm. One time, I had to compete with a spitting cobra (encweera) for some fruit (and I won – with fatal results for the cobra – of course). That money was handy to buy a few Uganda Bookshop books which would be brought to our school from F/P about once a term. In secondary school at Nyakasura, I was a ‘great’ senior chap back in Kyegegwa. During 1st and 2nd term holidays, I would teach for a fee (really coach) P7 kids on how to pass PLE – especially in Maths. That approach continued throughout even at MUK when I was doing my BSc Eng – (coaching Caltec academy, Lubiri SS and Kampala High School A-levels in PCM). From secondary through MUK, such money was very useful because my old man had made it clear, his role was simply to give fees (i.e. up to S4). Whatever else I needed after that, I had to earn it one way or the other.
        You can say this upbringing shaped me into a workaholic – if you will. Now why do I insist my kids must work – : Obvious: not only my kids but my wish is for all other African children (Is that why I hear I really drive and reward my students and workers ‘hard’?).
        You see brother and friend, as a rational naturalist, I hold it that it is an obligation to perpetuate our kind and ensure that our successors’ relative position to others improves beyond where we knock off. In other words, we elite adult Africans of today ought to be exerting influence on our youth to work harder to close the African-‘others’ gap. How would I do this without showing some practical leadership – when I still can? I hear some people saying ‘work smarter’ not necessarily ‘harder’. That is really an excuse for laziness – because one ought to know that those others are also currently working ‘smarter’! In that case, how can you close the gap – if by not adding the ‘harder’ bit?
        Do we – relatively successful adult Africans – really have to make our offspring go through the tangle of hard work? Absolutely yes – because if they don’t, they will lose even the little we leave behind – and soon become slaves of our predators. The easily exploitable resources of the world are dwindling: I have said it before – and will repeat it to you brother: Africa can – and will – be resettled by others in the next 100 years if we just let live. It is my and your obligation to prevent this now when we still can.

        Enjoy your holiday season comrade.

        Kant Ateenyi

        • Dr Ateenyi, it is near impossible to expect from this present generation what you passed through,achieved and the feats you endured. They(the present day youth) are simply made of poor material. Your mother breathed fresh unpolluted air and so did you. You suckled and ate organic food, free from refining, extractions, preservatives and other poisonous additives the present generation feeds on. You strained your body and mind (thanks to its original strength) to the maximum, thereby strengthening it by labour and similtaneously gained such discipline as cannot be inculcated by any other means except that of animal husbandry and protection against predators (like David, Jacob or Moses) single-handedly and gained first-hand experience of what can and cannot be done. Your training and upbringing is simply spartan for the modern child to cope or emulate……not even the tough military training of the special forces(which is brief and is done by adults) can equal it.
          Ejakait will bear me witness and I know you will recognise the quotation that “…..roaring flame produces cold impotent ash…..” It is therefore logical to conclude that you did the feats you graphically described because of what you were made of; both in body and mind. When corruption was still young and the participants were still few (in Kenya) their NATIONAL YOUTH SERVICE was such an exemplary body that nearly all employers wished they had personnel who had passed through the training. Let the government introduce a National Youth Service that will absorb all unemployed youth who so wish and get them to do all these cores that require manual labour including big agricultural plantations, forestry and even factories for value addition to exports. Youth can rear animals in big ranches and produce for the export market. The government should cease lying like cheap crooked conmen and ‘go back to the old paths’ (Jeremiah 6:16) revive cooperatives, marshal youth into brigades, ensure they train well and participate in all developmental activity, pay and feed them well like you do your biological children…then the rest will fall into place on its own. You looked after cattle at 8 satisfactorily (without veterinary training) you fought and scared away lions at night(without military training and equipment) you went to forage for wild passion fruits (without agricultural training) and all went well……otherwise you wouldn’t be writing in this column. That is why I suggest that the government take over the management of youth and ensure they are occupied and trained in body and mind without prerequisites.

  8. You are correct and objective, M9. Some of us who are not rich but reason like M9 are insulted and called names you would never want to hear. In Uganda, when you say the absolute truth, you are bad and inconsiderate, out of touch and that you want to be a muzungu even when you are as black as charcoal.
    Why are some of us poor? I teach this and other topics like corruption, unemployment, climate change and street children etc in short I teach about societal challenges in our environment etc etc. For instance we in Uganda are poor largely because of challenges at household level. Polygamy, producing many children, extravagance in expenditure like holding parties and other traditional ceremonies like Imbalu dance of ours in Bugisu, traditional marriages etc. In Mbale amond the Gishus, a circumcision ceremony claims almost all the food in that family and sometimes in the neighbourhood. Millet, maize, sorghum are used to brew malware as though there is no tomorrow. The bananas are cut, cassava uprooted to feed huge mass of people who have come around to witness their son’s circumcision rites. Next after the circumcision is marriage which takes a lot too. And if you are unlucky, someone dies, a lot is used also and unfortunately, sometimes unnecessarily.
    Some people are poor because they are lazy to work hard. Rich people work hard. When I was training to mark English creative writing of O’level at Uganda Martyrs Namugongo, a one Carol, daughter to Dr. Muting, then head teacher, could wake up at around 3.00 am to scrub our toilets, bathrooms, mop the canteen etc. She was studying Development Studies in a Netherlands University. Can you imagine. Yet for us the poor, our children do not want to wake up even by 6.00 am. You just have to be tough, sometimes quarrel before they wake up…. When we asked Dr. Muyingo how he managed to train his daughter so well like that, he first laughed at us sarcastically but later told usany things which actually have made him rich…….
    Andrew Mwenda is right but something’s are inaccurate. For instance if I have a degree, why should I be poor really? Although poverty in Uganda is as a result of personal weaknesses, government, I think is sometimes to blame. A highly trained teacher of English like me failing to get a teaching post is surely too much. Why?????? Corruption! !!!!! And someone who graduated yesterday, moreover from Kampala University is on pay roll tomorrow leaving a Makerere University Graduate who graduated about 16 years ago! !!!! And should you pursue the case, those People in Education service will simply say you FAILED the interview. ….. never mind the questions are usually simple like what is in a record of work, how has government helped to keep the girl child in school etc. It is not government’s wish not to recruit certain people. It is just high levels of corruption in the system. Some of us have chosen to stay in private schools and teach very well. No problem. ………
    Although I support NRM, I think some taxes are unfare. Pay as you earn is really much. Many of us are left wondering where all this money goes although some infrastructural developments are occurring. Sincerely when over 100, 000 is deducted from your monthly salary of about 1 million is too much. Granted, where does all this money goes??????? Remember this is from an individual! And when you go to the market you still pay a lot of indirect taxes when you goods and services. ….. I think our government needs to check this anomaly. Some bad elements in government May have come up with all these bad policies to make government look exploitative
    Even with all these challenges, some of us know pretty well that Museveni as a person wishes Ugandans well. It is just certain people in government who are perpetrating and implementing bad policies largely because they want to tarnish Museveni’s government

    Merry Christmas and happy New year

    • It’s interesting as to when a person chooses to pick out a few lines from the whole message and dwell on those in order to prove that its irrelevance.
      The issues put forward by M9, though in a crude format are the same issues we are facing in our everyday life, issues that most Ugandans are content to hide from.
      I’m not a big fan of M7 nor am I of M9, but on this men, well spoken

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      It is like you have read my current paper on ‘Problems of Engineering Entrepreneurship in Africa: A design optimization example in solar-thermal engineering’ – or rather, it is like I am one of your Economics students you mention. In the so called ‘PESTLE’ scan, on ‘S’ for social-cultural challenges we African engineering entrepreneurs have to navigate, are those cultural practices – and their time and resources (natural and human) ‘wasting’ effects – especially when we are expected to display ‘social responsibility’ through the unreasonable ‘social conformity’. I am glad there are others trying to influence our youth in the ‘correct’ way. We may be few and far dispersed, but there has to be a start. We must not get discouraged by whomever or whatever circumstances – or the African will forever remain a slave in one or other form.
      Enjoy your holidays and don’t relax too much brother.

    • I think it’s a role of government to ensure that most of its citizens are employed, with this the government will be in position to correct taxes that will lead to other developments, being lazy isn’t an excuse as so many are leaving the country to go to Arab countries to work as maids moreover degree holders. It’s a role of the government for all sectors to be successful, agricultural, tourism, the government has to own so many things like hotels, industries that employees people. Why ask for loans when you can call in investors in tourism industry to build hotels, to invest in transport, call Emirates and lease the airport to them and see how many people will be employed, call hotel group companies to invest in your country, lease them land in every part of Uganda by this you will be creating jobs. M9 please we know how things work and we know the possibility of creating jobs, don’t expect a graduate to start up a business with out capital, it’s high time the government looked in to serious deals government owned not individual owned.

  9. Great these is a great insight Ugandans should wake up

  10. M9 what is happening. How do you compare a Chinese textile worker with a Ugandan textile worker. The two work in very different economies.

    You know the reason Museveni and his state are hated is just because they have overstayed in power. They were so loved at some point. Therefore do not crack your head explaining the source of hate for the government in power.

  11. In Uganda and pretty much majority of Africa, our biggest problem is not government but we the people. We are so eager to be pitied such to the extent that we have resigned our fate to the hands of those who govern and the many that come to challenge them in the name of saving us.

    No economy that I no of was ever built because its governor and a handful in the governing class were so good. NO MATTER how many soothing examples you will want to imagine had a leader who came and changed things, the real and indeed bitter truth that will come to you if you so choose to see will be that in all economies that have witnessed some sustainable transformation, the common factor for it has been the determination of the masses to do something about their challenges.

    What an extraordinary leader does is what we see in Museveni and some other examples in their earlier days of governance. They come and make so much of a difference on the few things that governing can change. However when the people remain where they have always been, it is only a matter of time and the economy goes back to where it has always been; in turmoil.

    Africa has more than enough arable land that can feed at least the equivalent of 3 times our current global population. But what we have are young people who are eager to be given a white collar job on their continent or take the worst in other people’s countries. We Ugandans and Africans at large need to change and this will require accepting to swallow bitter pills of truths like what Andrew Mwenda just offered.

    As the Xtians will know, the bible calls us to swallow that bitter pill. It will be sour in the mouth but once we have taken it, then it will turn sweet in our tummies.

    Let those with ears hear.

  12. I think it gives you psychological and emotional satisfaction to sit wherever you’re and start downgrading all m7 critics.
    It makes you feel like a highly insightful philosopher diognising our psychological problems and then administering your obvious prescription; ” m7 is wrong, but his critics are ‘wronger’ “.
    Mr Mwenda, its true nations develop wit private capital! But all this is backed with sound public policy that is lacking in this country.
    Now you can name call all those who don’t agree with your sound intellect, but those who speak against m7 are not demagogues.
    They’re just concerned like you. Well, may be just concerned!

  13. Microcredit extension would do so well for Ugandans. Through it many will engage in productive and gainful employment. How much is Government willing to take on an avuncular role for the next 100 years? One thing, we need to note is that two conditions are important: Standard of living and development. Unfortunately standard of living walks so slowly. Development walks far more slowly. They are yet to catch up with each other! Mr. Mwenda, thank you as always. I find time to read The Independent. I hope many use it as a road to any destination. Follow or reject the road signs with consequences!

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