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UNHAPPINESS: Museveni’s next big challenge

To illustrate how successful his 30-year administration has been, President Yoweri Museveni likes to use a slew of social economic indicators. He throws up GDP growth figures like a talented conjurer describing his best trick and is at his best when listing the lengths of new roads, new hospitals, schools, and new hydropower dams his government has either built or is planning.

Unhappiness driving 30% Uganda into mental illness

He likes to point out that the Uganda economy has, in the past 30 years, grown at the rate of 6.6% per year, setting the country on course to become a lower middle-income country by 2020 when GDP per capita will be US$1,039. It is currently US$788 per capita (2013/14) up fromUS$ 665 (2009/10).

But experts on national success and development are now warning that, in addition, the government needs to focus on another indicator – happiness. They made the observation just days after the United Nations released a report showing that Ugandans are increasingly becoming the unhappiest people on earth. The report was launched as part of events marking the UN International Happiness Day.

The report titled `World Happiness Report 2016’ ranked Uganda low on happiness taking position 146 out of the 157 countries considered across the world. According to the report the happiest people on the planet are citizens of Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, and Finland. People in the happiest countries are found to smile or laugh a lot, enjoy themselves, feel safe at night, feel at well-rested, and are generally interested in life. On the other hand, the unhappiest people are mostly angry, worried, sad, depressed, stressed, and in pain. Uganda’s raking in the 2016 report is the worst in the three happiness reports released so far.


In 2013 when the initial report was published Uganda was the happiest in East Africa and was at position 120 out of the 156 countries ranked. Kenya was 123, Tanzania was 151, Rwanda was 152 and Burundi trailed them at 153. In the 2015 report, out of the 158 countries, Uganda came 141 whereas Kenya stood at 125. While Burundi trailed again at 157. Rwanda was at 154 whereas Tanzania stood at 146. March 20 has since 2011 been established as the annual International Day of Happiness and all 193 United Nations member states have adopted a resolution calling for happiness to be given greater priority.

UN Stats

According to the UN, happiness of citizens should be considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. The day is marked to recognise happiness as a “fundamental human goal” and call for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples”.

The national happiness movement has grown so big that some countries, like the United Arab Emirates, now have a `minister of Happiness”.

When the UAE launched the Dubai Plan 2021 in 2014, the leader; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said, “The first objective for the Dubai Plan 2021 is achieving people’s happiness.” The Dubai Plan 2021 itself covers six themes “that describe the vision for Dubai: a city of happy, creative and empowered people; an inclusive and cohesive society; the preferred place to live, work and visit; a smart and sustainable city; a pivotal hub in the global economy; and a pioneering and excellent government.

The strategy was developed after extensive consultations involving civil society, the private and the public sectors. There is also a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index introduced by the king of Bhutan in 1972 which evolved into the `political happiness movement’ and, finally, the socioeconomic development model.

Measuring happiness To measure happiness in different countries, researchers based on six indicators including healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), GDP per capita, freedom to make choices, trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business) and generosity (as measured by recent donations). Beyond the six indicators, the researchers based on the fact that increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. In each country, they talked to 3,000 respondents asking them to evaluate their current lives on a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10, the best possible.


Ordinary people understand the current wave of unhappiness all too well. Unlike in the past when the most popular phrase on the street was “Tuli mu kintu” (We are swimming in prosperity), the most common phrase now is “Twakowa” (We are tired).

Hajji Aziiz Kasirye, a dealer in used motor vehicles and spare parts in Kampala’s downtown Kisekka Market says his greatest worry is that Ugandans are these day unwilling to help one another. He says he is servicing a loan of Shs 45 million in installments of Shs9 million per month but lives under constant worry of failing to pay. He says he was forced to get the loan at high interest from a microfinance bank to resolve a land dispute over which he was being sued in court. “I gave in my residential house as security.

If I fail to pay, the house will definitely be taken because I don’t expect anyone to bail me out. In Kampala here, no one is willing to trust you with such kind of money,” he says. Kasirye’s fears of not having anyone to count on in times of need came out as one of the indicators showing why some people increasingly become unhappy.

Enock Twinoburyo, a PhD Economics fellow at the University of South Africa and European Union economist based in Uganda says it is high time the government realized that happiness and not GDP figures is the best indicator of people’s welfare and prioritized it. “Consumption for the poor is shrinking yet happiness is premised on consumption levels,” he says. According to him, the unhappiness in Uganda is caused partly by the increasing pressure on a few people in the middle-class to support the rest. He says this high dependency has raised the misery index as many can no longer afford certain things that they used to afford. Another expert on causes of unhappiness, psychologist Ali Male says, while a few are living in comfort, many are helpless.

Male, who by the nature of his profession interacts more with unhappy people, says the helpless are stressed because they feel they cannot do anything about it. To him, the UN research is spot on and if the situation is not contained, Ugandans may become the unhappiest people on planet earth. He points out that Uganda has no mechanisms for conflict resolution right from the family level with many facing a problem of breakdown in communication. “When people start solving issues by violence, it communicates more than meets the eye,” he says. Mary Butamanya, the President of Uganda Professional Counselors Association, told The Independent that they are increasingly receiving young people with problems related to stress and hopelessness.

“Because the majority of the youths can’t find jobs, they have resorted to betting and other businesses of chances. When they clear bills for this month, they start to gamble on how they can clear the next bill. In the end they get mental problems”, she says.

Elections worsened matters

Butamanya says if the same research is conducted now, the results would be more worrying especially after the recent general election of Feb. 18. She participated and lost in the election where she was vying to be the Ibanda District Woman representative. “Some people got political seats after getting loans,” she says, “so such a person can’t be settled until they clear their debts. For the voters, some still can’t believe their particular candidates were defeated and they’re still angry.”

According to her, compared to the 2011 election in which she also participated, there was a lot more corruption this time as candidates used money and power to lure voters – at least in her constituency. Butamanya points out that Ugandans are not trained well enough to face the realities of the world and end up living in regret because they keep failing.

She advised the government to stop putting a lot of energy into things that cannot be changed and instead work on ensuring there is good governance and freedom. 30%mentally ill Dr. Emilio Ovuga a professor of psychiatry and mental health makes the same point. He told the Independent on Mar.29 that up to 30% of Ugandans suffer from depressive illness, the commonest and most unbearable form of mental illness that affects humanity.

He added that up to 14% of ordinary adults in rural communities report having ever attempted suicide in their lives. He said commonest issues driving people to consider committing suicide are domestic disputes, mental health illnesses, problems between parents and their children over disciplinary matters, poverty and general hardships in life.

To Dr. Ovuga, it’s understandable for Ugandans to be unhappy especially now. He notes that while by nature, humans need to contribute to their respective communities and have a say in managing social affairs, Uganda’s system of democracy is flawed and wishes of the majority are never respected.

Ugandans unhappyHe told The Independent that: “Arbitrary arrests and detention of individuals both within and outside of their homes is common. The foundation of moral development among young children is weak as the traditional cultural values have been or is being eroded fast; the children of the elite are left to the care of maids, as elitist fathers and mothers are busy attending to the nonfamily matters upon which a solid and firm moral foundation cannot be established”.

“Though the country is applauded for rapid economic development, the wealth of the nation is in the hands of less than 10 percent of the population,” Ovuga adds. For Uganda to change this ugly image, Ovuga says there’s need for addressing issues of democratic rights for everyone at election and outside election time in addition to strengthening traditional systems that foster harmony and respect for the rights of everyone in society.

Traditional ways key to happiness

For James Tumusiime, the Group Chairman of the Fountain Group which owns Fountain Publishers says Ugandans need to return to their traditional ways to restore happiness. He should know because he is the author of a book, ‘What makes Africans laugh’. “We can’t be happy when we have abandoned our traditional sources of happiness where many things were collective responsibility of the community. These have been replaced by new cultures in the name of modernization.

“People need to go back to the traditional values and restrict ourselves to modernising them instead of jumping out.” According to the 2016 World Happiness Report, the principle of greatest happiness is the pursuit of policies and goals that can inspire and unite people from all backgrounds and cultures.

It involves being in harmony with major religious traditions. That appears to be a long way from President Museveni’s focus on economic well being, but it need not be.

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