Archive for May, 2010

A newspaper headline caught my eye I a few days ago. It was in the ‘New Vision’ paper and it screamed ‘So many workers but not enough work in Uganda’. I instantly knew that the chickens had finally come home to roost.

The article painted really grim statistics indeed: of the 490,000 people who leave school each year for the job market, only 18,000 employment positions are waiting for them. And that’s just scratching the surface. Because only 5% of the Ugandan adult population are considered to be in permanent employment, with rather the confusing statistic from another study showing that 14% of the working population is either under or unemployed.

 We all know someone who went to university to study one thing and then ended doing something else after searching for a job for years. Agriculture, the backbone of the economy, is not seen as an attractive proposition for the school leavers at all. And the fact that the government has not invested heavily in the sector as one would have expected has not helped matters much. So subsistence agriculture rules today.

 How did we get into this right old mess? We only need to look back a few years when President Museveni decalred that what was needed for Uganda to Industrialise was for the country to have a larger population, the end result would be a larger consumer market and hence a bigger economy, like china and India.

 This is a rather simplistic evaluation and was challenged by a few brave peope including the then Head of the Population Secretariat, Dr.Musinguzi. I heard him on the BBC radio a few years ago continuing to express his fears about the ‘lets have lots more children’ policy that the government was espousing.

 Currently Uganda’s population has hit an estimated 32 million this year with a GDP per capita income of $1,200. This is a huge jump from 24 million 10 years ago.

If a large population is the basis of developing a modern and prosperous economy how then do we explain the fact that:

  • Australia:         population 21.1million and GDP per capita $36,700
  • New Zealand: population 4.2 million and GDP per capita $27,600
  • Malaysia :        population 25.7 million and GDP per capita $14, 200
  • Cuba:               population 11.4 million and GDP per capita $8,500
  • Botswana:       population 1.9 million and GDP per capita $13,400
  • Iceland:           population 0.3 million and GDP per capita $40,100

 These are all countries with smaller populations than Uganda and yet have economies that are larger, some even by multiples of 10. Clearly population alone is not enough to explain the small size of the Ugandan economy or that of any other developing nation for that matter.

 Currently Uganda has a birth rate of 47.84 per 1000 head of population, the 3rd highest in the world, giving rise to a population growth rate of 2.6% (24th highest in the world). This is an improvement from the 3.6% growth rate in 2008 (4th highest in the world).

Only Niger and Mali have higher birth rate,  with Afghanistan, sierra leone, Burkina Faso and Somalia not far behind. Really not company Ugandan can feel proud of.

 Contrast this to:

  • Kenya:             pop. 39.0 million and birth rate 36.64/1000 population
  • Tanzania :        pop. 41.0 million and birth rate 34.29/1000 population

 The end result of this warped population policy is an even more frightening statistic: more than half of Uganda’s is aged 15 years and below, that is 16 million youngsters! Can the government continue to ignore the fact we may soon have close to a million youth hitting the job market every year.

 Reducing the public service retirement age from 55 to 50 years is burying the proverbial ostrich’s head in the sand. It works on the premise that the civil service shall be the country’s main employer, and that is not the hall mark of an industrialised economy.

 The worse case scenario is having hundreds of thousands of unemployed and disgruntled youth with nothing to lose roaming the streets. That is a future that must be averted.


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copyright: Mike Yeats

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Every time I need to remember home all I really have to do is play Dave Koz’s album ‘the dance’. When the song ‘together again comes along I can barely hold back my emotions. It simply epitomises what Wednesday night at the Rock Bar, Speke Hotel in kampala was all about.

I am sure many a person has similar memory of this contemporarily designed pub, with its circular bar that was great for people watching or ‘optical nutrition’ as we called those days. The lighting was great and the staff were superb. They did take a while to get used to the fact that I was a teetotaller, so they decided not to make me feel out of place by always giving me my coca cola in a whiskey glass topped with ice and a slice of lemon.

The crowd was a mostly young professional one who would walk in at 6pm, after work, and leave at approximately 10pm so as not to make a mess of it at work the next day. We essentially all knew each other having almost all being graduates of Makerere University. The few who weren’t definitely went to one of the ‘big six’ high schools and then headed overseas for college.

The banter was easy going and laughter was easy to come by. Walking round the circular was par for the course, but one took one’s time to complete the circuit as you met different friends, workmates and relatives along the way.

The ladies of the night were not absent for sure, but they were of the high class/ high cost variety and thus dressed appropriately to be able to hang out with this black professional crowd. And that was the other distinguishing feature of the jazz night, there were very few white expatriates who attended this weekly event and this possibly explained why the ladies of the night did not go for the ‘shakira’ look.

The DJ was the venerable Alex Ndaula, radio presenter extraordinaire from Capital Fm. His was the proverbial wild child of radio. His drunken late night Saturday funk show was legendary and eagerly awaited by all, equally for his brilliance as for his bitchy sparring with callers that he did not like.

At the Rock bar he kept to the smooth jazz genre of music and hardly ever said a word to anyone. He did not have to as the music compilations he played was what the office crowd needed to unwind half way through the work week.

That brings me back to Dave Koz, the American smooth jazz giant was a staple in kampala and ‘together again’ was guaranteed to get crowd in a joyful. I was no exception and carry that feeling till today….all the way in nairobi.

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Over the last few years the Uganda government has mulled over the steady flow of professionals out of the country and onward to the greener pastures that are offered by south Africa, Europe, North America and increasingly Australia. Like our parents, there was always the reassuring feeling that ‘east or west, home is best’, the migrants would one day return home from ‘kyeyo’. Kyeyo literally means to sweep, but it is also the slang word used to mean someone heading to the developed world for better career opportunities.

Uganda has always had a diaspora, starting in the 1970s during the brutal regime of Idi Amin hundreds of thousands moved across the border to other East African countries and onwards to lands unknown, just to get away from unbelievable brutality. The essence of the migration was political and personal safety, or lack thereof.

The current migration is far different, the population in question is younger, well educated and frustrated by the lack of opportunities back home. They are also highly westernised. Though the west they head to is far more protectionist, xenophobic and less welcoming of refugees, whether political or economic.

They kyeyo boys and girls soon find that the immigration regimes and the workplace issues make it necessary and increasingly helpful to take up the nationality of the country the have settled in. The price they pay is having to renounce their Ugandan citizenship as dual nationality is not permitted under Ugandan law.

In reality most ‘Ugandans’ illegally keep their Ugandan passports and use them when they travel back to kampala, that way they do not have to pay $50 visa fees. Everyone knows this is going on, the authorities do not have the heart to follow this up and prosecute. However, it is still an illegality.

The dual nationality law that was passed last year by the parliament, but not yet signed by the president allows the diaspora to regain their Ugandan citizenship and thus maintain their ties to the ‘motherland’. The economic benefits are not to be sniffed at, it is estimated ugandans abroad repatriate $500million.

For the diaspora it means that they can travel easily all over the world with their developed world passports, but also have easy access to uaganda and the East African community states. It also assures them of their cultural land rights, political rights and access to the economy. Though it must be said that Uganda is extremely liberal when it comes to access allowed to foreigners on immigration, purchase of land and economic investments.

Not be left behind Kenya has proposed dual nationality in its new constitution, Hving faced the same predicament of large migrations of skilled professional to OECD countries. Should the constitution be approved in the coming referendum then any Kenyan born person can reapply for citizenship.

Here is my question: I am a Ugandan living in Kenya, I qualify for citizenship simply on the grounds of living here for long enough. Ugandan law would allow me to keep my Ugandan passport, but Kenyan law say I would have to give it up as dual citizenship can only be granted by Kenya to Kenyan born person. A legal conundrum?

But hang on, the East African common market says I can live and work any where I want within the borders of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. So do I need to acquire Kenyan citizenship? Only time will tell?

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Seven years ago this week, I took a deep breath and drove across the Busia border post and onto a new job in Nairobi. Fed up with the dead end situation I found myself in kampala, I took a risk and decided to swim the sharks in a big, big pond.

It s actually amazing that I was able to make up my mind to take the jump as everyone I know was dead set against the move. Everyone was anxious about the poor security situation, Nairoberry and all. And if the thugs didn’t get me then the cops would or the immigration officers. And the locals would not like me one bit.

 The most depressing point was made by a colleague who was astounded that I would so ‘easily’ give up my government pension after 7 years of working as a civil servant just to chase a dream of a better life. To me she was totally lacking in ambition and content with the crumbs that fell off the table……..the civil service does that to you.

 Arriving in Nairobi was a breath of fresh air, it was and still is a big city, bright lights and killer instincts. The guys here do not play games. Nobody had time for personal stuff during work time, everyone was trying to get the job done and then do some personal enterprise after 6pm. The work ethic really was a shocker for a Ugandan. Nobody gave two hoots that I had no idea where to find the supermarket, how one goes about getting a new electricity account or locate a decent barber. After 5 pm I was essentially on my own.

 It did get depressing at times and I did wonder what I was doing in Nairobi, of course it was the money who am I kidding. But I did feel the stories about Nairobians unfriendliness was actually true, just like in London, everyone minds their own business. And because the clubs and water holes are a multitude it is quite possible never to bump into people you know for months even if you went out every weekend.

 The gym came to the rescue, it proved a great ice breaker and I was able to make friends with people from all spheres of the economy, contacts I still keep today.

 My work space was just as smooth. It did help that the Ugandan economy was ‘booming’ and thousands of Kenyans were working in kampala and even more so that tens of thousands of Kenyan school kids were studying in Ugandan schools. This made me less of the ‘poorer’ cousin than I was made to feel many years earlier as a refugee in Kenya.

 The one thing that reminded me I was a foreigner was that every 2 years I have had to apply for renewal of my work permit. This is one process that shakes everyone to their toes: I get finger printed, I get issued a new I.D. (alien Certificate) and pay the equivalent of $1,500. That’s if they have agreed to renew it in the first place. Many a person has had to sit out a month or two at home waiting for the renewal of the work permit to come through.

 Having weathered the storms I feel Ihave actually assimilated to a large extent, though many other Ugandans complain of cold attitudes towards them, I have never encountered this. Am I now comfortable enough to go a step higher and buy a house….boy oh boy, that will freak my parents for sure (lost forever and all that).

 Its getting easier to stay here , coming this july East African citizens may not need work permits to work here anymore. And the banks, which used to think I was ‘high risk’ because I was non citizen , now keep calling me up to take up a loan or a mortgage. Money transfers back home are getting cheaper, though the cost of flights is still extortionate.

 I love Nairobi, it is fast and furious, it is aggressive, it is entrepreneurial, it is impersonal, it is non intrusive and also caring as evidenced by many charity efforts that are all locally driven. I can eat Korean or brazillian food, I can learn to ride horses, I can find any book, take part in almost any hobby and still take only 45min to get to Entebbe for gonja and sabulenya.

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