Corruption, cost and competition block the road to industrial takeoff

Tuesday December 01 2020
Youth unemployment.

Matters of youth unemployment in Uganda have been tricky but now they are turning bloody. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA | NMG


Last week was a sad one for Uganda with some 50 lives summarily snuffed out mostly by bullets fired at rioters protesting the arrest of youthful presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi better known as Bobi Wine. Most of the dead were 'innocent' — not in a sense that others had been tried and sentenced to death but that they were bystanders and not part of the rioting — and all their individual stories are heart wrenching.

Yet everyone, government and opposition, knows why the other 'non-innocent' victims now in the grave plus their hundreds of comrades who were arrested participated in the protests as soon as they got news that Bobi Wine had been arrested.

The 'innocent' victims were at work, like the girl who was on errands of delivering food to customers or the young mechanic who was shot inside the garage. The 'non-innocent' ones, whether incited or on their own volition, went to protest because they are unemployed.

Matters of youth unemployment in Uganda have been tricky but now they are turning bloody. Before Covid-19 struck the big topic was externalisation of labour which activists called modern day slavery or to put it less angrily, taking young people to the Middle East for domestic and manual work in hazardous conditions. That one temporarily stopped as international travel came to a halt.

But returning youths faced the final round of exploitation as they were subjected to the expected two weeks’ quarantine which they had to pay for in advance, spending the 14 days in conditions that drained whatever little money was left as they had to pay for their meals and medical tests.

Many boda boda riders ended up giving the poor girls free trips on being released from the quarantine hostels, for they were flat broke and nearly starved. It just isn't easy being a youth in these parts. Maybe these youths would now heed to the now hollow call we older ones keep repeating, telling them to go back to the land and cultivate — if the land was still there.


Well, the family land was sold off bit by bit to enable them access higher education. The rest was sold for them to buy motorcycles to do boda boda business (before their bikes were stolen as they routinely are) or to finance their trips to the middle east. So now the farming option is not that readily available anymore.

The answer apparently lies in industrialisation, as virtually all 11 presidential candidates in the January elections are saying in their manifestos on the promise to create jobs for the youth. So the race is on to create industrial parks and factories for manufacturing.

But only last week, Members of Parliament threw out a nearly $100-million-dollar request by the Executive to pay producers of radio sets meant for supporting distant learning by supplying millions of sets, after it transpired that their factory was, well, impossible to find in Uganda.

But even if the factory existed on our territory, top Ugandan economic analyst, Fred Muhumuza, seems sceptical about a major industrial drive.

He told the media, for example, that the ruling party's manifesto pledge to raise industry's share to a third of GDP and to employ 25 percent of the workforce and to constitute 50 percent the exports earnings is a tall order.

Dr Muhumuza points out three 'Cs' that make the rapid growth of industry in Uganda impossible.

Dr Muhumuza's 3Cs are corruption, cost of production and conservative competition by other countries.

On corruption, he asks how we expect to start producing (denim) jeans after failing to produce reasonable face masks which had a ready market with billions availed by the state. On costs, he cites the impossibly high electricity tariffs. On conservative competition, he says many other countries where Uganda would want to sell its manufactured goods have adopted conservative policies to protect their markets.

As for corruption, the government just needs to do the right thing and refuse to tolerate it. The existing laws and institutions are enough to reduce corruption to sane levels and then free billions for programmes to create employment.

The same goes for costs. The high cost of electricity is lined to incompetent project planning and financial sourcing. Government knows this very well. For example, the revival of Uganda Airlines cost less than a half of what it would ordinarily have cost, just because the government locked out possible corrupt tendencies in the procurement. The same can apply to electricity transmission. There is already enough electricity being generated but getting to the users is the problem.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]