On fuel prices we’re damned if middlemen win, and if they lose

Saturday December 02 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | NMG


“Middleman” was an obscene word in Uganda for several years from 1986, when Yoweri Museveni’s largely leftist-leaning fighters captured state power, until the early 1990s, when the country turned full-blast towards liberalisation, privatisation and other previously vulgar “-tion”s associated with the free market economy.

Being labelled a middleman then was a deep insult comparable to paedophile or cannibal. For it connoted a pervert who created pain through shortage where none should exist, raising prices of essential goods.

Today, three-quarters of Ugandans have no recollection of this, as they were either not born or too young to understand that their destitution was blamed on middlemen. So when a fight broke out last month between Uganda’s petroleum authorities and the Kenyan middlemen who control the importation of petroleum products, there wasn’t any alarm, as middlemanship is now considered normal and doesn’t conjure monstrous images in anybody’s mind.

Read: BUWEMBO: Why can’t Kenyans and Ugandans pay for SGR?

Although the high pump prices in Uganda are a cause of concern for everybody, no one called for the lynching of the middlemen, whom our government told us are behind the whole thing, because there is a middleman in almost every major transaction.

The petroleum middlemen are also lucky because even as the UN climate summit takes place in the United Arab Emirates, average Ugandans don’t make a connection between the burning of petroleum products and their poor health. They just see COP meetings as an opportunity for lucky people to travel and shop abroad.


Yet, for several years, studies by top institutions persistently put the deaths occasioned by inhaling fossil fuel particulates to 20 percent worldwide. For Uganda, where dirty exhausts from unregulated old vehicles can be seen with the naked eye, the deaths caused by inhaling this poison should be much higher — at least in Kampala, where people sit for hours in traffic jams. Lucky middlemen!

But actually, the petroleum middlemen should be thanked for, by keeping the fuel prices high, they probably save us from higher death rates, as some would-be polluters can no longer afford to keep their old vehicles on the road. Maybe our deaths from pollution would be 50 percent. (Un)fortunately no death certificate ever reads “pollution” as the cause of death. It will be pulmonary something or even heart failure.

Read: BUWEMBO: As cars become quieter, Africa’s roads remain ‘loud’

The luckier victims are those who sit in traffic jams for “only” two hours, as they eventually get away. But think about the petty vendors and the beggars who hang at the road junctions all day. Think about the policemen and women down whose young lungs vehicles pump thick black fumes the whole day!

As the old people fight over the large profit margin “eaten” by the Kenyan middlemen, what can the young people do to prevent a fifth of the deaths that could be avoided? Does the phrase “energy transition” mean anything to an average Ugandan, who is decrying the high fuel prices? Wouldn’t it be better to leave the Kenya middlemen continue raising their margin and thus get some more of Uganda’s old vehicles off the road?

During the one to two years of lockdown during the Covid pandemic, Ugandans got to breathe real clean air in the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area (where a fifth of the population is found these days). Many children, who only see the stars in pictures, got the chance to see real stars in those months of clean skies.

If Uganda defeats the Kenyan middlemen, it will mean cheaper dirty fuel and more deaths. If the middlemen win, it will mean the same number of pollution deaths at a higher cost. But if our children are going to die, let us be left with some money to accord them decent funerals, instead of remaining broke due to fuel prices that affect everything. Are we damned if we win and damned if we lose? How do we break free from fuel based transport?