Economic nationalism in Uganda

Economic nationalism in Uganda

To be nationalistic (the state of embracing nationalism) is to wish good things for the nation to which you belong. This should be so even if what you wish for your nation cannot be readily achieved. After all, the spirit could be willing when the body is weak.

When Uganda was still under colonial rule, our politicians fought for the country to become independent. They were nationalists who hoped that Uganda would be a better country if led by its own nationals than it was under foreign rule.

Uganda is now 45 years old. It has had a series of leaders whose policies have affected the life of the country. At the dawn of our independence it was hoped that the economy of Uganda would become prosperous within a short time because we had a seemingly committed group of leaders, a trained civil service, a number of internationally demanded crops such as coffee and cotton and a fairly good standard of infrastructure.

The story is different now. The infrastructure has widened and worsened, the standard of our civil service has very little to be proud of, the production of our major export crops is under stress and it is difficult to describe many of our leaders as committed.

As a result, the level of nationalism among our leaders is now lower than it was then which leads to neglect in initiating or effecting policies which benefit the average Ugandan. There are many examples which illustrate this point but I am going to mention just a few.

In many countries, including the US, repatriation of foreign money is limited. Here one can export any amount of foreign money as long as one has enough local money to buy the forex. That is why foreign companies located here can take out all their profits if they so wish. Take the example of the insurance industry, my industry. A foreign insurer who insures a local risk can repatriate the entire premium charged to his parent company without any limitation whatsoever.

In another example, it is not clear whether our government has any policy regarding employment of foreigners because it is common to find foreigners doing jobs which Ugandans can do as well or even better. To prove this, one has to visit any foreign-owned industry. One will find foreigners doing such jobs as machine fitting, bar attending or even gate keeping. Yet we have countless Ugandans craving to get jobs as simple as these even if they are university graduates. The same situation is especially prevalent in highly-coveted jobs such as managerial positions.

Many countries designate particular types of businesses in which foreigners may be allowed to engage. This is done in order to give opportunities to the nationals of that country to participate in the economic activities of their country. It also reserves small businesses which do not require much capital for the nationals. However, in Uganda, you find foreigners engaged in baking pancakes or in frying groundnuts.

Many governments, including the government of Uganda, attract investors by instituting policies which will make the investment attractive. Foreign investors have taken advantage of this policy and they have benefited from concessions such as tax holidays, reduced customs charges and many others. But local investors do not enjoy the same privileges. Why?

From time to time, our government disposes of parastatal organizations. These are organizations in which public funds were invested but because of the policy of privatization, the government has to divest itself of business enterprises. Surprisingly, parastatal organizations which are profitable are sold to foreigners whereas the capital in them was contributed by nationals through their taxes. Examples which readily come to mind are Uganda Commercial Bank,

National Insurance Corporation and National Housing Corporation. Why are these organizations not sold to Ugandan nationals?

All in all, Ugandans, particularly the government, lack economic patriotism. Our government has no preferential treatment for Ugandans; it would rather prefer foreigners in this regard. Blaming the government does not absolve individuals because many Ugandans in public offices have resorted to stealing funds rather than performing the duties for which the funds are intended. Examples of such behavior are too many to enumerate.

By John Ssebaana Kizito, a practical Economist and former Mayor of Kampala