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Sweating the (Not-So) Small Stuff: Millennials and the Informal Sector

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In Kampala, as elsewhere on the continent, the status parade celebrating the tiniest successes costs a fortune. What if those resources were turned to more profitable pursuits? MARY SERUMAGA, musing on Millennials, the informal sector and a Twitter exchange, has an epiphany in a matatu.

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Sweating the (Not-So) Small Stuff: Millennials and the Informal Sector
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One reaction to David Ndii’s op-ed, HUSTLER NATION: Jobless youth, millennial angst and the political economy of underachievement, caught my attention being at once amusing and instructive:

It was instructive because Ndii began his piece by explaining the concept of the demographic dividend about which we hear so much. He pointed out that the ratio of dependants to potential earners in Kenya had fallen by 36 percent since the 1980s. With fewer retirees and children to support there is more available for investment. That demographic shift, he said, was a potential avenue for Kenya and other countries with a youth bulge to increase incomes through investment.

He went on to point out that a demographic dividend is not triggered automatically by numbers. Reaping the dividend requires an enabling environment which involves a range of factors including political stability, a favourable investment climate, and an educated youth, “not trained, but trainable”.

It goes without saying that for most of Africa one should not assume political stability as a constant. At the same time, said stability is relative. Yet everywhere, human enterprise continues. No African country has yet turned off the lights and shuttered-up the place.

Ndii’s article focuses on investment possibilities more than on politics. Far from suggesting an automatic progression from the youth bulge to reaping its dividends, the article is devoted instead to how to make the best of a bad situation. When we think of investment, everyone from the leaders down assumes big projects, big money, and therefore, big foreign investors. Ndii argues that the dividend can be reaped by leveraging the income–generating capacity of the informal sector which is the dominant sector of the economy. One would add that the informal sector is only informal because government services do not extend to the grassroots. But a farmer is a farmer, a taxi driver a taxi driver, a vendor a vendor etc, whether s/he is registered, banked and has a PIN or not. The money s/he earns is legal tender.

The third requirement, a trainable youth, is available in abundance.

So where can the youth get the money to invest? I got an idea in a matatu. A young girl on her way to work was chatting to another passenger. She had her own business. She got the capital from her father who, having thrown graduation parties for her four elder siblings, had had the bright idea of giving this youngest child the cash – not much, just under $200.

These parties are not merely elitist preoccupations; in Uganda and elsewhere, even families of the most humble means insist on a party for whatever final certificate their child has managed to obtain. Ditto weddings, pre-wedding introductions, post-wedding parties, lavish last funeral rites, printing “Save This Date” and “Thank you” cards, massive white marquees and tiny ones seating just the bagole (the graduands) and lots and lots of flowers. The list of ways in which to fritter away resources is endless.

In Kampala, restaurants, hotels and the National Theatre now charge a fee for holding meetings at their premises because every Saturday there are fundraising committees spread out on the grounds, devising ways and means of extorting cash from every last relative and friend. So ubiquitous are parties that it makes more economic sense to hire out vacant plots as ‘Venues’ rather than attempt to build on them.

In Uganda and elsewhere, even families of the most humble means insist on a party for whatever final certificate their child has managed to obtain. Ditto weddings, pre-wedding introductions, post-wedding parties, lavish last funeral rites, printing “Save This Date” and “Thank you” cards, massive white marquees and tiny ones seating just the bagole (the graduands) and lots and lots of flowers. The list of ways in which to fritter away resources is endless.

At the same time, Sunday supplements in the newspapers often feature ‘magicians’ – youths and older people who have managed to establish cocoa or other non–traditional produce plantations for the domestic and export markets.

What if investment funds were set up each graduation season and money invested in those rather than in celebrations? What if we imposed restraints on ourselves without waiting for austerity measures to be imposed from outside?

In what is it possible to invest?

As an investment target, Ndii gives the example of increasing production capacity in an existing sector – beef production. The details speak for themselves. There is under-utilised capacity in many other sectors.

The Ugandan numbers for milk and dairy products also paint a picture of unrealised potential. Unrealised because the initiative was left to the State. Very much like the cotton and coffee sectors on which the economy was built and which kept British textile manufacturers and their coffee industry afloat, milk is mainly produced by smallholder (informal sector) farmers. Milk vending was and remains mainly informal through kiosks. Because 80 percent of the general population is not connected to the power grid (the figures are probably higher among farmers), milk producers cannot keep the milk fresh. Even if they had refrigeration, frequent power outages make it necessary to use fuel–driven generators, an extra expense.

What if investment funds were set up each graduation season and money invested in those rather than in celebrations? What if we imposed restraints on ourselves without waiting for austerity measures to be imposed from outside?

It occurred belatedly to the government that ordinary Ugandans may want to participate meaningfully in the profits from the milk industry. Money was invested in milk coolers. Cooling and post-production plants were to be established all over the country to serve small holders – precisely the thing envisaged in 1967 when the Dairy Corporation was established with funds from the public purse. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, however, the Dairy Corporation was mysteriously transferred to a Thai investor in 2004 for a nominal one dollar after the competitive bidding process for it was cancelled by President Museveni. No reasons were ever given. It is pointless to try to understand it – it doesn’t make sense.

In 2008, dairy farmers produced close to four million litres per day. Processing capacity at the time was just under 300,000 litres per day and even then only one-third of that capacity was being utilized (Wozemba & Nsanja, 2008[i]). If it can’t be made into cheese or another milk product, the produce from the second daily milking is thrown away. An acquaintance from Burundi tells me that his family used their excess milk to fertilize their banana plantation.

Money was invested in milk coolers. Cooling and post-production plants were to be established all over the country to serve small holders – precisely the thing envisaged in 1967 when the Dairy Corporation was established with funds from the public purse. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, however, the Dairy Corporation was mysteriously transferred to a Thai investor in 2004 for a nominal one dollar after the competitive bidding process for it was cancelled by President Museveni.

As with all displacements of smallholder interests in favour of large monopolies, the bargaining power of milk producers was weakened by the sale of the Dairy Corporation, forcing producers to rely on a handful of foreign and domestic private milk processors for all post-production services. They simply cannot negotiate competitive prices for their milk.

Some of the slack has been taken up by the Masaka Archdiocese, which has established one cooling plant and has plans for five more. In the absence of the State, is it not possible for young citizens to dominate this sector rather than an oligarchy? If at least as much time is spent on examining this proposition as is spent organising the social binges celebrating academic success, perhaps some progress could be made.

Some of the slack has been taken up by the Masaka Archdiocese, which has established one cooling plant and has plans for five more. In the absence of the State, is it not possible for young citizens to dominate this sector rather than an oligarchy? If at least as much time is spent on examining this proposition as is spent organising the social binges celebrating academic success, perhaps some progress could be made.

The exchange between Ndii and Yebei was amusing because it was so predictable. In response to the piece, a proposition for self-employment was floated. The clue is in the phrase – breeding cattle is not rocket science. It was ignored and a solution to unemployment, especially among graduates, was now demanded. When no further suggestions from the author were forthcoming, party and inter–generational politics kicked in. The ‘affront’ was felt on Facebook where the view was expressed that the issue at play is selfish, privileged older people especially MPs and policy–makers. As though Millennials are not old enough and numerous enough to send representatives to Parliament.

The Alternative

The alternative is not good. Ndii: “If these factors are not there (i.e. the enabling environment), and the requisite investment fails to materialize, a demographic transition can turn into a political nightmare.” A la Zimbabwe, the Arab Spring and other places.

It really is up to us – we dialogue or die.

[i] David Wozemba & Nsanja Rashid, Study on Dairy Investment Opportunities in Uganda, 2008, for SNV (a Dutch NGO).

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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