Uganda's long and bumpy road to prosperity

By Paul Lewis
BBC News, Kampala

Image source, AFP

Uganda - one of the poorest countries in the world - is showing signs of potential rapid economic growth, but despite being a resource-rich country, many are finding it hard to get by.

We had intended to broadcast from one of Uganda's largest and oldest universities - Makerere - in the capital, Kampala.

But when we opened our newspapers over breakfast that morning, we read that the students were on strike and the police were on campus. Roads were blocked, stones had been thrown and tear gas deployed.

So we set up in central Kampala.

We were there for a programme on finance in Uganda. Not government finance, not big business, but personal finance - the day-to-day worries of ordinary people about money.

And so the students were not just news, they were our news.

They were striking because they had been told they have to pay most of their fees up front at the start of this term.

In the past, the university let them pay by instalments when they could. The only restriction was the fees had to be paid in full before they sat their end-of-semester exams.

Students told me that whether the fees are paid by parents, siblings, or their own jobs, the money just could not be found earlier and all at once. The new rule, they said, meant many would not be able to stay at Makerere.

Money is tight partly because of inflation.

The governor of the Bank of Uganda had told me earlier in the week that inflation was beaten and now sat just below its target of 5% a year.

But that was not what I heard from traders in the busy market in the Kampala suburb Ntinda.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Inflation has led to substantial rises in food prices in recent years

Eunice sold eggs, 30 at a time, placed carefully into a plastic bag for customers to take. Her supplier charged her more and so the price to customers had to rise. It had doubled in just a few months.

The butcher was selling beef for 8,000 shillings ($3; £2) a kilo. Goat was slightly dearer at 10,000 shillings and had risen recently from 6,000.

Official inflation rates just did not seem to reflect the experiences of these people selling and buying food.

I was in the market with a Makerere student, Cissy Lutalo. She studies mainly in the evening because she also works a full-time job.

When she shops, she visits three supermarkets to make sure she gets the best prices on household products. Although she showed me round Ntinda, she normally used two other fresh-food markets where prices were lower.

One problem for traders in Uganda is transport. The railway system is all but closed and four-fifths of the main road network is surfaced with gravel.

Roads are a problem even in major cities like Kampala, as I discovered when we took Cissy home after our shopping trip. "Turn left here," she told Ivan, our driver.

To me there seemed no way off the edge of the made-up road which ran away from Ntinda market.

Talking tax over tea

But with a bump we turned onto a track barely two vehicles wide, avoiding schoolchildren coming home and adults with shopping bags as we negotiated the ridges and bumps in the red sandy stone which covered it.

"Right here," she said, onto another track, narrower, bumpier, "now right again" onto a single track so uneven and tight I wondered not just how we would get any further but how on earth we would turn round to go back.

But then a gate, a guard and a wave for Cissy as he opened it onto a large paved turning circle surrounded by 20 or more dwellings.

Image caption,
Cissy Lutalo works in a tax office during the day

Ahead was Cissy's small, single-storey home - rented for her in this gated development by her boyfriend.

"So why don't the developers pave the road between the main highway and the homes they've built?" I asked.

"They are not allowed," I was told. "The government does not let private firms pave public roads."

"But," I protested, "the government doesn't do it, why can't they?" A shrug. "It is just how it is."

Cissy's job is in the tax office.

Over tea, I asked her about tax collection.

People in employment, she said, pay their tax through PAYE (Pay As You Earn), a system inherited like the three-pin electric sockets from Uganda's British colonial past.

But most Ugandans are not employees. They are traders, dealers, self-employed - and all in cash.

When I explained to Cissy that in the UK self-employed people must fill in a form every year and admit their income, she responded with a peal of laughter.

"In Uganda," she said, "people just don't like paying tax."

But then she proudly got out a poster produced by her office with a graph showing tax receipts growing year by year. But still, she admits, it is not enough.

Not enough, anyway, to pave the roads once you leave the highway.

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