Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Uganda @51: Address the population challenge

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Uganda will be celebrating its 51st independence anniversary on October 9. As I thought what to write home about this half century independence celebration, a friend’s comment on Twitter caught my attention. “Babies crawl at six months, walk at one year, but for Uganda, at 51, it is yet to sit,” she tweeted. Clearly she was reflecting on how much the country has achieved in the last 51 years of independence. I don’t agree with her assertion that “Uganda is yet to sit”. I my view, Uganda is walking instead of running.

While Uganda has registered several achievements for the time it has been independent the surging population threatens to demean these achievements unless policy makers really come up with clear strategies to address it. In 1962, there were about 7million Ugandans. By then, Uganda had one of the best health service systems not only in Sub-Saharan Africa, but on the entire continent. Independence president Milton Obote fell sick and was treated at Mulago Hospital, the country’s main public hospital. 

Today, it’s a different story. The rich especially the politicians who fall sick fly to Nairobi, South Africa, India, the US, and Europe for treatment. This is because Mulago hospital is itself sick, so they shun it instead of reviving it. It is largely the millions of poor Ugandans that seek medical attention at Mulogo. Much as thousands of low grade health centres have been built throughout the country, they are in most cases without sufficient drugs. Sometimes the available drugs are stolen by the health workers because their salary delays or salary is too little.

At 51 years old, if Uganda were a human being it should have achieved a lot. But how are we performing as an independent country? From 1962 to 1971 Uganda enjoyed stability and therefore there was room for development. However, bad leadership under Idi Amin and the wars that followed up to 1986 disrupted the development course in the country. A total of 15years were wasted in political turmoil. Recovery began from 1987. The economy began reorganizing around this time.

For the last 27 years roads have been constructed and reconstructed.  Currently the country does not have the capacity to construct roads that can last 30years so they choose to do 15year roads. But, because other forms of transport like air, railway and water are not very active, these roads are under enormous pressure. For example, cargo wagons or trucks that would be using the railway are also the roads add passenger pressure by end of 7years the road will be worn out.

In 1980, Uganda’s population was estimated to be 10million. Today the population is close to 34 million. In 2012 Uganda had the second highest fertility rate and the fifth highest growth rate in the world. Have the resources and service providing entities increased to match the population? To answer this I will add another indicator of progress, education, in addition to health and roads mentioned above.

Way back in the 1960s Uganda’s education was praised. A friend told me in his classroom the maximum number of children were 25 per teacher. The teacher would have able time to concentrate on each learner and know them better. Today, with the introduction universal primary education the pupil teacher ratio has shoot up to 100 per teacher. Are our children learning?

Leaders of Uganda, today, take pride in the fact that at least 80% of the national budget is financed locally. This is being done at a huge taxation. Personally at least 25% of my salary goes to a direct tax called “pay as you earn” because I work in the formal sector. In addition I have to pay a host of other indirect taxes. At the end of the day, the money that is gets into one’s pocket is too little to match the cost of living. Inflation of essentially commodities like fuel, food and construction materials is not helping matters.

We can choose to lament or be hopeful to change for the best. After all, the country is led by Ugandans. Pay more attention to the increasing population or it will swallow you. The youth who are roaming the streets searching for jobs are a time bomb which should be detonated before it explodes. Yes, there is a conducive environment where private players can do business but it is the primary role of government to create jobs for its citizens.

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