How Ugandans have cultivated a mindset that is making them servants of foreigners in their own country

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | My friend Henry Mayanja left Uganda as a teenager and lived in the UK for 20 years. He worked for the UK government earning a salary and thinking he had made it. When he visited Uganda in 2011, he found some ordinary guy he left in Hima – uneducated, riding a bicycle and selling milk – a successful entrepreneur in Kampala with 24 lorries and investments in real estate. The guy explained to Henry that he had grown from the bicycle to a boda boda, to a small pickup, to the lorries.

Henry felt challenged and resolved to return to Uganda and enter business. He went back to UK, got a second job, and was earning £35,000 (Shs170 million) a year – which to Ugandan ears sounds great. After two years, he had saved £15,000 (Shs73 million) and bought two lorry-heads and returned to Uganda in 2013. He partnered with a friend who provided him five trucks (pulled by lorries) and entered the logistics business. Today Henry has over 70 lorries with their trucks; his business is worth over $5 million and is diversifying into real estate and mining. The money he makes today in Uganda is 20 times what he was earning in UK.

The lesson from Henry’s story is simple but fundamental: Ugandans do not need to run to Europe and North America to prosper. Our country has many opportunities, which anyone entrepreneurial can exploit and prosper better than anything the U.S. and Europe can offer. Yet very many Ugandans, even the most educated and exposed, spend a lot of time complaining about how government has failed to create opportunities for them to prosper. This is the most dysfunctional mindset across our vast continent. Government cannot create opportunities for anyone. At best it can create an enabling environment for people to succeed.

For instance, we have an estimated 20,000 Indians (or South Asians generally) in Uganda i.e. 0.5% of the population. Then someone recently told me that Indians (or Indian owned businesses) pay 64% of our tax revenues. If this number is correct, then it reveals something fundamental about this country: the thinness of indigenous participation in the economy as productive agents – exactly as colonialism designed. Meanwhile 70% of Ugandans are peasants living on agriculture, which contributes zero in taxes. They are poor largely because we do not have entrepreneurs to create businesses that can employ them.

For many Ugandans hearing the dominance of Indian capital in our economy, the first intuition is to look for a villain to blame. The best way to make such a villain recognisable is to give him/her a human face. So President Yoweri Museveni becomes the villain. Of course Museveni personally carries part of the blame for this. He has been a strong advocate of Foreign Direct Investment as a driver of economic growth. He is also fascinated by Indians and sees them as more entrepreneurial than indigenous Ugandans. He has thus been willing to use the state to support some of them.

Yet most Indian entrepreneurs have never received any direct state support but they are thriving. In any case, limited local ownership of the economy is a characteristic feature of most of the economies of Africa. In Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone etc., foreigners own most of the businesses. This demonstrates that many of the problems we attribute to individual leaders like Museveni are actually results of broader, historical, impersonal forces. Leaders like Museveni are consequences, not causes, of the neocolonial character of the state.

I have grown increasingly to believe that one of the main causes of our economic backwardness in Africa is our mindset. This is inculcated in us largely but not entirely through our education system and in public media.

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