Uganda has overcome past trials and tribulations to become a stable nation with a growing economy that is capitalising on the country’s natural advantages and ambitious workforce
Straddling the equator in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Uganda was dubbed “The Pearl of Africa” by an effusive Winston Churchill upon his visit to the country at the turn of the last century for its “magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life, bird, insect, reptile, beast, for vast scale”. But although its location has blessed Uganda with stunning emerald green landscapes, it has also brought about a series of challenges, with recent conflicts in neighbouring countries leading to an influx of refugees and a decline in exports.
Since gaining independence in 1962, Uganda has had mixed fortunes. A military coup, a descent into misrule under Idi Amin and a brutal 20-year insurgency in the country’s north led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) severely hampered progress.
In recent years, however, Uganda has shaken off its troubled past, with President Yoweri Museveni, who took power in 1986, credited with restoring stability and economic prosperity to the country. Sound policy decisions and a reliance on the private sector as the main engine of growth have helped cut the poverty rate by more than half. Over the past three decades, the Ugandan economy has consistently been one of Africa’s fastest growing, with GDP forecast to rise this year by 5.8 per cent. This comes despite a dip last year as a result of a global downturn in commodity prices and the loss of the South Sudanese market for Uganda’s exporters due to the ongoing civil war there. Meanwhile, Uganda has also become a pivotal player on the African stage thanks to both its membership of trade blocs and its regional peacekeeping efforts.
The government’s latest National Development Plan, which will run until 2020, aims to build on this newfound growth and stability by strengthening the country’s competitiveness for sustainable wealth creation, inclusive growth and employment. Currently home to around 41.5 million people – more than three-quarters of whom are aged under 30 – Uganda’s population is expected to rise as high as 214 million by 2100, according to a UN projection. Ugandan officials want to capitalise on this demographic dividend by shifting away from a predominantly subsistence-based agricultural model to an industrialised economy, creating better-paid jobs and boosting productivity.
In addition, a number of oil fields are in development by international oil companies, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the oil reserves in Uganda may account for around four per cent of the country’s GDP in the next few years if managed well. So far the signs are good. “The drilling success rate in Uganda is the highest in the world – about 85 per cent,” says Ernest Rubondo, executive director of the Petroleum Authority of Uganda, adding that the sector will see investment of $20 billion over the next three to five years.
The new Kampala-Entebbe Expressway significantly cuts travel time from Uganda’s main airport to the capital.
Photo: China Communication Construction Company
Uganda was recently ranked the world’s most entrepreneurial country by both the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and British B2B company Approved Index, which found that 28 per cent of Ugandan adults have started their own business. Self-sufficiency and resilience run deep, while support from both the government and NGOs for small business owners has allowed for greater access to credit and training. As is the case throughout Africa, however, interest rates remain high, providing a challenge to the private sector. Meanwhile, investment into communications infrastructure such as fibre optic cables has pushed Uganda up to 15th place in internet usage across Africa.
Canoeing on Lake Bunyonyi
Indeed, upgrading the country’s infrastructure is a key part of the development strategy, as inadequate transportation links, for example, currently restrict efforts to increase crop yields and diversify economic output. The government is focused on addressing bottlenecks by building hydropower plants, a modern road network, railways, water transport connections and a new airport, as well as tackling the lack of electrical power infrastructure, and expects to see a multiplier effect across all sectors. “Let’s look at the roads that are going to be built in Kabaale,” says Keith Muhakanizi, the government’s permanent secretary and secretary to the treasury at the ministry of finance. “They are necessary infrastructures for oil exploitation and exports. But they will also promote that part of the region, which has agricultural products that will be able to get to the market.”
On a simple human level, Uganda is renowned for being a safe and joyful destination, ranked as the world’s friendliest in the 2017 survey of InterNations’ global community of expatriates. And the warmth is guaranteed all year round by Uganda’s equatorial weather, with super-hot temperatures mercifully rare.
Uganda’s refugee hosting model is one of the world’s most progressive, with incomers given a work permit, land and leave to stay permanently
For several decades, Uganda has sheltered refugees and asylum seekers from the conflict-affected countries in its neighbourhood. Today, its refugee population stands at more than 1.4 million.
Most are women and children escaping “barbaric violence” in civil-war-wracked South Sudan, their number surpassing a million in August last year, according to the UNHCR. Today, the vast majority of Uganda’s refugee population lives in the Bidi Bidi settlement in the country’s north, where memories are still fresh of a time when Ugandans, too, were refugees – between 1986 and 2006, the region held 1.8 million internally displaced people fleeing fighting between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Ugandan troops.
“Refugees from other African countries are not a problem to us. The colonial boundaries are meaningless to us, because the same people are cut into different countries. Refugees from South Sudan or Congo or Kenya are part of our same cultural groups and part of our society. These are our people, and if they want to percolate into society, it’s not such a cultural shock,” says President Yoweri Museveni.
The United Nations has described Uganda as one of the best places in the world to be a refugee. Its legal framework provides for relative freedom of movement, access to basic services such as healthcare and education on par with nationals, and the right to work and own a business. Its policy on self-reliance aims to ensure that refugees are able to support themselves beyond receiving aid handouts.
However, shouldering this huge responsibility comes at a cost. More refugees entered Uganda last year than the total number crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, with little in the way of economic assistance from the international community. “Uganda has remained welcoming and generous at a time when many countries are closing their borders on refugees, but it is under incredible strain as funds dry up and thousands continue to cross from South Sudan every day,” said L. Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes.
Nonetheless, Uganda keeps on welcoming people fleeing conflict. Speaking at the Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees, Mr Museveni reminded attendees that, “when the refugees came from Rwanda, some of them were young, like [Rwandan president] Kagame, but later because of the education, they went back and changed their countries”.