If you listen to some of the government officials, the economy is doing exceptionally well and has recovered from the aftershocks of Covid-19.
Inflation, we are told, has been controlled to around 3 per cent. This is a world first; government officials gleefully tell us. With the oil expected in about two years, Uganda will be in dreamland.
Even before oil, we are the boda boda bike that starts with a single kick or the plane whose pilot is folding the landing gear, an indication of sound mechanical conditions and successful takeoff respectively.
What a time to be alive! When leaders get their terms of reference, giving hope could be one of those highlighted in a luminous color. They must do it at every time they stand behind a microphone.
What may not always be marked with a highlighter yet crucial is that hope alone cannot solve the challenges of our time. Finding real solutions to our challenges is crucial. Pragmatism, they call it.
Despite all the economy is sound talk in Uganda, the biggest advertisers today, especially in the daily newspapers, are auctioneers. These aren’t calling for bids of people buying the Mona Lisa, 100-year-old timepieces, or the table on which Jesus sat during the last supper.
These are guys who have received instructions from financial institutions to sell off properties to recover their money. By the time the adverts appear, the lender has cajoled the borrower for eternity, trying to recover their money.
The majority of borrowers don’t want their properties to be sold by banks, but they have failed to pay off the money. Many such borrowers are returning to the village, to use a common Ugandan phrase.
Contrary to popular beliefs, banks also hate selling properties. It is cumbersome. The easiest things for them is to get their money back.
Anyway, if it isn’t banks, it is mobile moneylenders making frantic phone calls to anyone they suspect
of knowing the borrower to pay back loans. Perhaps you have heard of Mangu Cash, Quick Loans and such other guys asking you if you know how to help them get somebody you haven’t spoken with for years for having borrowed some ka-50k that he isn’t paying back.
At the highest level, you have guys who built allegedly fancy hotels and poultry breeders being sold and at the lowest a guy who took a 50k from a mobile app and no longer answers their calls to pay back. In between, you have a friend who is calling you to help talk to a mutual friend who is not paying back the money they borrowed.
For others, the option is to vent on social media in the hope that the borrower will feel ashamed and pay some money back. Motivational speakers are telling their audiences to only lend money they can afford to lose. Yet government can always do something. The first one is to accept that the economy may not be as rosy as they tell us. Once you accept the problem, you are already half way of solving it.
They don’t need to do much research. If newspaper ads are not promoting products but properties whose owners have failed to pay, it means something really needs to give.
Government can sit down with the banks to find a solution so that loans could be restructured, management taken over by a competent board and management and such things. I see some muted sort of campaign to support exports or increase tourism numbers and all that but if the businesses are being sold for failure to pay back their debts, how would those numbers go up?
We have talked about high interest rates on loans and mortgages, high taxes and the cost of doing business but everyday a new cost comes up. Every government “authority” is finding a creative way to increase the cost of doing business. If it is not a license or permit, it is annual returns. How many annual returns should a single business file?
Procurement to supply government takes forever but if you are lucky to land a contract, your excitement would soon turn into tearful endless trips to ministry headquarters chasing permanent secretaries, undersecretaries, tea-girls and whoever has the authority to clear an invoice.
In the meantime, every time you visit a ministry to check on your payment status, you must go with new copies of documents. What you submitted last week is no longer traceable. How difficult is it to install an online invoice submission system? Lots of unemployed ICT graduates loiter city streets every day.
So, to avoid properties being auctioned, many businesspeople are staying away from supplying government. Yet government is the biggest business in any economy. Businesses can’t grow when they can’t access such a big market.
But the most important thing today is to see how we can see more newspaper adverts promoting products than those of properties being sold by auctioneers. It is a simple measure to tell how the economy is doing and whether people have jobs or not.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant