Two days ago, Joachim Buwembo, a distinguished Ugandan journalist posted a provocative and stimulating paragraph on his Facebook wall that generated vigorous debate. Buwembo, who has served as editor of this and other East African newspapers, wrote: “The economic outlook isn’t good. We can’t pin all hopes in government. Ugandans need to think hard how to develop fast like others. Besides feeding your family, what else can you do? For those in the Diaspora (sic), besides making ‘brave’ posts on social media, what other useful activity, given your exposure, can you engage in to make us proud of you?”
Buwembo’s social media posts and his newspaper columns are always a delight to read. This post and the comments that followed were no exception. He invites us to think about our country’s economic survival and challenges the Ugandan Diaspora to pool or borrow resources for transformative mega-investments in our homeland. All of which is good and worthy of serious examination.
However, Buwembo’s dismissive comments about the Ugandan Diaspora strike me as either deliberately provocative or a surprising lack of awareness of the facts. First, Diaspora Ugandans do more than post brave stuff on social media. Very many raise serious questions and offer potential solutions to the fundamental systemic flaws that continue to undermine our richly endowed country.
At the heart of Uganda’s socio-economic difficulties is poor governance. While some of the managers of our country’s economy are pulling in the right direction, the political managers of the state are pulling in the opposite direction.
The combination of failed democratization, run-away institutional and individual corruption, a police and justice system that sides with the criminals, a militarized state with a narrow political agenda that serves the interests of one man, are part of a malignant cancer that threatens our country’s long-term prospects.
This is a common theme in the daily social media conversations of the Ugandan Diaspora. One ignores or dismisses these discussions at the expense of picking up great ideas on how our country might change course.
Second, Buwembo already has reasons to be proud of the Diaspora Ugandans. We may not blow our own horns, but, when pushed like this, we shall not tire of reminding our countrymen that the $1 billion (one billion) that we send home every year is not small change in a country with a tax revenue of $5 billion and an annual budget of $8 billion. This money has a direct impact on the daily lives of Ugandans through social support, job creation and profitable investment.
I invite Buwembo to use his excellent investigative skills to determine what percentage of the houses and other buildings that have mushroomed all over the country has been funded by my much-despised tribesmen – the Banyakyeeyo who work extremely hard to support themselves in their adopted lands and their families in their motherland. It would make for great and informative reading.
While at it, Buwembo should examine the jobs that have been created by absentee Banyakyeeyo. Who builds their houses? Who are the caretakers of their homes? Who are the security guards? Who works on their farms, ranches and other holdings? What wages do they pay their workers? In what other enterprises, including large ones, are Banyakyeeyo engaged?
I agree with Buwembo that, in theory, Diaspora Ugandans have the opportunity to pool or borrow resources to invest in large enterprises. I do not know how many have exercised this opportunity, but I am sure that Banyakyeeyo are well aware of the profitable opportunities that await the venturesome risk takers who are willing to put their money in Uganda.
My view is that investment must never be based on charitable or emotional motives. The serious investor – whether local, Diaspora or foreign – considers the economic, political and business risks in a particular country, including one’s homeland. To do otherwise is to engage in a foolishness that is bound to be rewarded with painful loss.
For example, whereas the Ugandan political environment is extremely favorable to foreign investors, it may be hostile to indigenous Ugandan Diaspora, many of whom are presumed to be political supporters of opposition parties. That must feature in one’s calculations before investing in one’s homeland.
In a country where the ruler and his representatives exercise extrajudicial powers to make or break a person’s business, the narrow political space discourages many. Yes, the national investment climate matters.
Notwithstanding these considerations, many Diaspora Ugandans contribute through voluntary advocacy for our country as a worthy destination for foreign investors and tourism. For example, members of the International Community of Banyakigezi (ICOB) will gather in Vancouver, British Columbia next week to consider and promote tourism in Uganda in general and Kigezi in particular.
The agenda of this year’s ICOB Convention, which will be held at the Pinnacle Hotel Vancouver Harbourfront from June 28 to July 2 under the theme “Unlocking Kigezi’s Tourism Potential,” is to target, educate and attract the Ugandan Diaspora to appreciate Kigezi as a place to take their vacations before heading off to places like Antigua, Mauritius or Finland.
The meeting organisers are also offering opportunities for Uganda-based tourism entrepreneurs to interact and, hopefully, form linkages and partnerships with their Canadian counterparts. If the meeting succeeds in developingstrategies for turning Kigezi’s tourism potential into reality, and its opportunities into cash and development, we shall have made a significant long-term investment in our homeland.
Of course, tourism, direct investment and other economic activities in our country will always be influenced by government policies and practices, and all the usual things that determine whether or not any country’s environment is favourable to the bottom line – profitable risk-taking. Diaspora Ugandans are ready to play. The ball remains in the ruler’s court.