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Strictly Personal

World Bank’s reality check on Nigeria, and other stories by Adaoha Ugo-Ngadi

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Two unrelated developmental issues jolted me into reality a little over a week ago, March 22, to be precise. One of the events had a continental flavour to it, and the other touched on Nigeria’s deepening paradox of rich country, poor people.

Both issues had been of particular interest to me, as I had, over the years, developed a keen eye for subjects relating to changing patterns in Human Development Index (HDI).

It had been a long season of trying to catch some rest after months of poring through loads of documents in pursuit of venture opportunities. But it was also a tough call to completely resist the urge of rummaging the economic space in search of fresh developments.

So, here I was, on March 22, making the most of a new World Bank report titled, ‘A Better Future for All Nigerians: Nigeria Poverty Assessment 2022,’ which had just been released. The bank said that its findings had been the product of a two-year engagement on relevant data and analytics relating to poverty and inequality generated by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

According to the report, as many as 4 in 10 Nigerians live below the national poverty line. It added that just 17 percent of Nigerian workers held the wage jobs best able to lift people out of poverty.

Indeed, the NBS in 2020 had reported that 40% or 83 million Nigerians lived in poverty while projecting that that the number of poor people would increase to 90 million, or 45% of the population, in 2022.

Now, the huge shame is that Nigeria has proved analysts right by maintaining its position as the poverty capital of the world, with 93.9 million of Africa’s most populous country currently living below the poverty line.

Every patriotic Nigerian must be genuinely concerned at this unenviable badge that has continued to portray our country as a bad example in leadership. Not even a promise by the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in ten years has brought some succour.

In fact, the picture is looking even more gloomy with Nigeria’s unemployment rate said to have risen to 35 percent in 2021, according to a report by credit rating agencies. Earlier in 2019, the estimated youth unemployment rate in Nigeria was put at almost 17.69 percent, just about half of the total population of the unemployed.

The bulging figures are not helped by latest data which have partly linked unemployment in Nigeria to the growing phenomenon of school graduates with no matching job opportunities.

The paradox of our existence is that while Nigeria remains celebrated for its natural endowments and human capital, a reality check has shown that inept leadership and corruption are the major reasons why poverty is at such a high rate in the country.

A journey in time clearly shows that our country’s bad run with poor leadership has its foundation in the enthronement of mediocrity, and primordial sentiments above excellence.

The anomaly has seen rational economic decisions supplanted for unrewarding political initiatives that yield little good to the larger society.

A radical departure from this dysfunctional system has become a national emergency or the country would hasten its steps towards a failed state. One way to avoid this pitfall is to build a culture of excellence, as exemplified in the global successes recorded by Nigerian youths who have seized the fintech space by storm.

In the other news, Dakar, Senegal, also took centre-stage as the world gathered to mark the 9th World Water Forum. Reports had noted that it was the first time the forum, the largest international water-related event, would be held in sub-Saharan Africa.

Organizers said the meeting would seek to identify, promote and implement concrete responses and actions for water and sanitation in an integrated way. The event which is in its 29th year has as its 2022 theme, ‘Groundwater, making the invisible visible.’

But this appears to be where the cheery news stops. A source of concern is the troubling stats which put the number of people living without access to safe water at 2.2 billion globally. Sadly, available records suggest that half of the people who drink water from unsafe sources live in Africa.

Indeed, in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 24% of the population have access to safe drinking water, and 28% have basic sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households. Any surprise then that open defecation and life expectancy remain embarrassing issues in most parts of Africa?

Beyond the fanfare in Dakar, African leaders must, therefore, take responsibility and be deliberate in their quest to reinvent their societies for sustainable development.

Let it be said that unless the sad tale of Africa’s underdevelopment is systematically reversed, its cohort of visionless leaders would have to brace for upheavals that may set their economies back into the dark ages.

 

Strictly Personal

Umeme, grain and coffee: Why Kenya should fear Uganda’s economic gamble, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Uganda, the 1990s shining Africa poster boy for privatisation, is engaging in what could be East Africa’s biggest economic liberalisation reverse gear. Last year, the Uganda government formally announced it would not renew the contract of electricity distributor Umeme in 2025, when its concession expires, and that it will form a state-owned entity to take over its business.

The government’s main criticism of Umeme is its margins are too high, so it has failed to lower electricity costs, and the expensive rates have hobbled Uganda’s industrialisation ambitions. Umeme counters that it is just a distributor, and the high electricity costs are passed on from the power generators.

In two years, the debate will be resolved. Uganda will be in the midst of campaigns ahead of the January 2026 election, when President Yoweri Museveni, weighed down by the wear and tear of 40 years in office, will likely be bidding for a record-shattering ninth term, with his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, among those trying to wrestle the crown from his head. It will be the worst possible timing because incumbents rarely make the most enlightened decisions during heated election campaigns. As the West Africans say, there will likely “be a lot of cry.”

Distribution concession

Umeme was formed in 2004 when the government of Uganda granted the distribution concession to a consortium belonging to Globeleq, a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Development Corporation of the UK, which held 56 per cent, and South Africa’s now inept utility corporation Eskom, which had 44 per cent. In 2006 Eskom exited the consortium, and Globeleq became the sole owner of Umeme.

The regional impact could be significant because, among other things, Umeme shares are cross-listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. If it unravels, Kenyan shareholders would be left crying in their bowls, and we could be back to the feud over regional assets that followed the break-up of the first East African Community in 1977.

Too messy to swallow

The renationalisation of Umeme will not be unique. Kenya just tried to renationalise cash-haemorrhaging national carrier Kenya Airways but found it too messy to swallow. The recently elected new government of President William Ruto has decided to throw it back on the block.

The difference in Uganda is that Umeme is just the shallow end of the pool. There are other moves to renationalise the very lucrative liberalised coffee sector by granting a near-monopoly to a Vinci Coffee Company, owned by controversial and shadowy Italian “foreign investor” Enrica Pinetti, to process and export Uganda’s coffee. That would take Uganda back to the early 1990s when the disastrous Coffee Marketing Board was disbanded.

A similar move is being made to give the Grain Council of Uganda, on paper a non-profit membership organisation, the kind of sway over the country’s grain last seen in the colonial era.

The force behind the Grain Council is the otherwise amiable president’s younger brother, retired Lt-Gen Salim Saleh (Caleb Akandwanaho), a sly operator who is the second most powerful figure in the land. A nationalist and statist, Saleh has led a quiet but effective assault against laissez-faire liberalisation, which he argues has mostly benefited foreigners and left Ugandans with only holes in their pockets. He has taken over a large chunk of the country’s agricultural budget and several “development” functions under the amorphous state-created vehicle Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) that he heads and inserted disciples in key national economic institutions.

Return to old roots

This state of affairs is a dramatic return to old roots. Uganda launched the first of a series of economic liberalisations in the 1990s that were deemed impossible in Africa at the time and anathema in the hyper-nationalist traditions that were entrenched in post-independence Africa.

It was the first country in Africa to radically liberalise its foreign exchange market and still maintains one of the least-interventionist approaches to the money market on the continent. It was also the first in East Africa to pass laws that gave the central bank extensive independence.

It was the first on the continent in the early 1990s to liberalise the fuel market and scrap fuel subsidies. Again, in East Africa, at least, it is the government that meddles least in setting the price of gas at the pump. When fuel prices skyrocketed everywhere following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, it alone was the East African government to flatly refuse to even consider a fuel subsidy and price cap, as all the rest of the EAC states did.

Price of food

Uganda, too, is the country where the price of food is most considered none of the government’s business. When Ugandans read stories and political fights over maize in Kenya, and the government setting the price, to some of them, it sounds like a tale about an alien planet.

The country and economy that Uganda is today are about to change. Some of the changes have to do with the politics of the Museveni succession and how the family and vested interests that have coalesced around the State House view their future security. A lot of it, though, is because of some good things: the rebirth of the EAC; the end of the wars in Uganda and the ushering in of the country’s longest spell of peace; the rebound of a post-KANU Kenya; and the Rwanda post-genocide recovery.

If there are two people in East Africa outside Uganda, who have edged Uganda to the fork in the road where it is today, they are Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki.

The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

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Strictly Personal

In honour of Komla African scribes should lead renaissance, By Elsie Eyakuze

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Somehow the only news we watch on the TV at home is offered by the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation or any one of several Kenyan stations that the person who holds The Power chooses. As a result, I have been on an imposed “news diet” for a few years now.

It is nothing serious, just a touch of burnout with a soupçon of ennui for flavour. There are newspapers, too, but I am a decade past my paper-chasing days and I have noticed the click-bait flavour of headlines and I don’t like it.

In other words, I am growing older, crankier and particular about my news. This led me to believe that I am bored by the business that the industry might indeed be floundering — a position I do not really hold. After all, my job as a journalism-adjacent writer is to support the news and the people and institutions that bring it to us.

Maintain my optimism

I can’t afford to be cynical. I have to maintain my optimism and commitment, even through lazy editing in Tanzanian newspapers, and ulcer-inducing anxiety over Freedom of Expression when it is threatened.

But, yea, you know, it is 2023 — a year that honestly belongs in science fiction, not in real life. Like you, I get most of my news online these days, in small doses, and only when I want it. I have meandered off the path of keeping abreast into the woods of barely knowing what is going on, and it is has been wonderful for my mental health.

And that would have been that, but an energetic young journalist decided to invite me to the launch of the BBC’s Komla Dumor Awards, which took place last week in Dar es Salaam.

Apart from it being the Komla Dumor Award, there was a clear intention to spark some enthusiasm in Tanzanians to apply for the prize.

Observing old journalists encouraging young journalists while enjoying free snacks was just what the doctor ordered.

I watched young master Dingindaba Jonah Buyoya expertly handle a live recording of a show, saw a lot of familiar faces, and got reminded that journalism “is a calling, a vocation.”

Power of a calling

Nothing will kick the stuffing out of your cynicism like understanding the power of a calling, a vocation. There is a largely positive compulsion that drives people into journalism: Most of them are trying to help. They are hopeless romantics with a vision that the work that they do matters, that it can make the world a better place like a Michael Jackson song. So they take their notebooks and their electronics and venture forth to cover stories and bring them back to us in the comfort of our homes and devices.

If you spend any time thinking about it, this is a pretty radical thing to do. And we cannot live this modern life without the people who make it happen. The Komla Dumor Award is about fostering excellent African journalists, and I know exactly why young Tanzanians are hesitant to apply. I was a young Tanzanian once, I know.

They should take heart: If I managed to charm hard-nosed editors in Nairobi into letting me keep this gig, they can certainly conquer Africa, the BBC, and the world news.

We — I — need that from them more than they realise.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email elsieeyakuze@gmail.com

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