If you lined up all Ugandans, from the newest-born baby just dropped from the capitalism-free sanctuary of the womb, to the oldest mzee waiting to be taken out of their suffering, the one bang in the middle would be just under 16 years old. By comparison, if you did the same in Japan, they would be aged 47, about 40 in the United Kingdom and 38 in the United States. Africa has the youngest population in the world and only Niger’s is younger than Uganda’s.
There are many ways to interpret these stats. This year, we will get to a point where one in two Ugandans was born after the return of “multiparty politics” or Obote’s death. Your average Senior Two student, and younger, probably thinks the Lord’s Resistance Army is a band of sicarios in the Netflix series, Narcos, or a particularly aggressive church in which tithe is demanded with menaces.
This young population will grow into a world very different from that of their parents – and in many ways alien to that of their grandparents. We are a long, long way away from self-driving cars dodging potholes in Busabala, but already, hangover university students can attend lectures while ‘lying in state’ in their dorm rooms. Change might be slow, but disruption will be inevitable.
These thoughts preoccupied my mind, Tuesday, at a public release of a World Bank report on jobs in Uganda. About a decade ago, when your long-suffering columnist still edited this newspaper, we did a back-of-the-envelop calculation and found that 400,000 young people joined the work force every year to compete for less than 100,000 wage jobs.
The clever chaps at the World Bank say the real number then was just over 300,000 but, more importantly, has since doubled. By the end of this decade, a million Ugandans will join the jobs hunt every year – roughly three times the size of the entire civil service currently.
These numbers cannot be wished away. They defy slogans. Hand-outs can’t satisfy them. These are revolutionary numbers, existential threats. A country of young Ninjas – with No Income, No Jobs and no Assets – cannot be peaceful, let alone prosperous.
The large meeting hall was full and there was an interesting panel of young Ugandan entrepreneurs doing this and that in their own small spheres of influence and opportunity.
Yet, as important as individual agency is, there are structural and policy changes necessary to unlock growth and enterprise that only State–level interventions can produce. This is not about asking government to create jobs; it is about asking it to facilitate their creation, even by getting out of the way. Think tax cuts for small businesses, investing in infrastructure, creating cheaper and more patient capital, et cetera. There is no app to cut interest rates.
A quick look around the room showed how much of a priority the subject is. There was a smattering of government technocrats and bureaucrats mostly low- and mid-level managers, who get delegated to undesirable meetings, not the key decision makers.
None of the four ministers in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development had found time in their busy schedules to attend. Neither had any of the foursome in the Agriculture Ministry, despite the sector employing seven out of every 10 Ugandans. Similarly the folks from Education were too busy.
The chairperson of the National Planning Authority graced the occasion and made some optimistic noises about “changing mindsets” – whatever that means – before attempting to leave early for some other “important meeting”. Thankfully, she was persuaded to linger on a bit longer and she bore her suffering with calm fortitude.
One of the junior Finance ministers eventually appeared, more than two hours late. By this time, the report and its key findings had been presented and large chunks of it debated, so she made some perfunctory remarks, none of them tied to specific targets or deliverables. It could easily have been a fundraiser or a graduation party in the constituency.
Attending a public release of a jobs report is not the barometer for seriousness about the subject, of course, but this lacklustre attitude reflects a wider indifference and incoherence.
This column has argued before that a monthly jobs report – showing how many jobs were created, of what calibre, and in what sectors – is entry-level accountability and the kind of sustained focus necessary to keep this at the top of the priorities list.
If Cabinet and the Army High Command begin their meetings, not with the latest jobs report, but with careful reminders of which are the beef and vegetable samosas, then we are in even more trouble.
To get young Ugandans into work, those in policy-making and budget-allocating positions should do their jobs. They can start by showing up, on time.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. email@example.com.