Poor customer care could be the country’s greatest national crisis

What you need to know:

Most of the media’s look back at the past 50 years of Uganda’s independence has tended to report on the political events, problems and actors. However, there are many more pressing problems that blight Uganda and the failure to pay attention to detail ranks among the leading ones.

We can start with the national problem of poor customer care.
Exhibit A: Umeme, the national electricity company, is a near monopoly supplying about 90 per cent of Uganda’s electricity. Seated on a pile of money, with a relatively well-paid workforce (some top managers earn multiple millions of dollars a month) and which workforce is seemingly well-educated. But the inability to get work done amazes.

I’ve been reporting a lack of power in my house since Saturday morning, April 7. Several phone calls, reminders and appeals later, nothing had been done by Thursday morning, April 12.

Umeme’s customer care department was somehow unable to get the message on to its field technicians. Each customer care person answering the calls is polite, educated and seems concerned about the problem and is willing to help.

Asked why, if the field technicians are overwhelmed with work, Umeme, with all its cash pile cannot hire a few more, and I was met with silence.

Last year, we had a power problem in which I reported for nearly two weeks but Umeme was simply unable to marshal all its resources, machinery, men and money to fix it.

I have noted the same crisis at Warid, InConnect, Orange, MTN, National Water to some degree and other corporations that offer public utilities and services: Customer care numbers that most of the time are not answered and one discovers it is better to get hold of a personal mobile phone number of staff in those companies in order to get a problem solved.

Cash not a solution
Umeme is a perfect case study of a deeply-rooted problem in Africa that no amount of oil, diamonds, gold and copper, no amount of universal primary, secondary or even universal university education, no number of general elections, no limits to or unlimited presidential terms, no size of Parliament and no level of free speech can solve.

In March 2010, during the emotional outpouring of grief at the fire that razed part of the Buganda Royal Tombs at Kasubi, the central government promised it would investigate the fire. The Buganda Kingdom’s seat of government at Mengo declared it would conduct its own investigation.

Two years later, neither the central government nor the Buganda government has ever published a report, when Mengo has the greatest emotional, cultural, historical and administrative interest in getting its report done.

The inability of Mengo to follow through its promise is a glimpse into the disappointment that awaits Baganda if granted its cherished federo status and it proves to be Swaziland - a traditional kingdom in a modern world and beset by all the incompetence that is the hallmark of Swaziland and the rest of Black Africa.

This incompetence goes well beyond Uganda. In response to the question “What puzzles you most about Africans?” that I first put to a variety of friends and contacts in May 2006, Michael Wangusa replied: “Disorder in her cities yet people seem [to be] intelligent!”
Writing in his Sunday Monitor column last week, Joachim Buwembo, who for years like most of us frustrated by the disorganization in Uganda, was forced to concede that it is so much worse elsewhere in Africa.

When this chaotic Uganda starts to seem almost like a well-run country compared with many other African countries, one can only imagine the nightmare that living in much of sub-Saharan Africa must be.

Kampala sports journalist Joseph Kabuleta, in 2006 while still at the New Vision, responded to that question this way: “Well, so many things in my mind. But I think our disorganisation frustrates me most. In a nutshell, Africans’ inability to think for the general good of [the] public is the most frustrating. Everyone thinks for himself and his own good, and that creates such confusion.”

Without a well-written history
Starting in 2007 with Mengo Secondary School, several historic Ugandan secondary schools - Namilyango College, Gayaza High School, Kings’ College Budo, St. Mary’s College Kisubi, Mt. St. Mary’s College Namagunga, Busoga College Mwiri and others - have been marking their centenaries.

And yet apart from an index of all former students by Kings’ College Budo and an amateurish book compiled from chat, wisecracks and other casual Facebook-ish comments taken from the Budo online forum, no single one of these schools, with all their thousands of “successful” and “prominent” former students have produced a single formal book on the schools’ history.

The government-owned newspaper the New Vision turned 25 in 2006 and even with its considerable resources, no book on its formal history has ever been published.

A look at the official websites of the FDC, NRM, UPC and DP political parties reveals the same laxity of organisations with enough resources to make their websites information-rich centres but which are often left to go for months without updates and are sparse in content.
The FDC, DP, Justice Forum, UPC and the pressure group Action For Change (A4C) had and have a point in their “walk-to-work” protest actions of last year and this year.

However, a more sober and detailed look at the true crisis that afflicts African societies shows that our problems run much deeper than unresolved political questions or long-standing issues of injustice and inequity.

Purnell’s History of the 20th Century commented in Vol. 7 published in 1970 that “Although there was a vast expansion after 1945 in the number of agricultural, medical, engineering, and technical colonial civil servants, the prestigious branch was still the political one, the secretariat.

In part this still explains the tendency for Africans in universities to seek to qualify in political science, economics, or the arts, rather than in veterinary science or engineering. The inherited prestige of politics is also, to an extent, responsible for the apparent instability of African regimes….” (page 371)

Ugandans’ main interests, concerns?
As I stated last Sunday, I did research on the most sought or researched topics and areas of interest in the Uganda edition of the Internet search engine, Google.co.ug.

Of the 250 most searched entries daily by at least part of Uganda’s 2.5 million Internet users, the only political topic that featured was “parliament of Uganda”.

There was no mention of Museveni, Besigye, A4C, Tullow Oil, Tumusiime Mutebile, UPDF, State House, Janet Museveni, Muhoozi, FDC, Electoral Commission, DP, KCCA, Erias Lukwago, Jennifer Musisi, NRM, Sam Kuteesa, Amama Mbabazi, Nandala Mafabi, federo, walk-to-work, Hilary Onek or any of the major political topics that dominated the Ugandan media in the last one year.

I brought this to the attention of several top Kampala newspaper editors, none of whom responded and only the Independent magazine’s Strategic Editorial Director Andrew Mwenda replied, “Interesting”.
The total picture from the Google search results shows Ugandans too desperately trying to hang onto life, too weighed down by rent, unemployment, underemployment, medical bills, slow or almost no business at their small shops, broke, struggling to pay a wide range of insurmountable expenses to have much time for politics and discussions about the political class and politicians.

And yet apart from sports, 80 per cent of all Ugandan newspaper pages do not reflect the content that the Google search results show are the 250 most pressing or most interesting areas for Ugandans who are actively looking for news and information.

This partly explains why our newspaper circulation is at best stagnant and at worst declining. As Purnell’s history showed above, most newspaper editors are still stuck in that view of politics as the most “important” and prestigious area of public interest.

A4C might need to note that more Ugandans suffer daily at the hands of the poor customer care service at their mobile phone companies, hospitals, passport office, Uganda Revenue Authority branches, banks, schools, restaurants and airline check-in counters than suffer from rigged elections.