From jiggers to sugarcane, leadership woes dig Busoga deeper into poverty

Kyabazinga (king) of Busoga William Gabula Nadiope IV chats with President Museveni during the commissioning of Ethanol plant in Jinja in 2017. PHOTO/PPU

What you need to know:

  • There were days when poverty in Busoga was synonymous with jiggers, now it is deeply intertwined with sugarcane growing and leadership shortcomings. Jacobs Odongo Seaman looks into where it has gone wrong for Busoga and what hope there is for the future.

Nyege Nyege has always divided socio-political opinions in the country and the 2022 edition in September was no different. Yet, not even American rapper Drake, who has turned betting millions of dollars into a hobby, would have taken a punt on a politician from Busoga Sub-region casting his lot with a section of MPs against the festival taking place in his backyard.
“If the minister wants, let him take it to his district,” Bugabula South MP Maurice Kibalya, said in response to State Minister for Tourism Martin Mugarra in September on the floor of Parliament as a section of MPs moved to block Nyege Nyege Festival from taking place in the country.

Bugabula South is in Kamuli District. And Kamuli is in Busoga, one of the three poorest sub-regions in the country.
“I come from Busoga, I have witnessed this Nyege Nyege; it’s totally immoral. We can’t sacrifice the morals of Ugandans because of tickets that have been sold,” Mr Kibalya said.
The legislator’s stance shocked Busoga. An outpouring of disbelief that followed saw many wonder how a legislator could not understand the potential of tourism on the socio-economic transformation of their own people and region.

The festival would go ahead on September 15 from Itanda Falls in Butagaya Sub-county, Jinja District, but not before Busoga’s political matron of the last two decades, Rebecca Kadaga, had declared the attempt to block Nyege Nyege as “economic sabotage against Busoga.”
“As long as Nyege Nyege is in Busoga, I will protect it,” Ms Kadaga, who is the first deputy prime minister and minister for East African Community Affairs, said.
“I am going to inform the government to help on the infrastructure, mainly the roads and electricity, because that’s one big challenge I have seen here,” she added.
For many observers, the treatment of Nyege Nyege Festival captured the problems of Busoga in totality. Where once there were jiggers, suddenly the people could see as their own stands up to attempt to block an event from which boda boda operators, chapati makers, condom vendors and virtually every Tom, Kafuuko and Wambuzi in Busoga would directly reap from if they put in some effort.

Museveni shakes the table
Two months after Nyege Nyege, President Museveni registered his dismay at the rate at which poverty has been intensifying in Busoga.
“I have been peeping through my car window as I travelled here for this function and I have kept wondering how do these people live through this sort of poverty?” the President, who was speaking at Kyado in Mayuge District where he presided over the inaugural Bishop James Hannington Day, said.
“I have screened through all these villages where I have passed, but the houses and all the other things I have seen have left me wondering how it’s possible for our people to survive through these hard economic conditions,” he added. 

A grand master of the political game, it is easy to cast away Mr Museveni’s comments as another exaggeration, like he was moving one pawn to expose a rook. Not far-fetched, Museveni lost Busoga to National Unity Platform’s Robert Kyagulanyi in the 2021 Presidential Election.
And if that were the case, it would be akin to the many times Mr Museveni and his NRM party have reminded the electorate anywhere in the country that their economic progress was always as good as voting for the NRM party.
But this was not a chess-play, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) says in its 2022 Multi-dimensional Poverty Index Report. 
A total of 6.2 million people or 14.7 percent of the country’s estimated 42 million people are living in extreme poverty, with Busoga only better than Karamoja and Acholi. In 2019, poverty levels in Busoga stood at 42.1 percent, only Bukedi at 47.5 percent and Karamoja at over 60 percent being worse off then.


There were days when Busoga was the food basket of the country. Bounded by Lake Kyoga to the north, the Nile to the west, the Mpologoma River to the east, and Lake Victoria to the south, the average rainfall of 152cm a year that Busoga receives now largely feeds sugarcane and creates a slippery path to economic transformation for the rest.

A truck transports sugarcane to Kakira Sugar Factory in Jinja City in July. Photo/FILE

‘Disunited, selfish leaders’
When President Museveni said he had been dismayed by the poverty in Busoga, he also wondered why all the big-name NRM leaders from the sub-region have not been able to lead their people into inclusive economic transformation.
MP Kibalya’s attempt to sabotage Nyege Nyege would be a classic filler into Mr Museveni’s puzzle. But there is much more to it than just one of Busoga’s 37 legislators and hundreds of other political heads at the lower levels.
“The political leaders in Busoga are never united for socio-economic programmes and they are not creative or innovative [enough],” said Mr Dan Kawanguzi, a kingdom loyalist.

For decades, when Ms Rebecca Kadaga presided over Parliament, Busoga also had top leaders in government such as Kirunda Kivejinja, Daudi Migereko, Isaac and Salaamu Musumba, and Justine Kasule Lumumba. Kadaga might have lost her wigs but she remains a deputy prime minister joined in the current Cabinet by Rukia Nakadama (third deputy premier), Milly Babalanda (minister for Presidency), Kasule Lumumba (minister for General Duties), Persis Namuganza (State for Lands), as well as Dr Joseph Muvawala at the helm of the National Planning Authority.

Yet, Mr Isaac Imaka, the chief executive of the Kyabazinga Royal Foundation, feels there is a big disconnect between the political leadership, who swing their fly whisky at the national level and the grassroot.
Busoga, he said, lacks community leaders who are in tandem with the people’s hunger for transformation.
“No human being wakes up and wants to stay poor. That is the reason they keep showing up each time there is a call dressed as an effort towards transforming them. But those people hungry for transformation lack leadership that is hungry for transformation,” he said.

Mr Anthony Mula, the managing director of Busoga Consortium for Development, conceded the division was a challenge when top leadership such as Ms Kadaga and Minister Lumumba were turning Busoga into a train with engines at both the tail and the head, and pulling away in opposite directions.
However, he said there has been reconciliation and that what is ongoing are discussions to harmonise yet another faction at parliamentary level where Bunya South MP Iddi Isabirye and his Luuka South compatriot Stephen Kisa each claim to head Busoga caucus.
“Discussions are ongoing between the two faction heads under the direction of the Minister for the Presidency, Milly Babalanda,” Mr Mula said.
Ms Babalanda, from Kamuli District, is currently one of the most influential figures from the sub-region. For this article, she said she was down with malaria and could not readily commit.

“People talking about disunity in Busoga are detractors,” said Jinja Resident City Commissioner Mike Ssegawa.
“I see several efforts to unite Busoga leaders. There are different platforms bringing together leaders in political, cultural, business, academia, and religious circles,” he said. 
But Imaka, whose Kyabazinga Royal Foundation works to boost efforts toward socio-economic transformation, insisted the majority of the politicians were only interested in themselves.
“That is why you see that they spend less time discussing strategies for development and more time discussing individual ego and gratification,” he said.

“You never hear them disagreeing on development or poverty eradication strategy. But you will hear them accuse each other of fighting or trying each other down when money and influence is involved. Their conversations never involve the grassroots person until it is election time.”
The fall of industries
Mr Alfonse Ndamira points right at a towering chimney about 400m away. He smiles wanly and says of the visibly rusted brown flue: “Seeing smoke billow from that pipe was a sign of life.”
The smile turns to a chuckle, a painful chuckle. “That life, we lost it long ago but we live on.”

The chimney is one of the many in a vast outlay of what were the factories housing the Madhvani Oil and Soap Division in Kakira. Mr Ndamira, a Burundian migrant, had earned his living along with hundreds of others, including casual labourers, working in the place.
Madhvani wound up the venture in 2006, paid off some staff and assimilated others into the nucleus sugar estate, and sent the rest into a life of, well, nothingness.
Mr Ndamira and scores of others from Kabembe Village in Kakira Parish had to sketch life in other ways. Sucking his already deeply sunken cheekbones, he looks down and searches his Kiswahili for words. “Only the lucky few had something to fall back to.”
Known as Oil Mill, the factory was in the 1970s and early 1980s under the Lint Marketing Board, which was together with the Coffee Marketing Board, among the best paying agencies in the country.

Alongside Kakira, the Oil Mill was among the industrial pride of Jinja, a town that was fabled in East Africa for teeming with textiles, steel mills and copper smelters. Busoga was the fulcrum of Uganda’s industry. But after years of neglect, mismanagement and the 1990s wave of privatisation, almost everything has gone under, with them the major sources of employment for the natives, leaving behind an impoverished lot. Despite efforts to revive the industries, it is no longer enough to carry the weight of the ever growing population. The 2022 statistics from Ubos indicates that Busoga’s level of poverty stands at 29.2 percent, which is way above the national average of 20.3 percent.
Population boom is often a boon. It means more human capital. But for Busoga, Ubos says 55 percent of the sub-region is under the age of 15, they are neither educated nor skilled.
“Busoga perhaps has the highest dependency ratio in Uganda. Basoga are hardworking, surely, but their efforts are diluted by a high dependency ratio, itself a function of high prevalence of polygamy,” says veteran journalist Michael Wakabi, from Kamuli.

According to Ubos, 45 percent of children aged 5 to 17 in Busoga from households living below the poverty line are forced out of school to work. That is mainly for the boys.
For girls, it is teenage pregnancy. Busoga has the highest incidence of teenage pregnancies in the country, according to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey conducted between 2019 and 2020, with as many as 89,347 cases, followed by Tooro and Bunyoro at 57,660 and 57,295, respectively.
“It is necessary for us to control population growth in Busoga. People are engaging in polygamous families. Poor people find treasure in producing more children than the elite, so people should be sensitised on the importance of small families,” said former Kagoma County MP Frank Nabwiso.
Kamuli District chairman Charles Maxwell Mugudde expressed disappointment in the President’s remarks but said Busoga was still depending on agriculture, which has been affected by the seasonal changes.

“We had two farming seasons which is no longer the case yet sometimes even the rains are too short or delay to come,” he said.
The bitter taste in sugarcane
Behind a backdrop of the Nile waters rattling against rocks at Busowooko Falls in Bususwa Village, Budondo Sub-county, Ashraf Menya almost contrasted the claims that he had made huge losses in sugarcane farming.
“They [middlemen] came and offered me Shs150,000 only for my two acres of mature sugarcane,” he said, laughing. “I burnt the sugarcane; at least the women used it for firewood.”

The fall of sugarcane prices in 2019 left a bitter taste on teaspoons of farmers in Busoga. Steven Ikoba from Nawampanda Village in Budondo said he had to leave 12 acres of sugarcane up for more than two years because he could not just “give it away.”
In July 2019, millers reduced prices from Shs128,000 per tonne to Shs120,000. It had been going for Shs180,000 just months earlier. By July 2021, the price had reduced to Shs104,000 before it dipped to Shs96,000. Middlemen would offer the farmers as little as half the factory price per tonnage.
The price crash caught many farmers flatfooted. Like Namutumba District chairman David Mukisa noted, they did not have any other source of income.
Mayuge Residence District Commissioner Richard Gulume said the price crash left people with no sense of direction and many disillusioned by sugarcane started renting out their land.

“You would find someone renting out an acre of land between Shs300,000 and  Shs500,000 for six years. In such a situation, how will Shs300,000 gained from a six-year land lease make anyone come out of poverty?” Mr Gulume asked.
The nature of the crop means a farmer renting land needs it for at least three planting seasons. That is 54 months or at least five years. Mr Wakabi said Basoga have for long made the mistake of going into plantation crops, which tie the land down for long periods.
Sugarcane takes at least 18 months to mature yet the approach to its production also means low yields for the majority of the farmers who cannot invest in modern farming practices. For instance, in Kakira, at least 120 tonnes is harvested per hectare compared to about 60 to 70 tonnes that regular farmers in Busoga yield for the same acreage.

“A person who grows tomatoes has more flexibility than one who grows sugarcane,” Mr Wakabi said. But Paul Kagame, who moonlights as a sugarcane farmer, said “nobody is forced to grow sugarcane.”
Mr Jim Kabeho, the chairman of Uganda Sugar Manufacturers Association, said there are more than 10,000 sugarcane farmers registered with Kakira Sugar Ltd, the largest sugar producers in the country by share capital.
In a past interview with Daily Monitor, Mr Kabeho rubbished the idea that sugarcane is to blame for poverty in Busoga. Dropping figures, he said there is 60 percent arable land in Busoga and only 20 percent of it is under sugarcane.

“So where is the other percentage? What is it doing? We need to look into that. But if we concentrate only on sugar, we may not answer the question,” said Mr Kabeho, who doubles as a director in Kakira.
If not sugarcane, what then?
Ms Charlotte Kemigyisha, the public relations manager at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries, said farmers in other regions approach farming with a business mind and invest in research and markets.
“It can be ruthless sometimes but it must work. They dedicate time and are strong in areas of farmer associations and groups. In Busoga, you have numbers but they are probably not sufficiently mobilised in the same direction,” she said.
Ms Kemigyisha said instead of sticking to sugarcane, the people of Busoga should mobilise farmers into different enterprises such as poultry and piggery for medium-term profitability.

But in the face of unpredictable weather patterns and farming largely frustrating many, opinions have long made rounds that Busoga could probably do better by investing in other sectors such as tourism.
It is an opinion Kapchorwa agricultural entrepreneur Joel Cherop identifies with.
“Agriculture is becoming less attractive to the youth as risks associated with crop failure because of climate change and diseases increases,” Mr Cherop said, adding: “There’s need to diversify sources of income, including tourism, if Busoga is to move and create jobs for the many unemployed youth.”
Mr Daniel Kazungu, a communications officer at Crested Cranes Hotel, which is a tourism and training institute, said Busoga can harness its great tourism potential to emerge out of poverty.

“The region has immense tourism potential, including the Source of the Nile, Itanda Falls, Busowoko Falls and Kagulu Hill, among others. All these in addition to new mineral wealth potential in Makuutu in Bugweri District and other areas in Busoga are a gold mine that can help lift Busoga Sub-region from the poverty abyss it is entangled in,” said Mr Kazungu.
But even before talks of shifting gears manifest, Busoga has to first reconcile with the fact that it has been a beneficiary of many government programmes with little success to show for. From the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads), Bona Bagagawale to the ongoing Parish Development Model (PDM), Busoga has had it all. It is why Mr Stephen Baka Mugabi, the MP for Bukooli County in Bugiri District, said the idea of blaming leaders is just an excuse.

“The government programmes to uplift the welfare of the people are not being implemented well. This parish model, how much money are they planning to inject in it? That is like Shs100m in a year. All those programmes like Operation Wealth Creation, Emyoga, their problem is the design. If you are talking of Emyoga, for example, they give a Sacco or group of 30 people Shs5 million.  How is Shs5 million going to transform 30 families?” he asked.
Kamuli’s Mugude holds similar sentiment, saying the government was talking about giving money but the people have not been sensitised on any business or enterprises in line with the economic activities of the area.
Mr Kawanguzi suggested political leaders increase their capacity to lobby for the wider Busoga community “instead of presenting their personal problems” whenever they meet the President.

“If the political leaders start lobbying, you will have many NGOs in the region as it is in Mbarara, Amudat and Gulu, among others” he added.
Busoga has a handful of NGOs engaged in socio-economic empowerment programmes such as Musana Development Organisation that runs schools in Iganga, Kaliro and Kamuli districts, as well as an empowerment centre where women are skilled in tailoring, knitting, hairdressing, and business.
Mr George Kibiike, a community worker, said Busoga needs to open up to rehabilitation stimulant programmes, citing the need to create a programme tailored for Busoga communities such as it is in the Rwenzori or Luweero triangle.

Mr Imaka urged the leadership in Busoga to seek development from within, saying transformation cannot be imported. He said it was futile to bring foreign investors without preparing the people to exploit the investments.
“No community has ever developed or moved out of poverty because its leader went and imported rich people to live among them. Busoga will start its movement from poverty when its leaders take the lead in honest grassroot mobilisation to make the people self-aware and productive,” Mr Imaka said.
Because the consensus is that the political leadership of a community is never united, Busoga would also do with the private and civil society sectors leading the execution of economic and community development initiatives. This means politicians focus on policy and legislation.
The emergence of the Busoga Consortium for Development (BCD) appears to be carrying a semblance of hope but that will only hold for as long as the political leadership in the region can move in the same direction to harness the socioeconomic vision of the initiative.

Conceived in 2017 under then vice president Edward Ssekandi’s guidance, seeks to mobilise citizens at sub-regional level to embrace and steer development programmes, BCD chief Mula said the initiative has a multi-faceted agenda, including setting up of incubation centres at all the districts in Busoga to boost sugarcane farmers as well as supporting the setup of a new mill in Luuka District.
“We are supporting the process of reviving Busoga University with the view of positioning it to match the regional needs and aspirations. This university should be able to start full operation during the next financial year,” Mr Mula said.

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