By Dr. Ian Clarke

During the famous Black Mamba crisis when there was a public outcry against the illegal tactics of the government, one well-known radio DJ commented.

‘In Uganda life is good and beer is cheap, so what is all the fuss about’.

His statement may well summarize the attitude of many Ugandans when it comes to activism in politics, or indeed getting involved in any activity which requires a great deal of effort, when there is the opportunity to just enjoy life.

Ugandans have again been rated as among the friendliest people in the world by one of the tourist guides, and although Uganda is apparently a less happy place than it used to be (having slipped in the happiness ratings), the general population seem amazingly content, or at least passive, when one looks at the grim conditions which many endure.

I was informed recently that one single Ugandan distillery sells a quarter of a million one hundred ml sachets of gin daily. This figure blew my mind, since this is only the production of one distillery, and not the total gin consumption in Uganda. My informant also pointed out that most of the alcohol consumed in Uganda is not by the upper classes in fashionable bars and restaurants, but by the poor. A 100 ml sachet sells for five hundred shillings, which is a crucial price point, because if the price were six hundred shillings, sales would plummet. But even a poor man can lay his hands on a single five hundred shilling coin, and that one hundred ml sachet, which is 40% alcohol proof, is enough to get him high.

Apparently Uganda is the only country in East Africa, which still allows the sale of gin in plastic sachets, and although there are also small bottles of one hundred mls, these do not sell well. This is because the typical consumer likes to get the sachet, put a small hole in it, and keep it in their pocket for continuous consumption. The implication as to why other countries have banned the sale of alcohol in sachets is that it is bad for the masses. This gave me a mental picture of peasants being in a continuous state of inebriation. Perhaps, I thought, this is the explanation for Ugandans being rated as friendly and happy, or perhaps someone higher up realizes this is a way to keep the masses content.

However, the conversation raised the issue of who has responsibility to promote good or bad behavior. Is it right for government policy to make gin sachets so readily available that they become a way of life? Is it responsible to have sports betting shops in every trading centre? Is it a responsible government policy to have gambling so accessible to the poor? One can see that the little cash, which many husbands and fathers earn, ends up in the pockets of the gambling industry, leaving their wives and children without food.

Another issue for Uganda is the low rate of savings, because it is difficult for any country to develop without a certain level of savings. However, apart for NSSF savings, which are entirely concentrated on the formal sector, we have no other mechanism for long-term savings in Uganda. Consequently we have the lowest level of savings in the region. Should there not be a government policy to encourage savings though more vehicles than NSSF?

In the coming budget there is a proposal to tax mobile money, but while other countries are promoting mobile money as banking for the unbanked, we are effectively discouraging this form of mobile wallet. In our neighboring country, Kenya, most transactions are now carried out on mobile money, which has kept money transfer costs low and has stopped people keeping their cash under the bed. The ubiquity of mobile money has also resulted in the use of mobile platforms for solar power, savings, paying bills, banking for SACCOs, and community medical insurance. But in Uganda we are making the costs of mobile money higher and actively discouraging such positive developmental trends for short term gain.

Responsible government policies do not need to be draconian, but they can take into account what is generally good for the electorate, and facilitate positive trends such as increased savings and mobile banking, while discouraging negative trends, such as sports betting and alcohol sachets.