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Discontent Simmers in a Market as Uganda’s Economy Staggers

Written by: on 14th October 2011

By JOSH KRON. New York Times, 2011-10-14

KAMPALA, Uganda — Sam Katende wipes his brow as a burst of steam from his frying pan blows into his face.

Ugandans cleaned spare parts in Kiseka, a market that reflects a protest movement’s anger over the economy and graft.

This business used to be a lot easier, dishing out rolled eggs — or “Rolexes,” as the ubiquitous and beloved snack is known here — for about 33 cents a pop. But, as Mr. Katende says, “life has changed.”

Customers are not coming around anymore. Uganda’s economy has been in turmoil, with prices for everything from bananas to petrol to the charcoal Mr. Katende uses to fire up his stove at least doubling in recent months. The Ugandan shilling is one of the world’s worst-performing currencies against the dollar this year, and the overall economic malaise is fueling an urban protest movement that has become the longest in sub-Saharan Africa, with many Ugandans saying they are drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring.

The complaints are similar: Many Ugandans say that their government is corrupt and that their president, Yoweri Museveni, who after 25 years has ruled Uganda for longer than more than half the country’s population has been alive, is dismissive of the people’s plight.

The government, in response, has accused opposition leaders of taking advantage of financial problems for political gain. Opposition leaders staged what they called “Egypt style” protests in April, and since then lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers and traders have held various strikes and demonstrations. Government forces have clamped down violently at times, killing at least nine demonstrators since April and arresting hundreds, including top opposition leaders.

“We understand that there is a lot” of dissatisfaction, “especially on the high cost of living,” said a government spokesman, Tamale Mirundi. But Uganda, he said, “is not governed by opinion polls.”

The economy has buckled under rising global commodity prices, particularly petroleum. As a landlocked country, Uganda feels added pressure from these fuel costs, which in turn drive up the prices of many imported goods. Its exports have underperformed, analysts say, while the government has focused largely on domestic sectors like construction and public services.

The government’s supporters say it has a free-market philosophy and would rather let commodity prices rise than regulate them and inadvertently spur a black market. “There is an internal structural imbalance,” said Fred Muhumuza, an economic adviser in Uganda’s Ministry of Finance. “It amplifies the prices.”

Perhaps no place exhibits the frustrations more than Kiseka market in downtown Kampala, the capital. It is a city within a city, a labyrinth of locksmiths and shoe shiners, mechanics and cooks like Mr. Katende, who work in iron-roof shacks for increasingly lower wages as business drops off.

“You know the structure,” said Joseph Kiggundu, a 23-year-old mechanic in Kiseka, adding that he used to work in Iraq as a security guard with American forces. “People who are rich, they are totally rich, and those people who are poor, there are very many, many, many.”

“That’s why you see street protests,” he said. “We have nothing to do.”

Mr. Katende is not a protester, he said, but he empathizes.

“Life is not O.K. at all,” Mr. Katende said. “I’m not a politician. I don’t know whom I support, but whoever comes I welcome.”

His Rolexes (two eggs rolled up inside a chapati) are not just a fast-food snack; they are a veritable index for the entire local economy, like The Economist’s Big Mac Index. In April, Mr. Katende said, he sold 100 Rolexes each day. Now he sells only 20.

There is no doubt that this country has come a long way since the murderous days of Idi Amin, Uganda’s mercurial dictator in the 1970s. President Museveni has stamped out a rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army and opened up the country to foreign investment and development aid, becoming one of the United States’ closest allies in Africa.

Birdlike cranes lift skyscrapers into the skyline. American hip-hop stars play concerts. Regionally, the country enjoys growing influence, and has supplied thousands of peacekeepers to Somalia. On a continent where rulers are often icons of the state, Uganda’s success has propelled President Museveni into the spotlight.

“He looks around at his fellow African heads of state and sees no equals,” wrote the American deputy chief of mission to Uganda in a 2007 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. “No one of his intellect, vision, drive, and few of his longevity.”

But cracks bleed through. Corruption and waste pervade a society steeped in neglect. While the government enjoys newly acquired fighter jets and spy drones, the roads are cratered with potholes. Kampala suffers rolling blackouts, partly because the governmenthas failed to pay its fuel bills, and yet street lamps burn uselessly during the day. Trust in local leadership has sunk to such a point that an Irish immigrant was recently voted into a major city council position precisely because he was a foreigner, some voters said.

When the economic crisis hit, many critics denounced the leadership for being out of touch. The president told Ugandans there were benefits to the nation’s falling currency, pointing out that it was good for big exporters and for drawing dollar-carrying tourists. Local traders, he acknowledged to the Ugandan press, “will definitely have a hard life.” But then he proposed giving away part of one of Uganda’s most vital and iconicrainforests to a sugar company, spurring further dissent.

“People are getting very angry,” said Ronald Kebuba, 40, who drives a motorcycle taxi known as a boda-boda. “If there is any mistake, or if those politicians decide to have another strike, all these people will join.”

Mr. Kebuba knows the lay of the land. He revs his red boda-boda up and down Kampala’s sun-drenched hills, carrying passengers from all economic ranks.

President Museveni’s policies have helped Ugandans modernize, but that modernization has also unlocked Facebook and satellite television for millions of Ugandans, many of whom have been avidly following the Arab Spring as fellow Africans to the north overthrow their own leaders.

“What has happened in those areas gives us an inspiration,” said Robert Sempa, a career development consultant.

Lost in the shuffle of evening commuters, a 12-year-old street boy slings a tattered garbage bag across his shoulders as he dodges traffic. In it are his tools for life: sheaves of paper, some rocks, and a couple of stubs of charcoal for sketching, a gift he carries within him.

The boy’s name is Ishmael Waswa, and he works with four siblings, setting up their impromptu studio on Kampala’s street corners. There the Waswa children open their bags and begin to draw. President Obama, Mr. Museveni, Jesus Christ, international sports stars, even the anonymous passers-by — they draw them all. The portraits are sold for $1.

“It makes me happy,” Ishmael said. There is not enough money for school anymore, his mother said, so she encourages the children to draw and hustle.

People don’t stop for much in Kampala, but crowds ring around these artists. “They say, ‘You’re so good,’ or ‘You should be supported,’ or ‘You should be in school,’ ” Ishmael said. One European man even helped him make a sign.

But people seldom buy, especially these days. The sidewalk crowds admire the work, look into the eyes of the portraits and then move on.

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