One of our high school teachers had a scar on his face that he sustained in a beer battle on his graduation day. During Uganda’s ‘bad old days’ of the late 1970s, the government managed to provide one beer per graduate to the country’s only university at the time, and thirsty scholars fought for the free drink.
But our man’s father was the manager of the country’s brewery, so his mother begged him, reminding him that a truckload of beer had been delivered to their home for his party. The bloodied young man fought to claim that the free bottle in college was his right.
Her story seemed strange at the time, but two decades later we were to see mothers of our generation facing the same dilemma of needlessly greedy boys. Dropping off and picking up children in elementary schools, it was “normal” to see a distressed mother listening to a teacher recount her son’s misconduct, fighting over a pancake. Puzzled mothers tried to explain the abundance of “grub” at home, wondering why their boy would fight over a pancake.
Last week I watched another East African mother remind the “boys” of the abundance she has in her home. Her Excellency Samia Suluhu pointed out Tanzania’s immense land and natural resources and opened her heart to invite the business community in neighboring Kenya to take advantage. Now when you see the wealth of this region of East Africa of ours, it is simply inexplicable why we cannot think of another development finance model and stop fighting for the risky debts of ‘Europe, Asia and America simply because they are available. Have you heard Bob Marley plead in his song of redemption: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; we are the only ones who can free our minds. “
It seems that the business intelligence units of African governments are not building analytical scenarios and for example what would happen if today’s lenders, for one reason or another, stop lending. Would they give in to recolonization? Why do governments knowingly seek unsustainable loans without researching financing options?
The word “knowingly” is used wisely, because for example in the case of Uganda, it is now official that the debt exceeds 50% of the gross domestic product, in fact at the close of the next accounting period it should be 51.8%. . You can only redefine GDP up to a limit to make the debt ratio seem risk-free to be low, beyond which the stagnant / declining revenue-to-GDP ratio will become inexplicable.
It is a sad situation that afflicts all the partners of the EAC. The lenders themselves, especially the IMF, have warned that the debt is getting out of hand, but it’s like we don’t have ears or the capacity to think about financing options.
Where Africans go to borrow, money is not just printed. It is money earned through economic activity – by selling the goods and services that they lend to us. But Africa also has goods to sell, even services like tourism. Africa has natural resources which, when sold, bring in money. This is money that should be spent on financing infrastructure, instead of lazily accumulating debt without knowing how it will be repaid. If we knew how the loans would be repaid, we would not be heading for a debt crisis.
But identifying Africa’s resources and using them for development finance is part of the story. We need to watch spending and stop the hard currency bleeding.
A small country like Uganda, which can comfortably feed its people, imports so many things that are not essential to its survival. The bill for oil and vintage cars is $ 2 billion a year, but we’ve also borrowed $ 2 billion to generate electricity, of which we don’t use half. Yet the electricity we are paying debts for could be used to power our transportation so we don’t have to import all that fuel. It’s like having an obligation to buy gasoline from gasoline dealers without using our electricity – our driving is just plain confusing.
Is there an agency looking at combined resources in the East African Community? Does the EAC Secretariat in Arusha do this? If so, what is the information used for? Can East African leaders rally around Samia, the one with the biggest pot of natural wealth, and see how they can coordinate their activities and stop behaving like immature boys fighting over a pancake, then that mom’s refrigerator is full of food?
Joachim Buwembo is a journalist based in Kampala. E-mail:[email protected]