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Numbers don’t lie but on vote counting, police killings, they do

Tuesday June 08 2021
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Electoral Commission officials count votes in presence of voters and candidates’ agents at Bwaise II in Kawempe South, Kampala, Uganda on January 14, 2020. PHOTO | ALEX ESAGALA | NMG

By The EastAfrican

A while back I was attending a symposium in Nairobi when a clever Kenyan economist bemoaned the state of data in East Africa. He then said “one exception is Uganda, they have quite reliable and update data on everything those Ugandans, I don’t know how they do it”. I sat up in attention.

I had myself been mystified in the past, reading through reports churned out by government agencies in Kampala. I would keep saying to myself, “surely, no one high up in government has read this report, they would massage it”. But the reports kept coming.

In Uganda, the vote counts in elections are hopeless. The government also forgets all mathematics when it has to count the number of people killed by the police and army in demonstrations.

Otherwise, there is a very agnostic tradition when it comes to the rest of the data. One of the stars of this show is the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS). It’s currently embroiled in the usual scandal over monies that might have been eaten by crooks there, but it still shows up in fine form.

It has just released the 2019/2020 National Household Survey. I first got wind of it when an official in my home district of Tororo was talking about the report’s findings on shoe ownership. Only 50 percent of our folks own proper shoes, the report said, and the rest make do with sandals, bathroom slippers, and gumboots. The gumboots, in particular, are worn even on formal public occasions.

UBOS likes to throw in a few of those quirky bits in its reports, and they sometimes give insights into society. It reports that the population that abuses alcohol is 18 percent.

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Child labour is a staggering and depressing 28 percent of the working population. The percentage of the population connected to grid electricity is a miserable 19 percent, which is down from 22 percent in 2017. However, things then get interesting, because connection to solar is 38 percent, double grid electricity’s.

Then there is another piece of data; the percentage of agricultural workers is 68 percent, which is up from 64 percent in 2017.

So, while conventional economic wisdom has it that the number of people employed in agriculture should be shrinking as they move to work in services and industries — which are actually growing — in Uganda they are diving deeper into agriculture.

It is not necessarily a step backwards. There is both a social shift and a migration of an entrepreneurial national elite back in agriculture. With the national grid still a shambles, they are part of the people driving the uptake of solar power.

And the workers in agriculture are no longer all tilling the land with hoes, and harvesting millet and maize. There is increasing production around agricultural products for the beauty industry, and things like beekeeping for honey. It an organic revolution on the land driven not by the state, but a relatively small brigade of people looking to make a fortune in a wider regional and global market.

In the next few years, when the fruits of their labour have matured, there will be sexy stories to tell about them.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]