By Alan Tacca
Last Sunday, in this space, I reminded any reader who needs reminding, that bribes and political ‘contributions’ paid by investors translate into higher prices for whatever they produce, or whatever service they provide (assuming specific profit targets), or lead to their downfall; or both. I also proclaimed that no ruler can change that law.
Well, I hope the reader paused a little and wondered whether there were no exceptions; since in fact it is sometimes possible to offset the expenditure on bribes through a range of interventions, the negative effects of those interventions notwithstanding.
You have heard of this lady who owns Wonder Boutique in Heavenly Plaza. She sells a couple of dresses and three or four pairs of shoes every week. How does she break even, let alone make a profit?
Oh, her husband is a top dog in government. He sometimes pays the one-million-shilling monthly rent. He gives her telephone airtime; he buys her lunch and fuels her car to work. Also, when her stock is seriously depleted, he often chips in with some additional ‘capital’.
Sitting at home is ‘boring’. Her shop is her ‘address’ during working hours; a retail-cum-hobby outfit that matches or defines her ‘style’.
She has two shop assistants. Each earns Shs150,000 per month. Both have accumulated some arrears, but they are frequently reminded – and indeed they can see – that the sales are not good. How do these two girls make ends meet?
To ‘survive’, they have to cheat small-small whenever ‘Auntie’ is not in the shop, which usually means before 11am, the time Auntie reports for work. A dress sold for Shs180,000 can be registered as a Shs160,000 sale, and the two share the difference.
In Uganda, there are a number of big companies that are beginning to look like Mrs Top Dog’s boutique.
Pampered by the State, they sometimes acquire free or very cheap land; they access cheap State-backed credit; they get tax holidays; they sometimes even unabashedly get their taxes actually paid by other taxpayers… and so on.
If all the other things are equal (a corrupt government bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, demoralised workers, high-priced utilities), the State-patronised investors may enjoy comfortable profit margins where their competitors, the majority, are struggling or collapsing.
But these others; that majority of strugglers playing on uphill ground; how do they stay in business, prosper and even sometimes expand their operations?
They pay their taxes and any bribes as required. They buy water and electricity on the national grid; they fuel their trucks and small vehicles at filling stations in the general market; they feed their workers on beans and maize flour at the going prices; they buy telephone services from the big corporations; and with all these items every unit or measure is overpriced because of the effects of pervasive corruption and inefficiency.
Against those realities they have very little control or negotiating power. However, there is a soft feature in Uganda’s socio-economic fabric that the corporate strategist can exploit to offset some of the damage inflicted on him by those disadvantages. That soft feature is the worker, especially if that worker is unskilled or semi-skilled.
The ill-governed country has created unprecedented levels of unemployment. Whenever the (NRM) rulers talk about the urgency of creating jobs, they are reminding employers that there are millions of jobless Ugandans who are so desperate they would work for just a few pennies above the lunch-time meal cooked at the factory.
The official titles of those who get any work are of no consequence. You can give them polite designations. But they are slaves.
Entrepreneurs from as far as China cross the seas to come here in search of wealth, and they know, or they soon discover, that almost the only factor that would make their enterprises profitable is the abundant supply of slaves.
A ruling elite can be examined both on the motives behind its policies and on the outcomes of its actions. Did the NRM by its greed, impunity and incompetence unwittingly end up with these slaves? Or did our rulers for some dark ideological reason deliberately create the right conditions for slavery?
Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator.