Shop-owners in downtown Kampala on Wednesday brought business to a standstill as they protested the unregulated influx of Chinese traders, who they blame for their flagging fortunes.
According to the Ugandan traders, the Chinese have put their Ugandan counterparts at a disadvantage because they are able to import goods from their home country, using favourable credit sources, thus enabling them to sell the same items at lower prices.
There is also the longstanding question as to whether Chinese and other foreign nationals, who ordinarily come to Uganda as ‘investors’, should be engaging in small retail business.
Indeed, this is not the first time the Ugandan business community has resorted to such action to make their point, and it will most likely not be the last. The danger with the problem remaining unresolved is that it is increasingly taking on racist overtones, and that is very dangerous. The government must not wait for it to become a full-fledged xenophobic war before acting.
Images of indigenous people targeting foreigners in international media outlets are very bad for Uganda, a country that has once before expelled an entire community on account of its race. Such images do nothing to help Uganda’s quest for investors and tourists that will help create jobs and bring other economic benefits for Ugandans.
To avoid such tensions, the rules that govern investors and traders should be made clear and enforceable. It’s no secret that in many countries, a Ugandan would not be allowed to set up a retail business.
The lack of clarity regarding who an ‘investor’ is, by definition, and what he/ she can or can’t engage in has created a laissez-faire situation whereby everyone, including foreign businesspeople, do whatever they wish in the Ugandan market.
That is how Chinese businessmen have come to get involved in sand mining, of all things!
The authorities need to step in and decisively address the grievances of the Ugandan business community in relation to unfair competition and, if necessary, offer limited protection.
All responsible governments do that for their people. But as that happens, Ugandan traders must not engage in racism as that will delegitimize their cause.