I must start this with a caveat: I was the Chairman of Uganda Development Bank Limited from 2012 to 2018. My views may therefore be biased but then again who is not biased in one way or another? Last week Uganda Development Bank was back in the news. News here means that a man had bitten a dog, not that UDB has not been in the news for better things.
This time round the Bank was accused of lending money to a businessman to construct a mall. That would not have been a problem except that this was supposed to be ‘Covid-19” relief financing. Secondly and perhaps more profoundly in my assessment, the businessman in question was a Ugandan. The accuser and court: Members of Parliament. How could a development bank have lent money meant for Covid-19 relief to a businessman? There had to be some connivance going on. The Bank management was incompetent, and so on ad infinitum.
The problem with running public institutions like UDB is that you are damned if you do something, and damned if you don’t do something. Every bricklayer is an expert on matters of finance, and are ready to dispense all sorts of advice and directives if they happen to be in any of the arms of government. While there are pressures to lend to every person, on account of them being ‘connected’, there is a dire shortage of bankabale projects that also meet the socio-economic objectives of development banking.
Thus the Bank sits with these very limited resources but is constrained in undertaking its mandate because of conflicting stakeholder views. You cannot lend money to so and so because they are in such and such a position. You must balance your portfolio regionally. The list of constraints is endless. Navigating around these elephants in the room takes time and creates unnecessary due diligence processes that only serve to increase the cost of borrowing.
Enter businessman Fred Kamunyu (aka Akamwesi) with his loan application. The fellow has some prime land. He has started building a business complex. He needs patient financing from this specific Bank. The Bank gives the money and the borrower uses it for the purpose for which it was lent. The mall happens to look so big and so nice. How could the mall have been built so fast in these pandemic times? The Bank must have used Covid-19 relief funds to support the businessman.
What really is at play here is what I want to call our ‘Akamwesi syndrome’. Regardless of the source of funds, the main cause of angst is nothing other than negative envy that one of our own has achieved this level of success. A type of self-hate expressed in terms of not wanting our own to succeed. We are happy to see a foreigner build a mall using our own resources but not our own. It is ‘our’ money and none of us is entitled to use it properly and build a nice-looking mall! An Indian friend told me that it is called ‘nazar lagna’. Nazar Lagna means that when you do well and are in a position of riches, power, position or beauty, people often are jealous of the same. It is this collective negative energy that affects the aura of the man /woman who is in a position of power, wealth, or beauty. So you can achieve all these things but you must stay under the radar and do not flaunt your wealth, position or beauty. In Indian households your mother or grandmother will put a ‘kaala teeka’ on your forehead or behind the ears before you step out of the house. You are also enjoined not to tell certain people about the good things happening in your life because their envy may hamper your growth. And thus we have cast the ‘evil eye’ on Akamwesi for successfully ‘flaunting’ his success by the roadside. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That is the nature of things.
Samuel Sejjaaka is Team Leader at Mat Abacus Business School. Twitter @samuelsejjaaka