In a long-raging battle that has been going on for years, Ugandan traders yet again displayed their displeasure over Chinese traders who appear to be beating them in their own local business backyard, writes ALI TWAHA.
By the close of business yesterday, large parts of the busy trading area in Nakasero at the heart of the capital Kampala presented a posture of a ghost town.
For the second day running, traders under their umbrella group, Nakesero Traders Association, refused to open their shops for business as a protest against what some described as government's laxity in cracking down on the overflow of 'Chinese and Indians' in petty trade, which has crowded out many poor Ugandans from making a buck.
The complaints against presumed Chinese and Indian traders engaged in petty trade are not new. But the turn of events of the last two days, where attempts were made to attack some Asians, hit a new low, in what could potentially spark off a diplomatic row between Uganda and its chief paymaster, China.
Caught up in this wreckage could be sensitive sectors such as tourism, where any negative publicity - the story has already made it to the Associated Press where it was picked up by the United Kingdom's Daily Mail - is bound to scare away potential tourists.
On April 20, the traders carried placards around the market demanding that Chinese and Indian nationals leave the market for ordinary Ugandans.
"It doesn't make sense for us to buy from them [Chinese and Indians] in the same market and resell to the same customers. This competition is unfair," Rashid Jamada, a dealer in hardware items at Hardware City House, told The Observer.
"Because they import goods in bulk, they enjoy certain incentives as investors and sell their products at relatively lower prices than us. We decided to protest because that's the language government understands."
In November last year, the traders say, they engaged the ministry of trade to look into the issue and find a solution to their plight. Those pleas, they say, fell on deaf ears.
"The Chinese are partly to blame for the increase in rent fees by our landlords. They pay several months at once in dollars. So, some landlords will always give shops to them and chase us away," Harriet Namaganda, another hardware dealer, fumed.
Uganda has attempted to deal with the Chinese influx. In November 2013, the minister of trade, Amelia Kyambadde, issued a directive that required non-Ugandans to seek a certificate of approval from the Uganda Investment Authority to conduct business.
A couple of months ago, the police, acting on a directive of the ministry of Internal Affairs, rounded up a number of Chinese nationals involved in petty trade in Kikuubo and Arirang restaurant in Nakasero. They were found without working permits and thus deported.
Yesterday, the situation around Nakasero market remained tense with police deployed to avoid any destruction of property by the frustrated traders. The traders announced on Wednesday that the strike would last for at least three days if their grievances were not addressed.
Attempts to speak to Chinese traders to share their experience proved futile yesterday as many declined to speak to the press. The Chinese outlets, many of which occupy an entire floor in some of the arcades, deal in hardware products such as tiles, pipes and nails, among others.
Buyers of hardware products who discover the Chinese locations often do not go back to buy from the locals, the traders say. As such, the traders propose that Chinese and Indian traders be restricted to factories or industrial parks, where business is conducted on a large scale.
Youth minister Nakiwala Kiyingi, while assessing the situation at Nakasero, requested the traders to call off their strike as they try to sort out their issues, but the traders declined.
However, Khadija Nakakande, the public relations officer in the ministry of trade, said there will be a meeting with the traders over the matter.
"The minister plans a meeting with them but it will be restricted from the press," she said.
Muhammad Nsereko, the Kampala Central MP, joined the traders to demonstrate with them. He said: "We have started a campaign to find out how some of these Chinese came here."
Other MPs accused the directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control for selling to the Chinese work permits and blamed the Uganda Investment Authority for granting the traders licenses without undertaking proper due diligence.
"Parliament did not allow me to push for a bill that seeks to regulate these investors. I explained that we have to develop a law that makes certain jobs illegal for foreign investors," Patrick Nsamba, the MP Kassanda North, said on a local TV programme.
WHO IS AN INVESTOR
Information from the Uganda Investment Authority indicates that for one to be considered a foreign investor, he or she requires a minimum investment of $100,000 (nearly Shs 360m). There has been rising concern from experts that the sum set by government is low and that it has partly contributed to the influx of fake investors in the country.
In a recent interview, the new executive director at UIA, Jolly Kaguhangire, said there is need to make a total policy review to streamline the country's investment climate.
"The review that we are doing is looking at almost everything... I want to know who our investors are at the moment. And how many do we have?" Kaguhangire said.