Working world

When qualifications don’t decide your career

In Uganda, as in many other parts of the world, a person’s identity and social relationships are influenced by ethnicity, faith and language. These factors can also have a significant impact on career prospects.
In Uganda, it’s not just the CV that counts: workers at a hydropower plant in Kiryandongo. picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency/Hajarah Nalwadda In Uganda, it’s not just the CV that counts: workers at a hydropower plant in Kiryandongo.

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world with an average age of about 16 years. This also means that many people are looking for employment. Since there are fewer jobs than people willing to work, getting a job, let alone progressing in it or keeping it, depends on several factors – and not all of them have to do with skills.

Uganda is ethnically diverse. There are 56 indigenous communities, which are officially recognised in the national constitution. Many Ugandans are strongly connected to their ethnic groups. Even after many years of colonialism and the establishment of the Ugandan nation state, ethnic ties have not been broken.

Ethnic groups in Uganda often have strong social networks that can be helpful in career development. Members of the same community support each other in finding job opportunities, accessing resources and through mentoring. Uganda furthermore still has traditional and powerful kingdoms such as Buganda, Busoga and Tooro within its territory. These kingdoms often influence the appointment of key positions in political and public offices.

Moreover, certain occupations are attributed to specific ethnic groups. Groups from the central part of Uganda have always been associated with farming, while groups from the western and northern parts have traditionally practised pastoralism or animal husbandry. These perceptions still influence the choice of occupation.

The obvious downside of ethnicity as a career factor is stereotyping. There are various prejudices against certain groups of people that can have a negative impact on their chances of being hired or staying in a job. People are discriminated against or restricted in their opportunities because of their ethnic background. For example, some groups are considered to be “lazy” while others are seen as “hardworking”. Perceptions about physique also play a role: northern Ugandans often qualify for jobs in the security sector because they are tall, physically fit and considered very “tough” people.

Language matters

As there are several ethnic groups in Uganda, several different languages are spoken. English is the country’s official language, but only those who have had the opportunity of formal education normally speak it. As English is widely used in business and education, they have an advantage in certain professional fields.

In the informal sector, however, local languages are often more influential. The ability to speak Luganda, which is considered a commercial language and spoken in the capital and a large part of central Uganda, determines success in business.

Faith and religion

The predominant religion in Uganda is Christianity, followed by Islam. Both can be traced back to colonialism. Just like ethnicity, religious affiliations are strong in the country and can act as networks that influence career prospects.

Religious communities often provide a strong support system that offers networking opportunities, career mentorship and even financial support for education or entrepreneurship. The Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) and the Inter-­Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) are examples of such religious organisations.

Corruption and nepotism

While faith and language play a role, ethnicity undoubtedly influences appointments and promotions in the Ugandan public sector. When an institution or office is occupied by a person from a particular ethnic community, it is not unusual that many positions are soon filled by people from that community.

There are many complaints about corruption and nepotism in Uganda. They are fuelled even by the highest offices. President Yoweri Museveni’s wife is also the Minister of Education and Sports, while his son was appointed commander of the armed forces. Rumours that Museveni is preparing his son to succeed him as president are widespread too.

In the private sector, achievements and qualifications often carry more weight. Nevertheless, even here, networks and connections formed through ethnicity can be of great importance for securing jobs and career advancement.

While efforts have been made to promote performance-based systems, the influence of these factors is still very strong in determining career prospects. Diversity, inclusion and proficiency orientation need to be promoted to create a more equitable professional landscape in the country.

Ronald Ssegujja Ssekandi is a Ugandan author and edits D+C/E+Z’s Nowadays column. 
sekandiron@gmail.com

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