Things changed for the poorest in Apac district when, hundreds of kilometres away, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki declared himself winner of the presidential elections. Who would have thought that the price of essential commodities and transport here would double or more when many Kenyans rejected the election results?
Apac residents are lamenting the price hikes, like other Ugandans are. People here are mainly subsistence farmers and therefore do not often get their hands on a lot of money; at the same time they rarely go hungry (although many are mal-nourished).
Soap for washing clothes used to cost Shs 800 Shillings; since 27 December the price has risen to 1,200. Salt cost Shs 200 three weeks ago and now sells for 500. Matches used to be Shs 50 for a box, they are currently 100. There is no paraffin at the local gas station, so the price of candles has also shot up. Susan Apio has switched to cooking dinner early, in the twilight while she can still see. She and her family then eat either in darkness or by the light of a candle. At 2-3 degrees north of the Equator, the sun sets at 7.15pm.
Uganda is a landlocked country and rather dependent on imports from neighbouring Kenya; many goods come from the Indian Ocean port in Mombasa. Fuel is one area where Ugandans are experiencing shortages, and the black market flourishing. Price hikes have been curbed a little by a presidential warning that the police will arrest and charge those who dramatically increase the fuel prices. In Apac the scenario was as follows.
On the morning of 2 January, a litre of petrol, normally priced at Shs 2,000, cost 6,000. By 4pm a litre went at Shs 9,000. And the following day, a litre of petrol cost 12,000. As such, the price of fuel had increased by 600 per cent in a week! For the many without a car or a motorbike, the price of a ticket to go to Lira and Kampala by public means doubled and is kept at its peak; relatives from Lira or Kampala who visited people over Christmas were stranded in Apac or the other way around. Interestingly, the gas station is rationing the petrol sale: there are limits to how many litres one is allowed to buy, and a police officer is overseeing the transactions.
As the local radio station, Radio Apac FM, is powered by a generator most of the time, the broadcasting was limited to certain hours each day.
All these observations are interesting in the light of economic orthodoxies: the ‘invisible hand’ of the market has been allowed to regulate the price of essentials such as soap, salt, paraffin, candles and matches, with the – obvious – consequence that the poorest are hardest hit. On the other hand, in the petroleum sector, the market became less free as the government prohibited price hikes and directed law enforcers to monitor the sale of fuel. In a place like Apac, where economic life resembles that of an island in spite of its geographical position in the middle of the country, and where one gas station holds the monopoly on fuel, the prices of petrol, diesel and paraffin would probably have skyrocketed, if left unregulated. So the capping of fuel seems wise and should probably be applied to other essential goods also.