Friday February 14 2014

The shift of rural populations to urban areas is unstoppable

By Augustine Ruzindana

I live in Luzira, a suburb of Kampala where in the last few years I have noticed a conflict between Kampala city authorities and people who are earning a living through informal sector activities. It is in this suburb where some people were shot dead in the vicinity of Uganda Breweries. Frequently, KCCA authorities have been dismantling informal businesses on the main Luzira street. But recently, KCCA personnel struck with the intent and purpose of finality. They came before sunrise, demolished the structures, took away all the merchandise and covered the whole area with mounds of murram to ensure that no informal businesses can be established again.

Perhaps this is considered to be in the interest of progress and may be it is. But it is in conflict with history as the current urban-bound migration is unstoppable. When similar migrations took place in Europe, the Americas, etc., between the 18th and early 20th centuries, they were never planned for but they produced the industrial revolution and the changes which created the prevailing world social, political and economic order. The impact of urbanisation can be understood if you consider the fact that Kampala and its environs contribute more than 50 per cent of Uganda’s GDP. That is why it is attracting more people than any other urban centre.

We should learn from the history of mass movement of people to urban areas elsewhere and plan for them. Evictions of street vendors, demolition of informal structures and other repressive measures against new immigrants to urban areas are not the best remedy to these inevitable mass movements of populations. Remember that the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution and thereby the Arab Spring was the harassment, eviction and confiscation of the merchandise of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who felt so humiliated that in protest he set himself on fire on December 17, 2010.

This phenomenon of the shift of the rural populations into urban areas is not being recognised and, therefore, not addressed at all and yet it is the most significant change taking place in Uganda, Africa and the non-western world. Not so long ago, a traveller to south-western Uganda moved from Kampala to Masaka, Mbarara and Kabale without encountering any other urban areas of significance. This was the same for anyone travelling to eastern Uganda from Kampala where the next urban areas were Jinja, Tororo, Mbale and Soroti. In the north there was Gulu, Lira and Arua and in the mid-west there was Fort Portal, Hoima and Masindi.

Today’s traveller will encounter many other substantial urban areas between these colonial towns as yesteryear small trading centres have mushroomed into major towns with some fairly big populations. This movement from the rural to urban areas is worldwide so much so that in the next few decades, most people in the world will be living in urban areas in their own or in foreign countries. Lots of people are in various transitional stages unnoticed and therefore also unplanned for. In the developed countries, they are taking futile rear-guard border actions against immigration into the USA, Europe, Australia and many other places. Within Uganda, the actions being taken are various demolition and eviction exercises of businesses and residents from informal areas, such as the central business district and various suburbs such as Luzira, Kasokoso, etc.

These people arriving and settling in the urban areas must be integrated in a planned manner. Failure to pay adequate attention to them and the space they occupy in the development agenda may lead to unnecessary explosion of violence and delay the full realisation of their potential as incubators of the middle class and development.

Mr Ruzindana is a former IGG and former MP.