Wednesday May 21 2014

Why the hills are both friend and enemy to Kampala, and Uganda’s politics

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

A few days ago, the African Development Bank (AfDB) released an interesting report titled “Tracking Africa’s Progress”.

Among the things in the report, is a section on Africa’s fastest growing cities (not largest, that is a different story) between 2010 to 2025. The report notes that Africa has 52 cities with populations of 1m or higher – the same number as Europe.

Now among the top 20 fastest-growing cities in Africa, the leading two are East African – the commercial capital of Tanzania Dar es Salaam, being number one, projected to grow by 85.2 per cent. By 2025, it could have 6,202,000 people.

Second, is the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which is growing at 77.3 per cent, and by 2025 could have slightly more people than Dar es Salaam – 6,246,000.

I am struck by who is missing from the top 20, particularly Kampala and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa—especially given they will have undergone dramatic population growth overall.

Put crudely, the rate at which people are moving from the village to Kampala is quite slow compared to what is happening in Dar or Nairobi.

You are one of those who believe that folks should stay in the countryside and till the land, that is a good thing. There are those who think it is progress when people leave the land, and come to hustle in the modern economy in the city. I belong to the latter group.

First though, why aren’t Ugandans moving to Kampala fast enough? At fast I thought it is because, at least according to the popular view, our land is fertile. It is easy to grow stuff, and at low cost, so life is less expensive in the villages, and you can be better fed there.

But Tanzania has now got lots more fertile land than Uganda, yet Dar es Salaam is Africa’s fastest-growing city. Perhaps a country’s size has to do with it. A drive from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza is more than 1,000kms.

You cannot go to Mwanza to look at your cows in the morning, and return to Dar es Salaam the same day. On the other hand, you can leave from Kampala and go to any other town and, if the roads are good, return to the city in time to watch the evening news.
Why would distances matter? Well, because you can do your business in Soroti comfortably, and drop in on Kampala and go back within the day, so there is no need to move to Kampala.

You can’t do that between Mwanza and Dar es Salaam, which is one reason why Tanzanians from upcountry bury more of their dead in the city, than probably any other city in the region. Taking the remains of a dear one to one end of the country, can easily impoverish you in transport costs, so the sensible thing is to lay him or her to rest in Dar, if they pass on while working there.

But then, again, Ethiopia too is big so why isn’t Addis Ababa urbanising fast? One reason could be of the highly regionalised structure, where people seek to make a living in the state capital, other than the national capital. And that might also explain why, though Lagos is huge, its growth rate is comparatively low—it’s because of the federal structure there.

I have a is the hills in Kampala. Kampala was not too long the city on seven hills. Now it is a city on 25 or so hills.
There is something about African cities that are built on hills. They don’t breathe freely, and you can’t have a nice 5km stretch of street that creates a special type of dynamism.

I have also always suspected that a hilly city somehow undermines the free flow of ideas, or it might up for it by the emergence of sub-cultures on each hill, that create greater acceptance of diversity (one of Kampala’s strongest fortes). That said, Kampala’s potential, will always be stunted compared to Dar or Nairobi, for example, by its hills.

Looking ahead, I think these figures have implications for democracy. Our politics is likely to be more backward, than those in countries in the region that are urbanising fast.

City voters tend to be smarter and more cynical, while the rural ones tend to be conservative. Perhaps it is not surprising, given this, that 54 per cent of Ugandans think President Yoweri Museveni should have another bite at the presidential apple in 2016 as Daily Monitor reported.

May be the city growth rates tell us why presidential terms limits have taken root in Tanzania and Kenya, but Uganda continues its romance with a presidency for life. Perhaps if Kampala sat on the shores of Lake Victoria, it would have been a more freedom-minded city.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa: Twitter:cobbo3