I have a lifelong bond with Kampala, the city of my youth that was once very beautiful, orderly, well-planned and functionally efficient.
My Kampala, of course, died long ago, replaced by an ugliness that borders on the criminal. It is as though the city planners were sent on forced leave, their jobs taken over by drunken artists with no sense of order and beauty. Every green space has been or is about to be filled with concrete commercial boxes with glass exteriors or congested residential neighbourhoods. This is celebrated as sign of progress. It is not.
Even once pleasant residential neighbourhoods like Nakasero and Kololo are now home to noisy addresses of tall office buildings, hotels and restaurants. City sidewalks and formerly open spaces are mini-slums.
The area between Mulago Hospital and Makerere University takes the trophy for ugliness, filth and chaos. The Ministry of Health Headquarters is just across the street from the filth.
The health and safety implications of the mess that Kampala has become in the last 25 years are more serious than the city’s ugliness. One can hardly find fire hydrants and public toilets as one strolls along city streets. What one finds are signs that read: “No urinating here.” That people have to be told not to pee against a roadside tree is bad enough.
However, to implore them thus without offering them accessible toilets suggests a failure of leadership.
The situation is particularly desperate in the neighbourhoods that have mushroomed all over the city without well-planned and installed essential infrastructure, especially roads, water, electricity, sewage systems, good local public schools, public health facilities, public parks and recreational facilities.
The good news is that Kampala Capital City Authority, under the leadership of Jennifer Musisi, its Executive Director, is doing a good job of trying to repair the damage that has been done over many years. Roads are being paved. Street and traffic lights are being installed. Some of the ugliest roadside slums, such as the one that had ruined the Bukoto Flats area, have been removed.
A lot more work needs to be done. The process of pulling down all illegal structures should be accelerated. No compensation should be paid to those who erected or offered services in those places. Garbage disposal units should be placed all over the city. Hefty fines for polluting should be imposed and enforced.
Further growth should be meticulously planned, with zoning that is strictly enforced. Residents should always have a say in the installation of any new structure, service or alteration of an existing facility.
The city’s laws and bylaws should be applied equally, with no discrimination. Wealthy politicians or army officers, including relatives and cronies of the President, who put up illegal structures should be dealt with the same way as urban peasants who place kiosks on a street in Kololo.
Boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) should be restricted to specific areas and lanes, their riders required to undergo rigorous driving lessons and examination before licensure. They should be subjected to all the traffic rules that apply to other motorists.
Of course, this can only work if KCCA has the full and resolute backing of the central government, with a president who will not play politics by contradicting the legal decisions of the city’s leaders.
One of the problems of Kampala is that it is Ms Musisi who is managing the rehabilitation effort. The lady is driven, focused and, so far, achieving good results in spite of the many challenges. As a result, everybody is looking up to her to save Kampala. This is a mistake.
The rehabilitation and maintenance of Kampala must not be a one-person act by Ms Musisi. It must be a collective effort by all the residents of Kampala.
Citizens of Kampala should be empowered through civic education to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Through residents’ associations, people in each defined neighbourhood should engage in joint efforts to ensure prevention of pollution, installation and maintenance of essential services, and non-partisan advocacy for the common good.
When all is said and done, Kampala’s problem and solution is a political one. For example, boda boda operators are among the most serious threats to the safety of road users. They do not follow even the most basic traffic rules. Yet they enjoy immunity from normal traffic laws because they are political tools for the President, serving his short-term needs at the expense of citizens’ interests. They are particularly useful to the President during political campaigns and are said to provide the rulers with intelligence services.
Beyond these and other cosmetic approaches to rehabilitating Kampala, the long-term solution will be to decongest Kampala. Though geographically small, Kampala is overpopulated. It cannot accommodate the hundreds of thousands that will continue to flock in over the next few years in search of jobs.
The central government should enact aggressive policies and programmes designed to reduce the need for the influx and to encourage outward migration from Kampala to the towns and rural areas all over Uganda.
Ms Musisi has received well-deserved praise for her efforts to rehabilitate Kampala. However, in the end the fate of Kampala will not be in her hands. It will be in President Museveni’s hands and in the hands of the citizens.