Cities in name only, but that can change quickly

Sunday July 19 2020

Bernard Tabaire

Bernard Tabaire  

By Bernard Tabaire

Uganda has several new cities. They are cities because the central government woke up and declared them so. They are cities because the local elite loved to have them.

For President Museveni the new cities mean more political jobs through the automatic emergence of new constituencies. It also means more administrative jobs to run the nuts and bolts of the new creatures.

So, the local elite get jobs, the President gets the popularity and votes because he enabled those jobs. Notice that the initial seven new cities took off seven months to the general elections. Sometimes there is order to the opportunistic madness.

If Mr Museveni cannot create any more districts or simply declare some places constituencies to buy off the local elite, he will declare backwater urban centres as cities. It works for everyone just fine.

Will the cities provide improved services just because they are cities? Look, none of them can even do the most basic of things like consistently pick up rubbish off its rutted streets. Even Kampala is mighty struggling. It can’t fill its potholes or keep the lights on.

I think that when someone saw that the World Bank had fixed a few roads in these towns, that qualified them becoming cities.


But let’s look to the positive side. The elite taking over will quickly learn that they need money to even maintain the World Bank roads. Where will it come from? There will never be enough money from the central government to go down to them. So, they cities have to be creative and active.

Each city needs to figure how to distinguish itself from the others — in co-operation or competition — and attract the right investments then demand a good portion of the tax cash. More important, the investments will create jobs locally and spur the area economy.

Each city could start with the obvious advantage it has given its location. Arua (other than cross border trade, it should build hospitals and schools and related services to attract people from the woefully underserved border areas of DR Congo and South Sudan).
Gulu (the logistics hub is already coming up and it should milk it, while ensuring its budding university blossoms). Jinja and Fort Portal can fight it out over the large tourism pie, but with Jinja having the edge because of the adventure element — the adventure capital of East Africa — plus some manufacturing.

Mbarara (meat, milk and related dairy products). Masaka and Mbale (coffee and coffee-related products. Matooke too). They can add all manner of sweeteners to complement or add value to these basic advantages.

For the city, especially those in the pipeline, without any natural advantage, how about making play for tech? Aspire to be the tech hub of Uganda. Or the general research hub.
City or not, I have always wished for Entebbe (effectively part of the old city of Kampala) with its serene location to position itself as the tech peninsular. It could even compete with Jinja, if Jinja has the appetite.

The leaders will have to lobby hard to improve the city economies just like they lobbied to have the cities in the first place.

Now is the era of industrial and business parks. Make a case to have one. Make the land available quickly. Will some things need a change in the law or even the Constitution to be realised? How does a new city attract factories, new housing, expand water and electricity availability, ensure faster and cheaper internet connectivity?

Lobby Parliament, the President, the parastatals, the private sector, friendly foreign cities, and whoever else.

Otherwise, 50 years from now we will still have backwater urban centres for cities with clueless local leaders in charge.

Mr Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.