In the seven years the Kampala Capital City Authority has been in existence, the city has seen some remarkable improvements. Many roads have been rebuilt or widened. Streetlights have been installed, stolen, then replaced. The garbage, at least in many upmarket places, is collected on time.
There are more traffic lights on the 2.5-kilometre Lugogo By-pass or Rotary Avenue today than in the entire city in 1998.
Some habits die hard – city law enforcement officials prowl downtown looking for itinerant traders to separate from their wares – but they are less likely to arrest a sitting judge (literary and metaphorically) for being idle and disorderly as they did many years ago.
There was a time when one only ran into city employees in restaurants when they were on a shakedown health and sanitation inspection visit. Now, well-paid and chubby-cheeked, they can be found doing lunches, brunches, and sipping champagne when they are thirsty.
So why has Jennifer Musisi, the KCCA executive director, handed back the keys to the city? Her 21-page resignation letter was long on achievements and short on the frustrations.
True to the author’s form, it had none of the stuff that makes such resignations interesting: Chronicles of long-standing grievances peppered with colourful descriptions of the appointing authority and their family members, and often signed off with specific recommendations to shove the just-departed job in areas that receive no sunshine.
We can read at least two things from the letter. First, by not acknowledging the Lord Mayor anywhere in the letter, not even in copy, we glean that the turf wars at City Hall have not abated and that time has not brought about acceptability, if not mutual respect. Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, also true to form, was quick to match the petty, breaking out in dance and song at a hastily-called press conference. Adults to the left.
Most revealing from the letter, however, is the admission of the challenge of reconciling “the competing interests between political perspectives” about how to run the city – and the fact that the author presents this with a tinge of surprise when it was the reality all along.
The reforms behind the creation of KCCA, the overnight increase in its budget and the approvals for large infrastructure loans from the World Bank and the African Development Bank for many of the new furniture around the city were not acts of altruism. Yes, there was a developmental need to have a cleaner and more efficient city, but only as a means to an end; the real dividend was political, in the one place the NRM has never won.
The problem is that weaponising development works better in rural, not urban areas. It is easy to give regime supporters cows in Kibaale or coffee seedlings in Mubende while skipping known Opposition supporters, but you cannot collect garbage from only those shops with portraits of the President, or only allow NRM vendors on the streets.
A smarter way of pulling the city from underneath the Lord Mayor’s feet would have been to keep him busy globe-trotting, being measured out for fitting suits, presiding over tree-planting projects, blood-giving and mass immunisation campaigns, or handing over bulls at football cup finals while the technocrats did the heavy lifting of improving the city. After a few months of being weighed down by medallions in the baking sun, the Lord Mayor might have willingly handed over the keys to the city and retreated to his law offices.
Instead, he was pushed into the embrace of the downtrodden and rallied them against the inevitable sacrifices necessary for the gentrification of the city. This allowed Mr Lukwago to take the credit for all the omelettes without any of the responsibility for breaking the eggs.
KCCA under Ms Musisi has made a lot of progress, even adjusting for their bigger budgets, bigger loans and bigger salaries, but she did not have to be NRM to be good or bad. How much more could she and her team have achieved if they had been allowed to get on with the boring, but important technocratic work instead of dragging them into an unending attempt to usurp the place of elected political leaders?
Panicked by the rise of the urban NINJAs with no income, no jobs and no assets, we are likely to see the appetite for reform dwindle and a return to populist policies on vendors, land grabbers, wetland encroachers and general urban planning in the city.
Ms Musisi and her technocrats were asked to prepare for a history paper, but presented with a physics exam. It is not their fault that they brought technocratic weapons to a political fight.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. [email protected]