Family members lived in the Naguru Flats, close to the heart of Kampala City. One day they were asked to vacate because ‘development’ was coming. Their old dirty-brown concrete boxes were razed and, in exchange, they were given slips of paper promising them preferential terms on the modern houses that were to be built on the prime land. The so-called developer, as it turned out, was a briefcase company. More than a decade later, the land remains empty.
Then there was the city that was supposed to be built somewhere near the shores of Lake Nalubaale, in Rakai. There was a bit of noise, a few artistic impressions here and there, and then? Nothing. Similar examples of pie-in-the-sky projects are a dime-a-dozen.
One can, thus, be forgiven for being sceptical about the latest circus in town, this time plans by Senegalese musician, Akon, to build a super city – plans for which he appears to have been granted a square mile of land, just.like.that.
A charitable way to look at it is to see it merely as well-intentioned, and perhaps sheer gullibility. Since attending that Akef Egyptian circus in 1991 the head of state has been trotted out to meet all manner of carpetbaggers, snake-oil salesmen and charlatans. We thought we had seen the height of it last year with a moustachioed fella in a panama hat who brought detergent to a pandemic by promising a wonderful anti-bacterial concoction to fight the coronavirus. The difference between bacteria and viruses is taught in grade school.
The problem is that this gullibility leaks into policy- and decision-making. This isn’t a recent problem. Younger readers might not remember but there was a time, in the 1980s, when barter trade was a central pillar of our economic strategy. Thus our diplomats abroad were constantly on the lookout for countries that needed coffee, beans or any of our exports and that also happened, at that very moment, to have the manufactured wares that we needed. Of course not everyone who had transformers needed soya beans. And not everyone who needed soya beans had transformers.
That policy was short-lived, but key lessons went unlearned. This was evidenced in the botched privatisation processes of the nineties, the compensation scandals of the noughties, and the present-day land and minerals grabs. It also explains why, instead of investing in the search for a vaccine, a country might spend two million dollars on herbal remedies which can be made at home.
The underlying problem, then and now, is the over-centralisation of decision-making. One might be competent at military strategy, another at digital currencies, another on the feasibility of hydropower dams, but it is hard to be good at all.
Turning State House into the clearing house for tenders, land leases, traffic offences and even family disputes has two obvious outcomes, both negative. The first is that it creates a gatekeeping problem, which some people in the employ of the President have used to enrich themselves. Apart from the obvious security challenges this poses, it also means that anyone who stumps up the entry fee cannot be turned away, whatever magic potion they claim to be peddling.
The second problem is that as the number of decisions that need to be made by the principal increases, the quality of those decisions reduces. This is a problem that chief executive officers of large firms learn early on; you cannot pursue strategic mergers and acquisitions while also buying the office staples and reams of paper.
We cannot expect the head of state to quickly navigate intricacies of oil and gas deals with large multinationals and do so effectively while also deciding who gets a market stall here, a pick-up there and so on.
As a result, chances and opportunities are allocated in a lottery of access. It isn’t that Mr Aliaune Damala Badara Akon Thiam cannot build a super city somewhere in Uganda, never mind that the one he first set up to build in his own Senegal is still a goat grazing ground. It is that such a city, if necessary, has better chances of actually being built if there is an open process to clarify thinking and financing.
Of course the head of state is a man of the people and should be free to meet anyone he wants. But he shouldn’t hand out public property to every con or artiste who happens to pass through State House Mall.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.