Luzira prison and Uganda’s investment puzzle

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

Because every good thing is in Kampala, the numbers are high. The price of land for instance is unrealistically steep in Kampala.

So, Luzira Maximum Security Prison will be moving from the east of Kampala to the provinces of Kyaggwe; about 30 Kms away. That an investor intends to build a state-of-the-art hotel and modern conference facility in its place and transfer plus build a new prison at his cost.

There is something quite befuddling about Uganda’s urban infrastructural development trajectory. More often than not, there is always an investor in the mix. S(he) is often a little-known foreign entity who comes up with an idea that is too good to be ignored. It makes everyone wonder where we have been and what we the locals have been up to all this time. This is how it must have sounded on August 3, 1858. On this historic day a Briton named John Hanning Speke, being directed by Ugandans, stopped at a place on the banks of the great River Nile and discovered its source.  The locals who swam, bathed, washed, at times eased themselves, fished and drowned in the river, since the beginning of time, were clueless about its source.

So now a wise man has discovered, as claimed by a minister, that it is too risky to have a prison in ‘the centre of the city’. The geography of Kampala and Uganda changed in an instant. That is how powerful the revered investors are.

Secondly, the development usually targets easy picks which ‘have no owners’; the publicly owned assets which have been let to run down. It destroys iconic structures or property with great historic value. That is how the Uganda Television structure was razed to the ground and replaced by a gaudy kitsch passing off as a modern hotel that the gods have abandoned to struggle under the weight of debt.

The Uganda museum founded in 1908 was once scheduled for replacement with a modern shopping mall with all the works in place. So was or is the National Theatre opened on December 2, 1959.

Ironically a government entity woke up to ‘preserve our history’ when a privately owned building which housed Uganda’s first cinema; Norman Cinema, was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment into a modern facility. The stories of the ancient Mabira and Budongo forests for sugarcane growth have already been told.

The justification is that instant pecuniary value is of greater significance than the historical value. That is when the embellished arguments and jokes about the targeted entities start flowing. The jobs they will create to take the country to middle income is one of the greatest, since Uganda has great tourist potential and the numbers are going up. They vilify the target as useless all along, a den of thieves, a waste of public resources and valuable land etc. They sweeten the deal and procure the support of the masses by claiming that the savings from disposing of the asset will be saved for social services like health and education of the people. They chastise the critics and those who ask questions as obscurantist or ‘enemies of progress and development’.

Notably, the most passionate, vocal spokespersons for these projects are not the investors themselves but government officials right up to the minister. They speak for it like their lives depend on it; as if the free gift to the investor has been paid for.

The other unique aspect is that the investors love the comfort and safety of urban areas. They are averse to ground breaking in virgin lands that are in abundance. They will rarely go to rural areas unless of course there are natural resources to exploit.

That is how we have ended up with a one-city country. Almost all the economic power in Uganda is based in Kampala and Wakiso. There is rarely any effort to venture beyond the capital. The best schools, factories, hotels, hospitals, houses, shopping malls, government offices etc. are in Kampala.

Even where there is an effort to invest public money in a sector it is still on already built infrastructure in Kampala and its environs. The money spent over the years on renovating Entebbe International Airport, which the colonialists bequeathed us, is enough to build two more. Same applies to what has been spent on Mulago National Referral Hospital and, of late, Mandela National Stadium.

Someone who knows these things says, building on what already exists can be deceptive when it comes to accountability. Even a new coat of paint may be thrown into the books as an expensive massive overhaul.

The main challenge though is that we end up with a part of the country that is saturated and has over utilised resources. Because every good thing is in Kampala, the numbers are high. The price of land for instance is unrealistically steep in Kampala. So are school fees. The roads are always congested, which affects productivity. The air is of poor quality which affects the health of the people. The army of the urban poor is on the rise and so is the crime rate because we all want to have a taste of the lights of the city yet we don’t have serious investment in industrial production.

Some of the rural areas which include areas just a few kilometres out of Kampala have sleepy towns full of lethargic people even newspapers get there days later.

By keeping all the fat in Kampala we deny them forward and backward linkages which are necessary for economies to grow and thrive. Hotels in parts out of Kampala would lead to growth of other sectors in the economy like transport, healthcare, housing etc as they would have better roads, water and electricity supply which are pull factors for investment.

But that aside, especially looking at the type of investment that is coming in place of the Luzira prison, most investors are coming with safe ideas that do not greatly impact the economy. For instance, factories that require massive labour forces. We see a lot of investors opting for housing, hospitality, malls, eateries, schools etc.

In the 80s a town like Jinja was truly an industrial town with factories all over due to the proximity of electricity and other factors. School trips to Jinja industrial town were a must.

Now with manufacturing dying, most school trips are to shopping malls, the airport and outdoor entertainment spots like water parks and the zoo. That is a very serious comment on our investment trajectory.

If we go back to the issue of re-locating Luzira prison, it will be interesting to see how prisoners will be driven more than 20 kilometres away on the highly congested Jinja Road and appear in court on time and what it will do to the case backlog pandemic.

After everyone has got their due, we shall appreciate those who came up with the idea of a prison in ‘the centre of the city’ and why we still need to have it there. We shall also hope that the government will not be forced.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues

Twitter: @nsengoba