New cities: How MPs placed the cart before the horse

On April 28, Parliament approved the creation of 15 new cities. Seven of these in theory are to become operational on July 1, the start of the new financial year.

I use the phrase ‘in theory’ advisedly because in reality the next one year will be for preparations to transition the upgraded municipalities to effective cities. How is this so?

First, Members of Parliament voted on the motion for creation of the new cities four days after they passed the 2020/21 financial year budget. For unexplained reason, the lawmakers never appropriated resources to operationalise Arua, Gulu, Jinja, Mbale, Masaka, Fort Portal and Mbarara as new cities effective this week.

This suggests that the dwellers and prospective investors in these urban areas should tamp down their euphoria and expectation to reality.

The failure to provide money in the National Budget means the cities cannot be fully activated. A possible relief would be a supplementary budget. However, the Covid-19 crisis combined with the upcoming elections are likely to backburner emergency funding request and approval to operationalise the new cities.

Second, Parliament did not enact a legislation to guide how the envisaged cities would be structured, organised and function. Issues of the political architecture and the technical organogram as well as power relations between the two remain unresolved.

Such a specific law would set out the legal framework for the establishment of the city, manner and level of funding, powers and functions of the cities, the leadership and extent/limitations on exercise of authority and illuminate responsibilities of office bearers to make them accountable.

Left unclarified, as Parliament has done, confusion over these kinds of mandates, institutional jurisdictions and reporting lines/supervision have the potential to birth untamed rivalry as self-interested parties scurry for dominance.

Legislators in the 8th Parliament enacted the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Act, 2010, and provided, among others, for its “establishment…administration…boundary…development…” of KCCA in order to dress the entity in a pristine garb as it emerged from a perfidious Kampala City Council.

Still, the power contest between an elected Lord Mayor and a presidentially-appointed KCCA Executive Director did not atrophy. How much problematic then can a legal lacuna regarding new cities be?

To explore this issue, the example of the wrangle between Uganda Local Governments Association (ULGA) and Urban Authorities Association of Uganda (UAAU) over the leadership of the new cities, as reported by the Daily Monitor on June 24, is pertinent.

UAAU claims it lobbied and did necessary leg work for municipalities that run under its aegis to be elevated to cities and, therefore, district leaders are unwelcome to usurp the leadership of the cities.

On the other hand, ULGA counter-argues that a city, according to Section 4 of the Local Government Act (CAP 243), is an equivalent of a district and it naturally should fall under ULGA.

One way to resolve the varied interpretation is to seek the advice of the Attorney General, the chief government legal adviser. Should this fail, or the counsel contested, the second option is petitioning the Constitutional Court to interpret this impugned provision.

The question to be resolved would be: Is a city being equivalent to a district the same as a city is a district? I would hazard that the two are not the same just as holding an equivalent of A-level qualification would not be conflated as the holder of the qualification having taken A-level examinations.

Thirdly, the government can issue guidelines for the administration of the cities to temporarily bridge this divide and blunt brewing problems. This, however, will not be a cure.
For such guidelines to be acceptable to all stakeholders, the assumption here is that the government is structurally homogeneous. Unfortunately, it is not.

As such, it remains contested on the eve of the purported operationalisation of new cities whether to situate them under Local Government ministry, which tabled the motion for their creation, or the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD), where the expertise for physical planning and urban development functions resides. Lack of a clarified parent ministry will result in more confusion, cross-purpose instructions and reporting.

I have been privileged with information about low-intensity competition and polarisation over this quandary at the national level. Yet, technocrats from both ministries were expected to meet yesterday to agree on hastily-crafted guidelines to roll out the new cities. It would be expected that such guidelines derive from, and give effect to, provisions of a particular law.

The question that arises is which law the teams from the two ministries will rely on to generate the guidelines when, in the first place, there is an unresolved interpretation dispute over whether the cities are districts or not. Would such guidelines stand the validity test if challenged in court?

Thus, a fourth and lasting option, would be for Parliament to enact a law to establish the legal and policy framework for the administration and management of the new cities.

However, this appears unlikely in the immediate. The lawmakers are already switched on for re-election campaigns that raising quorum, if the government introduced such a legislation, would be improbable.

In addition, many of the incumbent lawmakers may lose their seats, unless the planned “scientific election” helps reverse the high attrition rate among MPs that saw six out of every 10 members in the 9th Parliament booted out (Daily Monitor, April 9, 2016).

Besides, a new government would be sworn in only next May, if the ballot goes by plan. Thus, the 11th Parliament would start business thereafter with a crowded agenda and priority to pass the next budget by May 31 deadline. The likely scenario is that the 10th Parliament has succeeded to encumber its successor with the duty to decide how the 15 cities will work.

Budgetary concerns
According to projections in the 2020/21 National Budget Framework Paper, it is in the 2021/22 and 2022/23 financial years that the government expects to triple the allocation to the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development from the current Shs172b to Shs565b and Shs525b, respectively.

Thus, these two financial years would denominate when the first 11 of the 15 approved cities become operational.

If that is the calculation, as evidenced by the budget surge, two conclusions are possible.
First, a recognition that the Local Government ministry will not superintend the cities as the ministry’s budget is planned to remain at the current Shs1 trillion level over the next four financial years.

Furthermore, MLHUD submitted to Cabinet Secretariat the principles of an independent law that it expects to domicile the cities in the ministry, and the ministry officials are currently responding to comments from Cabinet.

Second, another possible conclusion is that the government all along knew that it would only operationalise the first batch of the new cities in the 2021/22 Financial Year, pushing the start date of others by 12 months.

This would suggest that the decision to pass the motion for creation of the new cities in April, this year, alongside the accompanying rhetoric, may at best have been to excite voters and, at worst, a gerrymandering for the purpose of the next ballot (and I will use the Arua City scenario to illustrate the confusion).

It can be argued, as I do, that the delineation of the boundaries of the new cities has been problematic. It is imperative to point out that these boundary-related problems were avoidable had MPs paid more attention when scrutinising the motion for the creation of the new cities or indeed checked or harmonised the proposals with existing laws.

For instance, Masaka City is to subsume the current Masaka District and incorporate some areas from neighbouring Kalungu District, which is an independent local government outside Masaka District’s jurisdiction.

Mbarara City stretches about 500 square kilometres wide while Hoima extends to more than 300 square kilometres. There are arguments by some experienced physical planners that such humongous entities, some straddling beyond the functional influence of the original districts/municipalities, is neither good nor desirable. The premise of this proposition appears to be concerns over financial and manpower resource caps.

These cities’ problems are that they are too large. In contrast, Arua, my home town, has been balkanised into a city in a way that impinges effective urban/physical planning and comprehensive/integrated infrastructure planning.

For instance, the border between Ayivu and Vurra, which until July 1 will be part of Arua District, is at Euata, roughly six kilometres from the centre of Arua town. When Parliament created Arua City and carved Terego, which is under 10 kilometres from Arua town, to become an independent district on July 1, it did not proclaim Vurra as a district.

Creating separate administrative jurisdiction means developments in Vurra and Terego will not necessarily be aligned to that of Arua City yet they lie at the southern and north-eastern gateway, respectively, of the city.

The likely impact is that haphazard development may arise that will imperil future orderly expansion of Arua City. Already the first task for Arua City will be ridding itself of dense and unplanned settlements in areas such as Ediofe, Awindiri, Mvara and Onzivu, all suburbs of Arua town that were outside the jurisdiction of Arua Municipality.

Failing, the city will have to leap-frog the ‘eye shores’ as the cost of breaking buildings to create space for roads, public open spaces and other public utilities, will be prohibitively costly politically and financially.

Besides, it is untenable to imagine that locations within 6 to10-kilometre radius from the centre of Arua town are not part of Arua City.

Uganda’s urbanisation is estimated at 5.4 per cent and the World Bank in 2015 projected that Uganda’s urban population would gross 21 million by 2040 by which time Uganda, under Vision 2040, would have transformed into a “modern and prosperous” country.

What this fast rate of urbanisation signals, one that can only be ignored at the peril of organised spatial development, is that Arua City will rapidly envelope areas not officially delineated under its jurisdiction. Those developments will likely be haphazard and, rather than enable, will stifle productivity, connectivity/mobility and urban aesthetics.

Yet cities are supposed to be inclusive and offer dwellers better opportunities and welfare and be livable through spaces mediated using physical planning tools such as outline and detailed schemes that help to juxtapose compatible land uses and separate the incompatible ones.

Such land use decision must be informed by economic considerations and the foresight to anticipate likely problems and resolve them by providing physical space for the solution activities.

Otherwise, as Philippe Dongier, the then World Bank Group Country Director for Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania, noted in the 2015, 5th Uganda Economic Update, “urban population growth multiplies the challenges already facing urban areas [and may] hinder [their] abilities to be sources of growth”. This calls on leaders to be far-sighted, not parochial.

Parliament should, therefore, have foreseen these problems it has set in motion over the new cities.

That failure has turned the situation subsisting in Arua both ironical and potentially dangerous. After merging Ayivu and Arua Municipality into a city, what is left of the original Arua District is Vurra County, which lawmakers did not declare a district.

Mr Sam Nyakua, the current chairperson of Arua District, hails from Ayivu, and it would be politically problematic after July 1 for him to continue superintending the affairs of Arua District (read Vurra constituency) even when he legally could.

On the other hand, as Vurra was not proclaimed a district, there is no law under which the councillors representing Vurra constituency in Arua District Council can breakaway to form an interim leadership for Vurra as it is not an independent district.

Additionally, it is unimaginable for their counterparts from Ayivu to claim legitimate interest to continue legislating and managing the political affairs of Vurra under the guise of Arua District. If the chairperson of Arua and district councillors from Ayivu elect to disengage with the aim of constituting Arua City interim political leadership, they find a terrain contested by the mayor and municipal councillors.

Such conundrum also sucks in civil servants now idling at a gridlock. It is unresolved if Arua Municipal Council or Arua District employees will constitute the pioneer staffing for the city, which is the same problem for other new cities.

Whichever entity takes the crown, the next question is about the fate of employees who may not be qualified for civil service positions in the city. Will their services be terminated and if so, will it be the central government or municipal/district to pay their terminal benefits and is the money budgeted for?

Issues of geographical boundaries
With elections at the corner, a more fundamental concern is whether there will be voting in the new cities, and if so, for which positions since the political composition of the city leadership is not yet prescribed by law.

What these lacunas underline is that urban/physical planning should be elevated on the national agenda for better visibility and coordination to guide sustainable land use and “transformed and sustainable urban areas” as envisaged in Uganda National Urban Policy.

This will require a surge in resourcing for urban infrastructure and services to, for instance, complement the $4 million (Shs14.8b) that the Urban Development Partners Group provide annually for infrastructure development in 13 of the 15 new cities.

As further funding is contingent upon roadmap for the cities, it is imperative that the government expedites the process while fast-tracking provision of utilities, in Arua case its pending connectivity to the national electricity grid, which are essential city industrialisation and sustenance.

Injection of more resources to facilitate physical planning, urban development, land use regulation and compliance enforcement, land administration and registration, surveys and mapping, human settlement development and real estate management would fast-track achievement of MLHUD’s vision: sustainable land use, tenure security, affordable decent housing and organised urban development.

A well thought out policy coordination would be instrumental to ensure the declarations of the entire Uganda as a planning area under Section 3 of the Physical Planning Act, 2010, is translated into real linked urban and rural planning.

The author is an Urban Planner-turned journalist and currently a Chevening Scholar studying Security/International Relations at the University of Westminster in London.