Tuesday this week government inaugurated seven new ‘cities’ by elevating former municipalities of Arua, Gulu, Mbale, Jinja, Masaka, Mbarara, and Fort Portal to city status, with the objective that physical planning, implementation of activities and general administration will be better. The last, Fort Portal, named after a British colonial army officer, deserve change of name. The designation of cities should therefore be welcome as acknowledgement of their achievements and providing impetus for higher ambitions.
In the new cities, there is tribal euphoria that these ‘cities’ will improve livelihoods of residents by boosting investment and business environment. The public expectations are that there will be harmonious work relationships to improve physical planning, garbage and sanitation management, water, roads, improve basic social services, and enhance specialized economic activities for better incomes and quality of life. In a sense, there is a lot of hard, creative and innovative work ahead over the next years to realize the dreams.
In some of the towns that missed out on this round of naming cities and parliamentary constituencies, battle lines are being drawn for the next general elections as politicians cry foul that they were short-changed. Some even think that heavenly miracles rumored in the bible, could happen in the new ‘cities’ to bring the good life.
Cities and indeed new urban creations like municipalities, town councils and boards are supposed to be enablers of socio-economic transformation of Uganda from a predominantly rural-peasant based society to a modern urban one where organized living and technology help productivity.
Global statics show that more people will move to cities and urban centers in the next forty years than in the entire span of human history, and therefore building cities become a critical response to this social and economic boom as it can help break ground for innovation and employment.
But if lessons in Kampala which is choking are anything to go by, they should teach Ugandans to do the most critical things first. In my view these include respect and enforce urban planning, land and environmental management, business planning, models, and social development in order to succeed. As a starting point there should be a new and progressive land tenure system that allows flexibility in physical planning into adjoining areas without the conflicts and obstruction seen in Kampala.
Also, there must be clarity on permitted and restricted activities in these new cities because they are already poorly managed as evidenced the gross failure to remove domesticated livestock from roaming the so-called cities in competition with unruly human beings. All the new cities have ably copied the Kampala urban bad culture where unrestricted mobile and street goods vending, passenger transport stages, commercial car parks, and boda bodas are permitted to exist wherever they want.
With Ugandans of strong rural background there is need to create a new relationship between private and public stakeholders in urban planning to successfully attract people and businesses into the new cities, and create an identity that bonds them to their cities. One drawback is that people residing in villages only come to towns to shop, trade goods, idle around, and return to their homes hence urban life is minimal, and restricted to daytime. Urban investment in real estate including Kampala hasn’t been as lucrative because people have chosen to build their own houses or business premises. Stimulating demand for urban real estate’s is going to be critical for cities to thrive. If managed effectively urbanization will drive Uganda’s economic growth, productivity and welfare by creating infrastructure, orgnaised living and employment.
Unfortunately, Uganda is yet to realize the positive gains of urbanization since independence. Instead, increasingly concentrated populations have become a major stress on limited infrastructure and services like housing, markets, roads, transport, employment, education, health and safety. The current attempt at modernizing Kampala and providing relief food under the COVID-19 lockdown are sad testimonies.
Retrofitting cities as we are doing, where towns already exist is more expensive because we lack resources for compensating private old structures to pave way for both new and expanded facilities to accommodate the increasing numbers.
Land prices are going through the roof because speculators cash-in. Redesigning rural development in places where many people already live could make a better idea with prospects for real transformation to take place. The cities are a gamble because most Acholi are unlikely to abandon Aworanga in Koch Goma for Gulu city life.
As government opens more infrastructure and lowers tax for investors choosing upcountry, there is need to shift business from Kampala to new cities, and as well creating new opportunities in border cities Mbale, Gulu, Arua, Mbarara and Fort Portal to tap opportunities in neighbouring countries. Uganda needs cities of knowledge, innovation, industrial, business, entertainment and recreation parks, and organised affordable low cost residential estates. We don’t need cities for tribal and petty politics like Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s Yamoussoukro.
While some cities will succeed while others stumble, Ugandans hope that new ideas will flow generously to provide insights and help city builders and managers define their priorities better in achieving bold vision.
The writer, is the Government Spokesperson and head of Uganda Media Centre