Kampala: Spotless streets, a fearless city boss, and why voting doesn't give you the leaders you need

Five years after I last visited Uganda's capital, I find a city transformed.

UGANDA is currently in the news over the shocking police violence against long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni’s rivals and their supporters ahead of elections early next year. (READ: Endless Uganda police brutality against Museveni rivals, plenty of condemnation, but nothing changes - rights group).

But there is something else.

The last time I was in Kampala, Uganda was more than five years ago, and it was a city I wholly recognised – the soul-crushing traffic jams, the surging crowds of people, the outdoor artisan stalls.

That is, except for one thing – the boda boda (motorcycle) taxis.

Coming from Nairobi, where at the time the motorcycle craze hadn’t quite hit yet, the daredevil boda bodas made Kampala seem like a chaotic, frenzied place where everyone was teetering at the edge of the grave, but somehow remained very calm while doing so.

Today, Nairobi has fully gone the boda boda way, so returning to Kampala and seeing nearly every spare inch of the road packed in motorcycle taxis no longer surprises me. But there’s one thing that is clearly different from the city I remember in 2010 – Kampala is really much cleaner.

I spent a whole afternoon driving through some of the city’s suburbs – Kabalagala, Makindye, Bunga and Munyonyo – and after a few minutes, I realised I hadn’t seen a single plastic bag discarded on the streets. Each and every storefront, even in modest neighbourhoods, had been swept clean.

Then I started actively looking for trash, but only found it later in some backstreet in Bunga – and uncannily, it was piled up in a neat heap.

I’m told it’s the work of the fearless and uncompromising Jennifer Musisi, executive director of the Kampala City Council Authority.

Since her controversial appointment in 2011, and with laser-focused determination, Musisi embarked on a mission of getting Kampala in order – a tall order for any African city that has become accustomed to living as it pleases.

“Problems that seemed endemic and for which there seemed no solution at all, such as vendors selling vegetables along the streets in the evenings, vendors selling their ware along the railway line in the city, green spaces we had given up on and a city without street lights we had resigned ourselves to – overnight, something has started to change in these areas,” writes Timothy Kalyegira in the Daily Monitor, a Ugandan daily newspaper.

Loved and loathed in equal measure, she’s stepped on more toes than anyone can bother to count, but has earned the respect of even her opponents, and scooped awards in public administration along the way.

Jennifer Musisi. (Photo/ FB).

Still, it’s not all heaven now - after all, I only saw a part of the city. Musisi’s personal grit is no doubt a factor in Kampala’s turnaround. But there’s a larger, structural lesson for other African urban areas.

Like many African cities, Kampala has a mayor who is elected by popular vote; the current “Lord” Mayor is Erias Lukwago, a popular opposition politician who has had numerous run-ins with President Yoweri Museveni.

On the other hand, Musisi’s position is a non-elective one, created in 2011 by the President – some say, designed to clip Lukwago’s influence by taking away most of the executive functions of the mayor’s position, and leaving Lukwago with little more than a ceremonial role, such as cutting ribbons and posing for photographs.

In many African cities – including Kampala – the bulk of voters are informally employed, and so the person who will command their votes has a vested interest in maintaining the disorder and chaos, because these gaps are the spaces where people make a living.

Indeed, Lukwago’s biggest political supporters in the city are the boda boda riders and market vendors, who have resisted Musisi’s moves to regulate them.

But disorder and chaos ultimately chokes a city’s growth, and with it the chances of creating decent jobs for everyone.

The move to split the incentive for actually making a city work, through an executive position like Musisi’s, and commanding political support, as in Lukwago’s, has not pleased everybody, but I suspect that in the long run it will be better for making Kampala a liveable city for everyone.

In the next 15 years, Africa will have more people living in cities than in rural areas. More than a quarter of the fastest-growing cities in the world are in Africa, and by 2050, Africa’s urban dwellers are projected to have increased from 400 million to 1.2 billion.

The challenge then, is for authorities to expand service provision, reduce inequality and leverage the opportunity to create better livelihoods.

Musisi may never command votes, but she’s what Kampala needed. The lesson is there for African governments who want their cities to work. And this shouldn’t be taken to mean election officials are bad for African cities. The previous governor of Lagos, Fashola Babatunde, dragged into the 21st century and brought order to most parts of a city that many previously thought was impossible. The Lake Victoria-side city of Mwanza in Tanzania is strikingly orderly - the opposition party officials who run it are mostly elected.

And Rwanda’s capital Kigali is sang of as being “unAfricanly” neat and efficient. Its mayor is appointed by the president. Then there is Musisi.

As an appointee of the president, in a way, Kampala was lucky to get someone so capable and dedicated to the job – it could have been given to some clueless political crony or hanger-on.

So African cities have to devise a way of making sure that this doesn’t happen – the position could be one appointed by a consortium of business and community leaders, for example.

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