Over the years, I have learned that [dangerous] politics can be skilfully disguised as technical development. James Ferguson writing in The Anti-Politics Machine, gave us a term, depoliticization.
Politics is clothed in an overcoat of technology, development, legalese, etcetera. It is a form of violence, if you see it closely: a highway could be diverted from the midst of a bustling trading centre – such as Masaka-Mbarara highway – under the language of reducing traffic yet the actual intention is to kill its business bite.
An inexistent epidemic could be declared and farmers asked to burn or uproot their coffee trees, or not to sell their cattle. A local bank – such as Greenland, Teffe, UCB – could be closed on allegations of some inexplicable inappropriacy, yet the actual intention is to leave the market for bigger foreign or friendlier players. The list of these excesses is long.
Technical proposals are designed as innocent developmental/technical projects, with their predictable failure designed into them but cleverly hidden from public view.
After years of conceited praise and blanket support – which included using the judicial system to lock an elected mayor out of office for an entire term – President Yoweri Museveni turned around and blasted his bosom buddy, former Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) director, Jenipher Musisi.
He accused her for eating “his money” [sic] under the guise of transforming Kampala. But besides leaving Kampala as were before, Museveni claimed she even cost him electoral capital. It was spectacular takedown, but equally deceitful and pretentious.
Was mayor Erias Lukwago right the entire time? Why had it taken Mr Museveni too long to see through Musisi’s emptiness? But to ask these questions is to be naïve of the politics that allowed Jenipher Musisi thrive on the “technical” promise of beautifying and transforming Kampala.
In truth, Ms. Musisi was a politician clowning as a technical developmentalist. Her failures were not technical mistakes, but rather part of the grand design – not the unexpected outcome. Indeed, Kampala still floods as ever before, and it isn’t beautiful either. But quite significantly, the city moved into the hands of a few individuals – and many ordinary folks are now sketching an existence outside of this historical town.
I was downtown Kampala recently on a small fieldwork project, and got really blown away by the scale of obviously selfish “technical” innovations happening in Kampala.
Forgive me dear reader, I am no urbanisation expert, but I claim a little training in modern political economy – the often conflicted relationship that politics shares with business – with politics often setting the agenda.
Surely seeking to turn downtown Kampala into a green fetish for tourist spectacle is dangerous to a bustling economic hub of the country. The single-lanes without stopovers make motorists stretch miles without stopping to peek at merchandise: Luwum Street, Namirembe Road, Ben Kiwanuka, perhaps some of the busiest are now difficult to navigate. And this is no mistake.
A cursory look into the scholarly material on urbanisation and transformation of major industrial/commercial towns, one quickly learns that speed, access, people – for both labour and consumers of produce – are central considerations for business towns.
But note that, while negotiating to improve speed and access, traffic jams are a pertinent part of modern commercial towns. Slowed traffic creates life and activity. Slowness enables bodies to congregate in one space and enter into transactions.
To this end, exit points are created at extreme ends of routes not to necessarily speed up movement, but but to reduce possibilities of a stampede.
To this end, underground travel, skywalks, and light trains are created outside of the heart of activity. If one has enjoyed enough of the traffic, that is enough of transacting or simply looking, they are directed to the nearest skywalk, light train or underground channel.
But before I am accused of being resistant to change, and seeking to offer uneducated alternatives, I need to put my biases in context: (a) Kampala’s urban planners are executing this visibly inconsistent job not because they are thoughtless.
Not at all. It is because power has decided this course of action. The new rich – mostly friends of power – have built new malls, and new markets for which business has to be attracted.
(b) The ambition to impoverish Ugandans for ease of governance has remained alive. Kampala’s Baganda bourgeoise and mild proletariat suspected to be inherently unfriendly to government are being contained through these seeming technical innovations.
For example, KACITA’s powerhouse, mu Kikuubo – that famous billion dollar corridor – is under immense stress from the new rich. The once lively Kisenyi, which used to overflow with young men selling vehicle spare parts was successful disintegrated. And the disintegration continues.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.