25 November 2011

Uganda: 'People Threaten to Kill Me So Often, I've Gotten Used to It'

Most cities are run by the mayor. But in Uganda's capital city, Kampala, mayor Erias Lukwago only has a ceremonial role. "I don't even know what he is doing," says the real boss of the city, Jennifer Musisi.

Just months ago, thousands of illegal vendors made Kampala's streets nearly impassable. Wherever you went people were selling fruit, shoes, posters or DVD's, laid out on a scrap of cardboard on the street. Illegally erected stairs led to shops on the higher floors of buildings, making the narrow streets even more congested. Pickpockets found easy targets in the crowd, which was forced to tiptoe between all the merchandise on the streets.

Kampala is a different city today. In September, street vendors were told to do their business elsewhere, while their wooden structures were taken down. Bulldozers then demolished illegal stairs in downtown Kampala early on Sunday morning, before crowds could gather to protest.

Death threats

"People threaten to kill me so often that I've gotten used to it," says Jennifer Musisi, the Chief Executive Officer of Kampala. "Kampala's city authority was full of corruption when I took over. We found bank accounts nobody knew about, while some contractors were being paid for work they never did." Musisi came into office in April, and her presence is noticeable throughout the city. Illegal businesses have been shut down and existing laws have been implemented.

"You might find this office is a bit empty," Musisi says. "That is because many employees have stopped coming to work since I took over. They know they were too corrupt. They are still on the payroll, but we'll get them off as soon as possible."

The city's technical director is proud of her achievements: "We shot many stray dogs, improved rubbish collection, repaired roads, replaced lights and took back property that belongs to the city." She found herself in confrontations with the former mayor and a top-general, who were both illegally living in villas belonging to the city authority. Both 'big men' complained, threatened and resisted her, but they eventually moved out.

Power struggle

Kampala has traditionally been run by mayors from opposition parties. In the February elections, Erias Lukwago of the opposition Democratic Party was elected Lord Mayor. But a few months earlier, the law concerning Kampala had been changed, giving the CEO of the city more powers than the mayor.

Lukwago, whose office is in a side building next to the City Hall where Musisi's office is, has asked court to define his role as a Lord Mayor.

"Lukwago's role is just ceremonial, the law clearly states that," says Musisi - a close ally of the Ugandan president. "He normally attends functions, but I do not know what he is doing the rest of the time."Musisi continues, "I try not to focus a lot on this issue, I am really too busy for that... I think the people of Kampala are more concerned with that their services are being delivered."

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