22 November 2012

Uganda: New Delhi Puts Kampala to Shame!


This week, I returned to New Delhi, India, after nine years:

Naturally, my heart was filled with a sense of eagerness; a mixture of anticipation and fondness as memories of my last stay in the city filled my heart.

Of course, I had no illusions that the city had changed tremendously as a decade is a long time in the development trajectory of any [serious] country. Still, this did not prepare me for the massive changes in infrastructure and general outlook of the city, starting with Indira Ghandi International airport itself.

In 2003, the metro was just being introduced in the city with the network covering less than a quarter of the city. Today, the metro covers nearly the entire Delhi and has made travel around the city faster, cleaner and more convenient.

The road network too has been hugely expanded with the web of flyovers, pedestrian bridges and subways, and the six to eight lanes providing a near seamless traffic flow in a city of millions of vehicles - and people.

Ten years ago, it was a different story altogether: the traffic congestion, the noise, the dirty streets with cows often roaming by, the weather-beaten old Tata and Ashok-Leyland public buses, and the polluted air were simply depressing.

Not so much today, even though admittedly some of the old features - beggars at traffic junctions and the notorious auto rickshaws and tricyclists whizzing through fast traffic without a care to their safety and that of their precariously perched passengers - remain.

Much of the changes in infrastructure, I gathered, happened around 2010 when the city hosted the Commonwealth Games. Yes, Delhi has something to remember from that historic sports event because the residents of the city continue to enjoy the opportunities hosting the games brought.

By contrast, I tried to remember what was left for the residents of Kampala to enjoy for hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in November 2007 and this only brought me depression.

Many of the Chogm roads in the city did not last even four months after the event. The streetlights went off before half the guests had left town! The flowers and trees planted days before the guests arrived withered off as soon as they had left.

The revamped Entebbe International airport has little to show for the billions that were spent on it and the old airport terminal - which was used by the VIPs - and according to plans would be turned into a domestic passenger terminal has since been taken over for exclusive use of State House.

Instead from Chogm 2007, Ugandans are still counting the losses in billions of shillings through the dubious hotel and road construction projects, the so-called beautification of the city through planting flowers and painting buildings, and the obscene hiring of executive BMW limousines at the price of new ones.

Ugandans are also still counting the loss of prime public land that previously housed a primary school, a teacher-training school, and the national television broadcaster. The land was controversially given to private interests for free, ostensibly to build five-star hotels to accommodate Chogm delegates.

Five years later, the hotels (or, as we now hear, shopping malls) have not been completed. In the post-Chogm charade of investigations and prosecutions that followed, only one corrupt fish - a medium one at that - has been successfully prosecuted for the loss of public funds even though many have gone through the ritual of prosecution and declared innocent in trials that left many Ugandans laughing (and gnashing their teeth).

Earlier, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who had been adversely named in the Chogm investigations report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament was controversially "cleared" by the plenary of Parliament and the Inspector General of Government, as did many other senior politicians like former vice president Gilbert Bukenya who had been accused of causing financial loss to government during the summit meeting.

Nonetheless, the thieves in government and their private sector accomplices have a string of housing estates, hotels, and other luxury pieces to show for our hosting Chogm!

Anyhow, how much has Uganda - and Kampala for that matter - changed in the last yen years? I thought to myself, but I could not think of any landmark changes. The roads remain nearly as bad as they were and the traffic jam problem has probably got worse.

There is still no comprehensive urban transport plan, except on paper, and disorder reigns supreme. There are still no streetlights, the bodaboda menace has got worse, and flooding remains a common occurrence whenever it rains, etc.

Yes, more buildings have sprouted in the peri-urban areas as have big shopping malls in the city centre - all confirming Kampala's status as a big unplanned slum. Of course some cosmetic changes on the main streets (Kampala road and Jinja road) are noticeable in the last few months since Jennifer Musisi assumed the position of executive director of KCCA but they came at the cost of an arm and a leg where only a little money should have been spent.

The more I try to compare the changes in the two cities, the more I feel terrible about the fact that while the rest of the world moves forward, we stand still or descend even further back into the feudal age. Still, it is good to know that not all countries are like ours!

The author is a political and social critic. He is a former editor of Sunday Monitor and The Independent.

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