5 February 2013

Uganda: Gulu, a Town of Old, Rickety Buildings

Many wasted, old and rickety buildings in Gulu municipality still stand, five years since they were condemned and lined up for demolition.

The resolution calling for demolition of some and rehabilitation of others was passed in 2008 after one of the old structures collapsed, killing two primary school children. Following the accident, an assessment team was dispatched by municipal authorities to rate buildings in the municipality and 170 buildings were subsequently condemned, half of these in the town centre.

Gulu's town engineer in charge of buildings, Charles Ojok, says most of the condemned buildings were constructed in the colonial days and are no longer fit for human habitation. While Ojok thinks they should have been demolished by now, Edward Kilara, a member of the assessment team, accuses politicians of frustrating the process.

"When we resolved to have the dilapidated buildings demolished or renovated, the list of condemned structures was leaked to the landlords by the politicians themselves," Kilara says.

He explains that the leak forced some of the landlords to influence technocrats to prepare documents clearing their houses. Subsequently, only Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem demolished his structure after it was condemned. One building was renovated and two others were in the process of renovation when municipal authorities halted the exercise, arguing that the operators lacked a licence and approved plans to renovate them.

But Kilara adds that implementing the demolition exercise has also been complicated by unclear terms from landlords, citing one building, housing, a KSP hotel, which was meant for demolition but council ended up approving its renovation instead.

"Council approved the KSP building [for demolition] but they only renovated the building," Kilara says. "When we consulted our lawyer for advice, he advised that when we dispute, the landlord would drag council to court because it already had approved plans."

Ojok weighs in that the demolition is more complicated because some of the landlords, whose buildings are up for demolition, are also politicians in the council, who ended up becoming members of the assessment committee. The senior municipal engineer, Terrence Odonga argues that the composition of the first assessment team was too bloated to yield any substantial result as there were more politicians than technocrats.

"Inspection is a technical functional work of the officers. I think the team should be composed of the town clerk, administrator and engineers ... while the rest simply follow," Odonga explains, adding that two months is the legal requirement for the team to produce a report on their findings.

But Municipality Speaker Kelly Komakech blames the mayor, George Labeja, for the slow demolition; process.

"The mayor had said one of the houses in town would be demolished instead, we all saw the building being renovated," Komakech explains. But Labeja explains "It is the technocrats who approve the building plans, not the mayor. The speaker should surely be pointing at someone else." Labeja argues that to avoid litigation-related losses, landlords should demolish their own buildings.

"[Proper] procedure should be followed to avoid council being sued by the landlords," he says.

Gulu's deputy speaker Geoffrey Akena says he wants to see action now.

"The task [to demolish] was given in May 2011 but to date, no work has been done. The grace period of six months is long over, I think the time limit should be clearly stated and followed."

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