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New cities struggle as ‘mother’ districts fear to let go

Masaka, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Operationalization of the newly created cities in Uganda is stirring bitter controversies as leaders of mother districts decline to support the new entities.

In April 2020, the Uganda government elevated seven municipalities to city status in a phased process that will see more towns become cities. The new cities which came into force in July 2020 are Arua, Gulu, Mbale, Jinja, Masaka, Mbarara and Fort Portal.

The new cities were created as a result of protracted clamors by leaders and communities, in anticipation of so many benefits that strategically come along with the new status of urbanization.

To achieve the dream, the traditional municipalities had to meet a series of legal prerequisites to qualify for elevation into cities. Key among the requirements for a city, according to the third Schedule of the Local Government Act, included having a population size of at least five hundred thousand people, area land size of at least 100 square kilometres, the capacity of the urban area to meet its cost of delivery of services, and having a master physical plan among others.

To meet these requirements, the municipalities had to lure their mother districts and the neighbouring lower local governments to allow them to expand their boundaries into the other peri-urban areas, to supplement on what was originally existing.

However, prior to the final deliberations at the Ministry of Local Government and in Parliament, few of the then aspiring cities could meet the preconditions until in Cabinet, in September 2019, lowered the bar for them by adopting the new National Urbanization Policy.

The new instrument which reduced the population threshold to 300,000 people and the area land size to between 50 to 100 square kilometres, came at the height of intense criticism against the government by the political and opinion leaders in Municipalities that had failed to meet the earlier preconditions. For instance, the leadership in the greater Masaka sub-region jointly appealed to the Kabaka of Buganda Ronald Muweda Mutebi II to question government on why it had dropped their traditional municipality off the list of the first batch of cities that had been cleared. Masaka was added onto the list.

Fight over assets

Despite the long journeys towards achieving their long-awaited dreams, the new urban local governments are yet to settle for full operationalization over a stirring controversy on how to share assets with the mother districts. The latest dispute arises out of a circular by the Attorney General, which requires the mother districts to move their headquarters to alternative areas outside the city boundaries as well as relinquishing all other immovable assets to the new administrative units, to support their growth.

However, the leaders of traditional districts which gave birth to cities are reluctant to hand over the assets, described the Attorney General’s letter issued in November last year, as further suppression of their administration and status.

Andrew Lukyamuzi, the Masaka District Chairperson, indicates that the circular from the Attorney General dispossesses the district of their crucial assets that include their recently acquired administrative headquarters, Council hall, a public library and several prime pieces of land that are not easy to replace once lost. Lukyamuzi explains that the new cities already expanded into the boundaries of the districts and annexed key sources of local revenue that were sustaining the mother local governments.

Lukyamuzi argues that they cannot imagine having a traditional district return to scratch, demanding that government withdraws the circular to at least allow them sell the contested properties to the cities as a way of boosting the districts’ startup budgets.

Cultural attachment

Since the 1960s, Masaka district local government had been operating from the Buganda Kingdom premises located at Ssaza headquarters in Nyendo-Mukugwe city division until 2012, when they obtained an alternative piece of land to start construction of the new district headquarters.

As a coincidence, both the new headquarters and the traditional Buganda Kingdom premises which the district continues to use for its council hall and technical departments are located within the city boundaries. Besides the fear of losing urban-based office spaces, the leaders argue that some of these assets they are asked to forfeit have strong cultural and social significance districts would not wish to lose.

Budget issues

Christopher Opiyo Ateker, the Gulu District Chairperson says they are not ready to surrender any of the hard-earned assets to the city unless the new urban council accepts to pay rent for utilizing these assets. Ateker says the circular kills the rationale of acquiring the cities by creating what he describes as unnecessary operational rifts between the two local government units, that are meant to supplement each other.

He argues that the cities should be allowed to begin from assets of the former municipalities, owing to the high budgetary allocations as compared to their counterparts in the districts. Notably, in the 2021/2022 financial year, Gulu district local government operates on a budget of 31 billion shillings which is below that of the previous financial year which was 42 billion shillings.

In its first budget year, Gulu City Council is expending on a budget of 48.6 billion shillings.  Ateker explains that with such a decline in their budget which is largely supported by central government transfers, it will take the district decades to regain other assets if loses them to the City.

He reveals that they already resisted attempts by Gulu City Council to start occupying the district properties, arguing that the Attorney General’s circular was inconsistent.

Muhammad Mafabi, the Mbale district Chairperson, argues that losing assets to the new Mbale City Council will significantly affect the district operations yet their local revenue collections have already dwindled. Mafabi says although the district may shift their headquarters to a new location outside the city, they are not ready to relinquish their high-value properties unless they are compensated.

Some of the assets they will keep hold on, according to Mafabi, are; 48 staff housing units at Maluku Estate, the administration block on Plot 57-61 Republic Street, the district road unit, and several commercial buildings among others.

Mbale district is operating with an estimated budget of over 43 billion shillings in the financial year 2021/2022 and of this, only 800 million shillings is expected to be collected from local revenue sources. The biggest percentage is to come from the central government.         While Mbale City has an estimated budget of over 50 billion shillings, just over 4.7billion is expected from local revenue sources.

Mafabi says that some of the sources of local revenue, like markets and lower local governments, were already annexed into the city when it was expanding its boundaries.

In Mbarara District, the contested properties include, the historical Council Hall which originally belonged to the Kingdom of Ankole, office Blocks, Kakyeka Stadium, buildings hosting Makerere University Business School-Mbarara, and over five prime plots of land all located in Kamukuzi City Division.

The other assets are; Generational Suites Hotel, GNTV, and King of King Ministries church building.   Didas Tabaro, the Mbarara district Chairperson, says they have put the Ministry of Local Government on notice to compensate them for the properties if they are to hand them over to the city council.

Similarly, the Chairpersons of Lira and Soroti district local governments, whose cities were inaugurated in July 2020, also argue that they will not sign off transfers for the properties unless they are compensated. Richard Cox Okello Orik and Simon Peter Edoru Ekuu say they don’t see any future in surrendering, especially the district headquarters to the new city.

Local Government Minister Raphael Magyezi says he is aware of the existing puzzle in the operationalization of the cities, however indicating that the Ministry is going to address them on a case by case basis.

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