MBALE – Mbale— On June 26, 2006, Mbale town, located in Mbale District, and a number of other towns in Uganda, marked 100 years since their declaration as townships by the colonial government.
According to The Official Gazette of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate Vol. VIII No 161, Mr. H. Hesketh Bell, then His Majesty’s Commissioner, signed a declaration on June 26, 1906, that declared: “By virtue of the powers conferred upon me by the Uganda Township Ordinance 1903, I hereby declare the following places within limits hereinafter set forth to be townships for the purposes of the aforesaid Ordinance”.
By 1951, the town had built modern offices on what is now called republic Street and after independence in 1962, the Mbale Municipal Council was the first town to be granted official status of an urban authority.
Most of the people who have lived since then especially the now grey haired generation will tell you with nostalagia the days when Mbale was the cleanest town on East and central Africa.
In the days Mbale gained reputation as the cleanest town in East Africa. The Late President Apollo Milton Obote referred to it as the “Jewel of East Africa”. Mbale rotary club then described it as the town with the best and well designed roads.
According to Mbale historians, the town developed along a low ridge running from East to West at the foot hills of Mt Nkokonjeru, currently known as Wanale hill.
Visible from all parts of the town with its picturesque cliffs, escading waterfalls and green cultivated slopes, the Wanale ridge supplements the town’s allure; the white rocks along the hills are spread like a white sheet on the hills, no wonder the late colonial agent Mr Semei Kakunguru called it a white cock [Nkokonjeru] due to the white rocks that appear from a distance like a white cock.
Elders say Mbale’s beginnings can be traced to an ivory tusks gathering site. This site had numerous rocks locally called Zimbale from which the district derived its name Mbale [Meaning stones].
Mr Gregory Kutosi, a resident of one of the suburbs in Mbale [Namatala]says that with the support of the colonial masters, the then colonial gent Mr Semei Kakungulu transformed Mbale into a commercial and metropolitan town.
“The development enterprises like African textile mills boasted market in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, DR Congo and Zambia and all the taxes collected from the industries helped the running of the town because they maintained roads, kept buildings clean, Mbale depended on them for survival, their collapse meant collapse of Mbale town,” said Mr Kutosi.
The lucrative coffee trade led to the establishment of one of East Africa’s premier and pioneer coffee trading unions, the Bugisu Cooperative Union in 1954.
“Establishment of the union, Mbale was inaugurating with many businessmen eager to stand a treat of the flourishing trade. It quickly evolved into a coffee business melting point for traders from the north, far east, central, western and southern Sudan,” Mr Richard Masaba[aka Kanindo former mayor says.
Mr Masaba says that many indigenous coffee farmers and traders became wealthy as a result of the town’s booming and organized Coffee, hides ans skins, Ivory and cotton trade.
“Actually most of these bought land in Mbale and constructed beautiful houses, improved on infrastructure that made Mbale town, the most beautiful and organized town in the late 1960s, through the 1970s and early 1980s,” added Mr Masaba.
But today as the own struggles to become a City, the industries, the roads, the planned infrastructure are no more in existence. The industries stopped working long ago; everything about Mbale is deplorable, everything has gone to the kernels, the buildings are all built in total disregard to the laws governing urban centres.
And o put it in perspective, Maj. Gen (Rtd.) Kahinda Otafiire. Minister of East African Community Affairs one time while in the local government docket described the town as a shadow of it own past.
He added that Mbale municipality authorities as lacking in capacity to effectively handle the municipality’s physical planning and development and that they had gazetted open spaces such as nursery beds, rugby grounds, Uhuru parks and public open areas fraudulently allocated to developers without shame.
“Today the physical plan of the town has been grossly mismanaged to the level that buildings have been haphazardly erected on road reserves, sewerage lines, in wetlands, street alleys, in total disregard of the urban authorities’ laws and regulations,” the minister said.
A local journalist Mr Moses Musira says that today residents passing through the streets of Mbale have to hold their nostrils and mouth due to a foul smell from blocked sewerage lines that keep spoofing every time it rains.
“Residents of Mbale City have one thing in common; they hold their mouths and noses when walking through the street alleys,” he said.
“More so, they always whisper when discussing the hygiene and sanitation of their town that now litters with heaps of garbage, human excreta in polythene bags dumped in street alleys, old dilapidated buildings and poor sewerage system,” Mr Musira adds.
But what went wrong:
The City’s health and education services were highly coveted. Mbale regional hospital with its Masaba wing was the best referral hospital and the common phenomenon of drugs-stock outs and understaffing that are common today was unheard off.
But today the wealthy trot out of Mbale to Mulago even across the borders to Kenya in search of better medical care for simple medical services while for the ordinary folk, the health units across the own have become death traps.
The post independence grey haired men hoped, with the millions watching as they received the instruments of power that this marked the beginning of new hopes and aspirations for a newly born people but things quickly went terribly wrong.
Most streets in Mbale City are flooded with merchandise. The most affected streets are Naboa Road, Central Road, Cathedral avenue and Bishop Wasikye road even when there is a newly constructed market by the government of Uganda yearning to accommodate the traders.
During afternoons and evening rush hour the town is thrown into total confusion and vendors, buyers and pedestrians blend along the busy lanes. The confusion is further aggravated by noise generated from speakers used by the traders to attract customers to buy their merchandise along the streets.
A walk through Mbale Potholes, some the size of manholes, are a common sight in the town and its surrounding suburbs, road maintenance has been very poor with substandard and inefficient contractors, it is common for roads to revert to their original dilapidated status two to three months after construction in Mbale and the town lacks proper paving and adequate drainage systems, a thing that contributes heavily to their short lifespan.
Mr Abbey Makwasi says a look at the roads done by Plinth Construction services under USMID] under Uganda National Roads Authority just two years ago through Mbale will show you that the roads were done about 20 years ago.
“Under the World Bank funded project of Shs 12.3 Billion, Plinth construction Ltd constructed Republic Street, Pallisa Road, Nabuyonga Rise and Mugisu Hill lane all in Mbale City just three years ago but today the roads look like they were constructed 30 years ago riddled with potholes and sinking grounds,” said Mr Makwasi, a former speaker at Mbale municipal council, now a city.
Mr Akim Watenyeri, a Uganda People’s Congress party stalwart says Mbale has been dogged by corruption scandals for the past 25 years and a special committee set by the ministry of local government to investigate illegal awarding of tenders, illegal sale of land and mismanagement of public finances has had little impact on Mbale apart from arrests and transfer of the technical staff.
He said the Mayor of the town Mr Richard Masaba was arrested and interdicted in 2007, but reports of financial impropriety have continued.
He added that even when the former Town Clerk, Mr Norbert Turyahikayo was also interdicted for the fraudulent purchase of 1,200 acres of land in Bulambuli district in which council lost Shs 950 million but this has had no impact still.
Mr Watenyeli who has seen Mbale through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and now 2000s noted that one could say Mbale like Uganda took a wrong turn from the 1980s on and, in many ways, Mbale has never fully recovered from then on, it is as if it died.
“We mismanaged the town ourselves, look at the type of leaders we take to the council and mayoral positions: hungry, greedy and would want to use any opportunity to make money for themselves. It is even worse because they buy the votes to get there so they have to get their money back,” said Mr Watenyeli who doubles as a member of Mbale Development Forum.
Mr Watenyeli added “look at all the mayors from 1986 to 2021 today, most of them have been businessman who come to make money without supervising the town’s development. I know of a mayor who used to sign cheques from bars and would drink the entire day and night, how do expect such a person to help the town grow?”
Mr Robert Kimaswa, a former councillor and secretary for finance at the municipal local government says although the 2012/ 2013 budget under the theme Strategic Priorities to Accelerate Prosperity for all, through Infrastructural Development and Creation of employment was estimated at Shs 15 billion with local revenue collection of Shs 1.5 billion, local revenue collection was below Shs 400m and that there is very little on ground to reflect the budges that are passed every year.
“As a municipal council we have failed to translate our budget into the development of the town, a number of Councillors just come to the municipal council to enrich themselves and go away without leaving any mark at all on ground,” said Mr Kimaswa.
Ms Gertrude Lando, an elder in Mbale and a new councillor at Mbale City says that the few people who have benefited from the ruling government today have not invested their wealth into serious economic development options such as industrialization (e.g. food processing) in Mbale; they are instead investing in small-sized hotels, targeting tourists, and in the service sector.
She explained that the lack of investment in strategic industrialization and agriculture means the town has to go backwards adding that no wonder today it is the exact opposite of what it was in the past.
Ms Lando said the main challenges facing Mbale town are growth of informal human settlements, poor land records, lack of service land, poor land tenure system, outdated structure plans, political interference in decision making, outdated laws, high urban population, and poor human resource.
“In Mbale development has moved ahead of planning as though there are no planners, our personnel in the planning unit is poor and only interested in fraudulently acquiring plots and sell them,” said Ms Lando.
Mr Geoffrey Nambafu of Esatern Private Secor Development centre in Mbale says, the town is experiencing typical problems associated with urban areas such as high population growth and unemployment, lack of basic urban services and inadequate waste management besides poor waste disposal, poor sanitation, pollution of water sources, and deforestation.
“The main challenges facing Mbale include lack of land owned by the municipality, haphazard developments on the existing land, over population, and pollution and greed by the technical staff at the municipal council,” said Mr Nambafu.
Mr Nambafu that most times when a new town clerk, physical planner and new staff is posted at the municipal council, he/she is immediately absorbed into corruption by the councilors and all efforts to develop the town fall on a flat ground.
“Mbale as a city now needs a town clerk who is not going to join greedy councilors, he should stand alone to take decisions based on the law that will help the town develop, we need a change maybe we also need a director appointed by government to end this mess in Mbale,” said Mr Nambafu.
The City physical planner Ms Eunice Muyama agrees that there is a problem in planning and vows to bring an end to haphazard buildings and dilapidated old buildings in the city.
But this said, she is likely to face resistance from the owners of buildings who have been given free lease by some corrupt officials in the City.
She said the existence of poor road net work, the dilapidated old buildings that are almost a death trap to the occupants, the out-dated physical plan of the town that has been changed to suit interests of a few technical officers at the town are some of the road blocks to overcome.
“Yes, our dream to become a city still lives but we need to come back to terms with physical planning on the town, get rid of dilapidated buildings, improve our road network, get land to exchange it with forest land to allow expansion before we can dream the dream well and as for now we must forget it,” said Ms Muyama.
Mr Jack Wamai, the outgoing Mbale Municipality MP, one of the inhabitants of Mbale says they have seen buildings springing up in town without proper planning, street alleys turned into shops, dilapidated building being renovated at night and during public holidays without approved plans without anybody raising a finger.
“And this is where our town is, we can’t do much because the entire system is rotten to the bone marrow and every new worker is just engulfed into the system and silenced. We need to wake up, end corruption if we are to get our city to another level,” said Mr Wamai.
Mr James Kutosi, the Mbale City Public Relations Officer says said although they have inherited an already messed up town, the public ought to forgive them to start a new chapter in the city that will pave way for a better planning.
“Yes, there have been mistakes we committee as a municipality technical and political staff, we want to ask for your forgiveness, and let us chart a way forward for a better Mbale City. Let us learn to forgive each other,” said Mr Kutosi.
Mr Cassim Namugali, the new City mayor says “Save Our City” might make more sense as a slogan for laying out a series of plans in an entirely new direction for the City not steep in further decline,”
He explained that his target is for people to forget the past, from corruption record to an economic surge, where everyone will benefit from City status.
“Mbale will regain its lost glory and be a great city, I know many Mbaleans have real fears that the city they love will slip away. But together we can make Mbale the safest big city in Uganda, we can accomplish so much together as long as we forgive each others for he past and create a need to go much farther.” Mr Namugali said.