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Here’s a solution to the Centenary Park fight, and one MPs can digest with their samosas!
Daniel Kalinaki
Posted: 2 months 1 week

John Ssebaana Kizito, who passed on this week aged 83, wore many hats. Shrewd businessman, politician, Buganda elder and, in 2006, hoarse-voiced presidential candidate who placed third. But it is as mayor of Kampala City, between 1998 and 2005, that Ssebaana will most be remembered.

Under him, Kampala City Council started converting leasehold titles into freehold for a nominal charge. It allowed many genuine folks to invest with a lot more long-term certainty. But it also had the unintended consequence of sparking a frenzied grabbing of public land across the city.

Leases came with conditions, including land usage restrictions and so on; with freehold titles restrictions were either more relaxed or harder to enforce. You could apply for a lease to set up a hospital, convert the land into freehold, and then build a supermarket, as one ‘investor’ did in Kololo.

Almost overnight, schools, markets, empty plots, all came into play as speculators and carpetbaggers, their saliva dribbling onto freshly printed land titles, surveyed and stole, plotted and plundered. One minister with a notoriously insatiable appetite reportedly sent out teams of his minions, armed with cadastral maps of the city, to identify plots to grab.

Nothing was sacred anymore. The City Square, renamed to celebrate the 1995 Constitution, was measured out for a shopping mall. The National Museum, in Kitante, was nibbled and gnawed at until public uproar chased the vultures away.

This, of course, wasn’t Ssebaana’s fault; like Love In The Time Of Cholera, it, coincided with Grab In The Name Of Chogm. Granted the keys to the city, Ssebaana’s successor, Nasser Sebaggala, yanked the gate off its hinges, gave out the mayor’s official residence then briefly took for himself the town clerk’s official residence. To others, he leased out Centenary Park, set aside a decade earlier to mark the city’s centennial celebrations, and now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. We need not go into the legal details here about building legalities upon illegalities, or pre-empt the findings of the committee about who owns the land and who owes what.

What’s striking is that the fate of the park, or what’s left of it – and we use the word ‘park’ very loosely – has already been decided: It will either remain a dusty collection of lousy bars or will be turned over to utility lines and a spaghetti traffic junction.

It is not that Kampala’s residents have decided they do not need a public park where they can take their kids to fly kites or ride bicycles or simply sit on a bench and read a book; it is that they have not even been asked for their opinion on the matter.

A decision over a symbolic public space in the heart of the city and in the hearts of its residents will be settled by squabbling technocrats and politicians between mouthfuls of tea and indelicate bites through beef and vegetable samosas.

Ideally, city residents should be given the chance to vote on whether they want a park, more bars or a big concrete roundabout suspended in the air. But seeing as there are plans to take away the very right of Kampala residents to elect their top political leaders, extremely radical ideas – such as asking Kampalans what they want/think – are unlikely to be entertained.

So here is a more palatable idea for the MPs to consider as they mull over their findings: If Centenary Park must go, let it be given to whichever party is willing to buy 50-100 acres within 20 kilometres of the city centre and give them to the city for a new permanent public park. They need not worry about the cost of landscaping or maintenance; there are enough progressives around to form a trust to manage the park.

Incidentally, the late Ssebaana was one of the biggest landowners around Kampala. Ceding some of it to public use would allow history and memory to treat him with even more kindness and respect.

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Related: Seeking escape from Kampala’s madness, we chanced on an 100-acre forest getaway, with bicycle trails, 45 minutes out of the city, on the road to Luweero. If readers know of similar child-friendly public spaces, happy to take recommendations.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.

dkalinaki@ke.nationmedia.com

Twitter: @Kalinaki