A combination of sound technocratic management with a good dose of political skill will do the job
I argued in this column last week that any attempt by Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) to carry out transformative reforms in our city will create high political tensions. This is because all reform produces winners and losers. Winners will support reform and losers will become militants determined to resist it. KCCA will be conducting reforms in a context of an already polarised politics of the wider Uganda. The current government has been effective at sustaining economic growth and fostering private wealth accumulation. But it has been abysmal in the delivery of public goods and services. So, many people don’t believe in the promises of better public sector management even if many still have hope.
Here is the dilemma KCCA’s Executive Director, Jennifer Musisi, faces in her reform agenda. The costs of reforming Kampala will be incurred by the losers immediately. So they are certain. This will help them overcome their collective problems and unite to defend their interests. For example, if KCCA seeks to collect trading licenses from every shop, salon, kiosk, supermarket, garage, and barber shop, the inconvenience felt by these groups will be immediate and clear. So they will organise politically through political petitions to parliament or the President or through street demonstrations and mass media campaigns to block such an effort.
Meanwhile, the benefits of such a reform effort – in form of better roads, garbage collected, public gardens, orderliness in the city etc – come at a later date. So they are uncertain and actually unpredictable. Many people will make decisions based on past performance. So they may even suspect that KCCA will collect the money and not do the public services that it promises. So it is very likely that those who stand to benefit from Musisi’s reform efforts may even sympathise with traders, mechanics, etc, when demonstrating against a genuine effort to make them pay their trading licenses.
Yet although these constraints are structurally obdurate, I still believe there is room for agency. To succeed at reform, Musisi will need to be more than the good technocrat that she is. She will have to develop high levels of political skill – skill to manipulate the different factions that constitute the power structure of Kampala. For instance, she will need to ally with one group (e.g. traders) at a particular point to fight another group (vendors) in the battle to promote more cleanliness and orderliness on the streets. Once that has been achieved, she would have to shift alliances, finding new partners, like professionals, to get traders to pay their trading licences.
Strategically therefore, Musisi needs to avoid opening a battle on all fronts – a demand most public commentators are likely to insist she does. For example, if Musisi wants to remove kiosk owners from road reserves, she will be accused of favouring the rich who have built in wetlands. Yet if she begins with the rich and powerful, they may employ their political and financial muscle to defeat her efforts.
An early defeat on a major issue can cause people to lose hope in promises of change. Tactically therefore, it is better to begin a fight where she can secure a quick and decisive win e.g. against the weaker link in the power structure – like vendors and kiosk owners. Yet vendors are only weak when you are far away from an election year. Given their numbers, they become politically powerful on the eve of elections.
Musisi needs to know that she has a honeymoon with time (not term) limits. For instance, the president has confidence in her work and is determined to support her efforts. A significant section of the public is willing to give her the benefit of a doubt, an important moral and political resource for reform. If she wins a few battles as she did against Gen. David Tinyefuza now Sejusa, it will create greater confidence in her to fight other wars. It will also bolster public perception that actually things can change. However, this means Musisi has to be as adept at the management of public perceptions (politics) as she is at technocratic implementation of her objectives.
The point is that Musisi has to sequence her reforms. She must begin where she can win, and win easily. This will secure supporters willing to defend her reforms. Then she can slowly but steadily escalate her wars. For example, we are four years away from the next election. If Musisi has any reform that inconveniences large groups of voters, she has to begin with that – like against vendors, hawkers, market stall and kiosk owners, barber shops, salons, taxi drivers, boda bodas, garages owners, etc. These are made of multitudes of voters. Few politicians, at least not President Yoweri Museveni, will accept any inconvenience against such popular groups in 2015.
Therefore, if Musisi can kick off the war against these groups now, her record of success will give her a fund of moral authority and political clout to take on the rich and powerful who have built in wetlands, grabbed land from green areas etc in 2015. Politically, it is always better to take on the rich towards an election. They are few (so their electoral strength is weak) yet envied by many (the better to attack their privileges during election time). Of course they can fight back with money and control of the mass media. But during election time, the odds would tend to be against them.
Strategically, Musisi needs to plan the calendar of her reforms early. Here she has to identify the different social forces that constitute the power structure of Uganda, specifically Kampala. Then she has to establish which alliances she needs to forge now and with whom and against whom. Then she needs to project when she can shift alliances from one particular group to fight another group.
For each reform, former allies will become adversaries and previous enemies change into militants defending her actions. The aim is never to allow the evolution of a broad-based coalition of many social forces against any piece of reform she intends to implement at a particular point. Ultimately, it is the combined power of sound technocratic management backed by a good dose of political skill that will change Kampala.