Barack’s Magic Kwik Kleen won’t keep your cities sparkling

At last Barack Obama has returned home. Now we can also return to our normal lives.

It was marvellous how, for a few days, we escaped from our day-to-day preoccupations and focused on what the president of the United States was telling us and our leaders to do, and what not to do what makes for a good life and what things such as nation-building mean, and how to go about pursuing and achieving them.

The excitement this caused among Africans who are frustrated with their governments and presidents and who are clearly happy to invest their hopes for change in some external force or actor, was truly striking.

Equally attention-catching was the amount of talking and volume of writing about what the visit meant for Africa and Africans.

Much has been said about how it will catalyse investment on the continent by American businesses. That would be good, of course. The question is how it is supposed to happen.

With few exceptions, where Africa is concerned, American investors do a great deal of fence-sitting, waiting for governments to carry out this or that reform before trusting the business environment enough to risk their money.

The problem is, in many cases, the said reforms do not happen fast enough, if at all. There is no bigger reason for why the Chinese and other Asians and to some extent the Lebanese have moved in ahead of them and taken over much of the investment space in many of the most lucrative domains, than this fixation with formality.

The Chinese and the others go where opportunity calls. They are undeterred by what foreign investors who think conventionally see as insurmountable obstacles.

In due course they become masters at navigating complex situations with the help of local fixers who possess the necessary connections or experience.

There is therefore not much point in getting carried away by all the rhetoric about American investment. It is by no means certain that American investors with their love for highly sanitised investment destinations are about to come rushing into Africa, just because Obama visited and his administration is offering incentives.

His predecessors too came and visited and made similarly optimistic pronouncements about the same things. That has done little to match American investment with, say, Chinese.

Having said that, I listened attentively to his pronouncements on governance. They gave me pause for thought.

Over the past decade or so, American presidents have visited four of the five East African Community countries. Clinton came to Uganda. George Bush went to Rwanda. Obama went to Tanzania before he went to Kenya.

With the exception of Rwanda, where no special cleaning up took place, in the other three countries the authorities frantically spruced up their cities in preparation for the arrival of the big man. Buildings were repainted, and roads repaired and painted with new markings.

Writing from Nairobi recently, a Kenyan friend did not hide her indignation: “They even repainted the sides of the roads and swept dirt paths!!”

Many residents of Kampala were just as indignant when prior to Bill Clinton’s visit, the same frantic efforts were made to rid Kampala’s CBD of its potholes, dust, and piles of garbage. Even President Yoweri Museveni’s wife Janet, joined the volunteers who came out to clean up around the city’s Nakasero Market.

The Tanzanian authorities too spared no effort to try to make Dar es Salaam look like the city it wasn’t when no American president was visiting.
In governance terms, this behaviour raises difficult but pertinent questions.

Consider this: All the cities where it was necessary to clean up had elected mayors and municipal councillors at the time the American presidents came calling. Kigali, where no such special effort was made, has an appointed executive mayor.

City residents have no say in how or why anyone gets to occupy that office. And no, Kigali is not clean because voters make any demands that it should be so. The mayor and his people, under some pressure from the national government, thanks to performance contracts that are actually enforced, keep the city clean because that is how it should be.

In policy jargon, one would say Kigali’s cleanliness is “supply driven,” not “demand driven.” Meanwhile citizens are required by the authorities to participate in cleaning up their neighbourhoods at least once a month.

In Kampala, only since the appointment by President Museveni of an executive director for the city administration, has the capital been turned around from one of the filthier cities in the region to one that is increasingly clean and endeavouring to get organised.

Now to the questions: Why is it that cities where leaders are elected and where they should be subject to popular pressure to perform, are the same cities where hygiene becomes visibly important only when foreign dignitaries like American presidents are visiting?

And why is it that those who elect them, arguably the most politically aware and civic-minded citizens, do not use their power as voters to force change?

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: