Politics and informality in Kampala: A conversation with Peter Kasaija

Nov 21, 2023

“Informal settlements in Kampala, and in other cities elsewhere across Africa, they are not homogenous, they’re very heterogeneous. The kinds of pressures they face – social, environmental, political, economic pressures – they’re very different.”

More than half of people living in African cities reside in informal settlements. Such settlements often share similar challenges – including inadequate access to basic services and infrastructure, and insecure tenure. But when it comes to understanding the political dynamics of urban informality, the differences cannot be ignored.

In this episode, ACRC’s Kampala informal settlements domain lead Peter Kasaija joins Smith Ouma for a conversation around how politics shapes access to basic services in Kampala’s informal settlements. They discuss deficiencies in city systems, the multiple players operating in these spaces and the “invisible hand” of powerful local actors in granting access to basic services. They also talk about the often-overlooked political savviness of informal settlement residents in using political support to protect themselves against eviction. And they reflect on the evolution of informal settlements in the city, and why some might disappear in the near future.

Peter Kasaija is a researcher at the Urban Action Lab at Makerere University and leads ACRC’s informal settlements domain research in Kampala.

Smith Ouma is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at The University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute and part of ACRC’s informal settlements domain team.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Smith Ouma Welcome to the African Cities podcast. My name is Smith Ouma. I’m a research fellow with the African Cities Research Consortium. With me today is Peter Kasaija, with whom we’ve been collaborating in informal settlements-related research in Kampala. Peter is a researcher with the Urban Action Lab Geography Department, Makerere University in Uganda. Welcome, Peter. It’s good to see you.

Peter Kasaija Thank you very much. Smith.

Smith Ouma So for starters, Peter, could you paint a picture for us of what a journey from Entebbe International Airport – which is Uganda’s main airport – to the heart of Kampala, will look like for someone that’s visiting Kampala for the first time.

Peter Kasaija Yes, that’s a very interesting question. I think for anyone who’s been to Uganda before and has travelled from Entebbe into Kampala, it’s quite an eye-opening experience. I mean, starting from Entebbe airport and then, of course, you have to drive through more or less what I would call a high-value or very affluent neighbourhood. This affluent neighbourhood initially started out as a colonial administration point before the colonial administration shifted the administrative capital from Entebbe to Kampala. So the typical experience is that first you leave the airport, you drive through this affluent neighbourhood, where laid-out roads, high-income neighbourhoods, large bungalows and these very large quarter-acre properties, leafy suburb, your typical high-end, affluent neighbourhood really. And then of course, as you leave Entebbe, the picture or the scenery changes. Until recently, access to Entebbe Airport or that peninsula where Entebbe Airport is actually located, the one route to Kampala was essentially your typical drive along a road that was markedly characterised by mostly haphazard commercial developments, linear developments along the road. These were mostly composed of informal developments – supermarkets, shops, small activities, kiosks, again, I would say, the typical layout of your linear town or linear developments in an African city. And then, five or six years ago, interestingly, what happened was that an alternative route was opened up – the so-called Entebbe Expressway. So the experiences when it comes to using either one of the two roads are very different. As I said, the first road, the old road, was your typical linear, informal kind of road, where you drive through these little shops, little kiosks, supermarkets, a messy kind of set up, always prone to having to be caught up in traffic jams along the way and all kinds of disruptions in your movement. But you got to see a little bit of the flavour of the city. The informality itself was like you got a flavour of it going through the old road. But now with the new road, the Expressway, things are very different, because this is an exclusive route. Of course, with the opening of that road, it has triggered again high-income, affluent neighbourhoods along this particular road. But you’re not going to see the same character of the linear, haphazard, informal developments that you’ll find along the old Entebbe road. So what you see here is a well curated, laid out roadway that is very exclusive because it is also tolled – you have to pay a tax to actually use it. So you have these two contrasting experiences of leaving Entebbe, travelling to Kampala, where you can choose to take the more exclusive route. This nice breezy Expressway with all these high-end tiled red tiles villas along it, with very little in terms of the informality that you would expect to see in an African city. You’re essentially driving through a highly sanitised environment, which does not really give an indication of what the real flavour, or the real character, of the city is. So it’s very deceptive as you use that alternative route, the more exclusive route, very different from the old route, which actually went through these little informal developments, linear developments that led you to Kampala. And it’s only when you actually go off that exclusive road, the Expressway, you realise that oh, there’s a very different image of Kampala from what I’ve actually seen along the Expressway. I think that can give you just a bit of those two contrasting experiences, depending on the road that you take when you’re travelling from Entebbe to Kampala.

Smith Ouma Very interesting that the road that you take exposes you to certain realities, but certain realities are also obscured, depending on what road you choose to gain entry to this very important African capital.

Peter Kasaija It definitely gives you the two faces of the capital – one, which is the exclusive minority and then one which is the majority. But of course, this is something which is not any different from any other city in Africa. Indeed. But that’s Kampala for you – Kampala Entebbe to Kampala, or Kampala to Entebbe.

Smith Ouma Thank you. So it looks like informality is still a defining feature of Kampala as a city. Also, being a researcher in the informal settlements domain, what do you think around what are the important systems within these areas that are considered to be invisible, yet they’re still there? What systems are important to the functioning of informal settlements within Kampala?

Peter Kasaija Based on our research and experience accumulated over several years as a researcher, I think the most important systems that are really critical, when it comes to informal settlements or the informal side of Kampala, are the basic services. When you talk about solid waste management, water provision, sanitation, when you talk about drainage, these for me are the most critical, because they evidently shape the character of informal settlements and the experiences of people who live in these informal settlements. The quality of these services, the issues around accessibility, issues around the nature of coverage, the extent of the coverage, issues around the governance of these systems, all of these, when you bring them together, they ultimately are the most important ones that shape not just the functionality, but how people experience or how they live the informal life as we know it in a city like Kampala.

Smith Ouma Yeah. And you also understand that when it comes to these issues that you mentioned, questions around access, questions around the governance of these different systems, that politics, especially within a capital city context like Kampala, plays a very important role. So what are these political dynamics that you’ve identified at either an informal settlement context, a city context that is Kampala, or at a national context, that influence how the inhabitants, particularly urban informal settlements, access basic services?

Peter Kasaija I think it eventually goes down to those key elements I’ve pointed out regarding these systems – the issue of access. Who determines who has access to a particular service? Who determines the coverage of a particular service? Who is going to determine, for example, the quality of service? Who is going to determine the governance arrangements, the structures that mediate how these particular services are operated, how they function, how they are sustained, or how they are maintained on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis? So evidently it comes down to who are these key actors behind these particular systems? And the kinds of decisions that they make on a day-to-day basis, on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, will determine, for example, how the residents or stakeholders in these informal settlements negotiate, how they bargain for, when it comes to accessing these particular services or issues that will affect the level of coverage or the quality of these services. Is it high quality kind of services or is it low quality kind of services? And I think it is those politics that will evidently shape access to basic services in the informal sector or the informal settlement domain in Kampala. And of course, these individuals are represented by a variety of what I would call institutions. We have the formal institutions, the city government. We’re following the standard dual system of governance, so the technocrats, the political leaders or the political officials, these are very important players. But outside the state, the city government, you also have the NGOs. NGOs are very important players. While they might want to present themselves as being neutral, unfortunately, they are not. Perhaps the words that come into play here are probably being either overtly neutral or covertly neutral or intentionally neutral or unintentionally political. So you have the city government, the state, one of the major state-based actors. You have the NGOs, but another one of the state actors, we have organisations like National Waters and Sewage Corporation, we have regulatory organisations like the National Environmental Management Authority. We have other important state actors like the ministerial bodies, although those ones have a more residual kind of influence, not as much as National Waters and Sewage Corporation or KCCA or the NGOs, for that matter. And then, beyond those, the recognisable ones or the visible ones, we also have the CBOs, which are also playing important roles in filling important deficits or critical deficits. You also have cartels as well, who are important players. These are individuals who have created power bases in informal sectors using their significant resources, power and influence to influence systems. We have the private service providers when it comes to water, sanitation, waste management. These are also important players. We also have cultural institutions. The Buganda government, I think, is playing an important role, being a major landowner in the city and where many of these informal settlements are, the religious institutions, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church of Uganda, the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, that’s for the Muslims. All these are major stakeholders because they own a lot of land, in some cases where most of these informal settlements are located. So the invisible hand of different actors is very much involved in shaping the politics around access to basic services, as depicted.

Smith Ouma And it’s very interesting that you’ve identified some of these actors at different levels. And, as you say, they operate at different levels within the city and different scales. And I’m particularly interested, for instance, let’s pick an example, waste collection within informal settlements: who would you say are the main actors responsible for these kind of service provision? First, does it exist? To what extent does it exist? Who are the main actors when it comes to provision of solid waste management services in Kampala?

Peter Kasaija Kampala is an interesting case, where we now have a scenario of several important players, with the recent introduction of a franchise working arrangement, where KCCA have contracted private waste collectors to undertake waste collection.

Smith Ouma And for the purposes of clarity to our listeners, KCCA is?

Peter Kasaija The Kampala Capital City Authority.

Smith Ouma Oh, great. Thank you.

Peter Kasaija Yeah. So the Kampala Capital City Authority contracted private companies, firms to undertake waste collection on their behalf across the city. But the fact that in informal settlements, because under this franchise arrangement, the private collectors are meant to do the collection for a fee, but most of the residents in informal settlements cannot afford these fees. So eventually what was negotiated was that the private collectors would collect solid waste in areas, for example, like the markets, affluent neighbourhoods – these are considered to be entities who can pay for the service. And for the informal settlements, KCCA took it upon themselves to actually collect the waste in the informal settlements for free, considering the fact that most of the residents in these informal settlements cannot afford paying for these services. However, because of the fact that there’s a lot of politics embedded in these processes, you will find that that service is very uneven in informal settlements, depending on, for example, the nature of leadership in these informal settlements. Informal settlements where you have highly charismatic local leaders – we call them local council chairpersons with their committees – those were highly charismatic, very powerful, very vocal, are able to ensure that you have more or less regular, more consistent solid waste management services being offered, while in other cases, where leaders are not as vocal and not as charismatic, or belong, for example, to the opposition, for them, it’s relatively harder to actually secure more consistent services or provision of these very important waste management facilities like the garbage skips and the like. So that has created that uneven landscape, where while the Kampala Capital City Authority has taken it upon itself to provide the services in the informal settlements, it is very uneven. You’ll find places where solid waste management is relatively very consistent and in other areas, where is very inconsistent, because of largely the politics and of course other factors – not just the politics, but politics plays a very important role in shaping the quality of services and the evenness of services, waste management services, in informal settlements.

Smith Ouma Urban politics, also, you bring out the idea of the issue around political affiliation. Does that also play out at a settlement level, settlements affiliated to certain political orientations or aligned with certain political parties receive preferential treatment? Is that true?

Peter Kasaija Yes, to a certain extent. We are not saying that it is the major factor, but those affiliations play important roles in terms of negotiation, power and influence of, say, local leaders to pressurise the city government to provide the services. But then you also have other factors coming in – where I talked about the charisma, how vocal an LC1 chairperson is or a local leader is, how much power and influence they have, because in some cases, these are the outliers. You might find opposition-leaning or -aligned local leaders, but because of the fact that they have shoehorned the skills of negotiation and bargaining, they are still able to secure these services, unlike maybe other areas where they do have leaders who are NRM-leaning, but they are very weak. So the character of the leaders is also a very important factor that comes into play, in addition to their political alignment also playing a role to a certain extent.

Smith Ouma So power and influence of local leaders also have a bearing when it comes to access and provision to services. And does this also feature when it comes to political competition? So do we see political actors competing to enable access to these services to their electorate within their constituencies or within the local area that they come from? And does this influence the distribution of basic services within the settlements? So competition between local politicians, does this have any bearing around allocation or distribution of basic services?

Peter Kasaija Yes, definitely. There is competition and it has a bearing on the allocation of the provision of services, but only to a certain extent. Because what we have found is that inasmuch as you have these political affiliations at the local level, at the settlement level, there seems to have emerged a tendency of these leaders to be able to negotiate and bargain without having to create a situation of deleterious competition. One is aware that I am aligned to the NRM and he knows his colleague is aligned to, say, the National Unity Platform, one of the newest opposition parties, led by Bobi Wine, also known as Robert Kyagulanyi. But what has happened, if I can go back to the point I was trying to make, is that they have been very savvy. To find a middle ground amongst themselves, to negotiate and bargain, to ensure that whatever competition would have emerged or contestation between them because of their political affiliation, it is not very visible. There tends to be a consensus on them trying to achieve the so-called public interest. For example, when we talk about solid waste management, you’ll find that there’s always agreement amongst themselves, these local leaders, the powerful nodes around which power and influence rotate in these informal settlements, to negotiate these differences, to transcend these differences and ensure that services are provided without having that stalemate or gridlock of political party affiliations, determining whether services actually are provided or not. And that is the unique thing we’ve found about informal settlements in Kampala, and that’s condition where the local leaders or these important players are able to strike some kind of common ground consensus that we are working in the public interest, we put aside our political differences, we all know which affiliations we belong to, but we try to put aside these differences to ensure that services are provided. And that’s like a progressive way in which power, or productive power we are seeing in these informal settlements, because I think it comes from the fact that we are all in this together: we either sink as a community or we swim as a community. So we have to strike that common ground to ensure that we all meet our common objectives, common needs of survival.

Smith Ouma This coming together between these politicians to enable service provision to the inhabitants, is it a feature that we can also see in the more affluent areas of the city? Or is it something that is unique to these informal settlements where you work?

Peter Kasaija I cannot say much about the other parts of the city outside the informal settlements, but the feeling is that politics is not very strong, doesn’t strongly play out so much in the affluent neighbourhoods, because there’s a sense that they tend to transcend their political differences, political ideologies. And for them it’s always about the services. So I can only speculate that the politics is probably not as intense or as visible as in the informal settlements, where people, local leaders, important individuals, clearly stand out, identify as an NRM-leaning person – nRM is the the incumbent government, the current government – or an NUP-leaning person, which is the opposition. So while we see it as being the politics, being very visible, playing out on a daily basis in the informal settlements, I’m not sure whether it actually plays out to the same level or the same scale outside the city because the needs are different, the issues are slightly different for the kinds of communities we are talking about. And I would think that the nature, the way that politics plays plays out, it’s probably not as intense as you would have it here, a little more visible, in the informal settlements.

Smith Ouma It’s less visible there. And oftentimes the inhabitants of informal settlements are viewed as these political pawns, who are moved around by local politicians who try to advance their interests. But is this necessarily the case in Kampala’s informal settlements, or do these inhabitants also assert their agency? Do they also play a role, do they also have some influence around how services are provided to them and who can access these services?

Peter Kasaija Very good question. And that’s one of the things we’ve been grappling with recently, until, of course, we had those very interesting findings. Often the perception is that poor people, informal settlement residents, are mere pawns in this broad political game of jockeying for power, for influence, for the benefits that come along with power. But what we have seen from our research is that informal settlement residents are actually displaying a high level of agency. By being able to make certain choices, when you see the choices they make – for example, I’ll use the case of the two sites which we engaged in our research – when you look at the electoral patterns, the electoral patterns point to a picture of them leaning more and more towards the opposition. Because gradually, since 2016, 2011, the support for the NRM government in the presidential elections, the main presidential elections, has been gradually falling. And yet we are very much aware that they still have these pockets, where you have, for example, powerful individuals, like local leaders, still identifying with the NRM government, or even communities themselves identifying with the NRM government or as supporters of the NRM government. So that in itself has brought out a picture whereby we see informal settlement residents being able to display a certain savviness, in that they are not what you would refer to as these pliable communities: that word has been spoken, this is how you should vote, this is what you should do. Not necessarily. They will make choices based on certain logics, certain levels of intelligence, based on their own community knowledge, local knowledge that defies the assumptions that they are simply pawns in a wider or broader political game. And it is those old perceptions that have given us these stereotypical perspectives of informal settlement residents as being these pliable, neutral, non-political individuals or elements. But the research says otherwise, that they are very political, they are not as neutral as we think, and they are making choices which, at a specific moment in time, choices are based on certain needs, certain interests, and not necessarily because they’ve been compelled to make these particular choices. So there is definitely agency we are seeing in these informal settlements.

Smith Ouma Okay, great, great. That, in a way, is very fascinating because oftentimes on a site, there’s always that view, that perception, but your engagement, and also just looking at politics around informal settlements and how inhabitants position themselves, in a way gives a different picture – that they know how to navigate local politics and they understand how to advance their interests with this understanding of how the political arrangements are within the settlement and also on the city level.

Peter Kasaija Yes, if I can use, for example, a very vivid case of one of the settlements that we researched, where the settlement is located in a wetland. And so their most immediate threat is eviction by the city authority, because they are essentially located in the wetland illegally. Their possession of that settlement, their living in that settlement is under the framing of illegality. The city council, the Kampala Capital City Authority sees that or views that as an illegality. The same thing with National Environment Management Authority, because clearly the settlement has gone beyond the beacons that have been set as a boundary. Now, to their credit, they have been savvy enough to realise that “we are under illegality. Our occupation of this wetland is considered to be illegal. But how do we protect ourselves against eviction?” And that is where they are smart enough to use the cover of the NRM, or as supporters of NRM, so that they can avoid being a victim, because that in itself makes them untouchable. Because at the entrance of the settlement, and LC1 chairperson’s office, which is meant to be neutral, has been painted the colours of the NRM government, so that is a signal, that is symbolic that we are supporters of the NRM government, we are untouchable, we cannot be removed. And it has worked. The city government cannot touch them. National Environment Management Authority has not tried or attempted to evict them, out of the fear that there will be repercussions if they evict these supporters of the NRM government. And that shows you just how savvy they are in being able to understand the political dynamics, the political winds, and to navigate and negotiate them accordingly, in their own interests, in their benefit. And yet you realise that, as I highlighted before, the support for the NRM government itself has been dropping, has been falling. And yet they’re here masquerading as NRM supporters. So that shows you that delicate balance they’ve being able to strike or that line that they’ve been able to … that position they’ve been able to put themselves in, to be able to meet their own interests when navigating a very difficult urban environment, in terms of regulation, in terms of the politics itself that they live in on a day-to-day basis.

Smith Ouma Very, very, very fascinating. And that’s a very interesting example that you give there. And just to finalise our question around how you see the domain, informal settlements, changing in the next five years, in terms of how inhabitants in Kampala’s informal settlements will be able to access basic services? Do you see any pertinent changes in the next five years, sitting where you are?

Peter Kasaija They’re definitely going to be changes. And one of the most obvious changes is that some informal settlements will disappear because we’ve been talking about a typology of informal settlements. Informal settlements in Kampala, and in other cities elsewhere across Africa, they are not homogenous, they’re very heterogeneous. The kinds of pressures they face – social, environmental, political, economic pressures – they’re very different. So what we are likely to see is that informal settlements that are very close to the city centre will probably be overtaken by economic, political, economic interests, because for as long as they are located on high-value land, there’s no way that, in spite of their connections to the ruling government or support for the NRM, we can feasibly see these settlements still in these particular localities. So that is one of the sobering realities for some settlements that are very close to the CBD. Now, the big questions, or the significant questions, are for those informal settlements that are slightly away from the CBD, which might not necessarily face the same socioeconomic pressures, but for them it’s more about the political environmental pressures. We cannot say definitively how things will change or transform for these particular settlements in the future, because it could go either way; it could go the other way if we see a new government. Again, it very much depends on the ideology of the city government that comes in. If a new city government head comes in and this person deems that informal settlements should be removed from the city, that could also create a different dynamic. If we are seeing a different government that takes a similar stance to the kind of government we have, which is taking more of a go-slow approach, that is not radical when it comes to informal settlements, because they are borrowing a leaf from the previous city government which was a little more radical, was, I think, pushing out informal settlements out of the city, but they got a rebuke, a reprimand from the president and eventually the ED was forced to resign. So the new city government that has come in, it’s more of a non-barking dog. It’s a guard dog, but it’s not really doing much. It’s not really doing anything. It’s more of “let us keep the status quo”. So if we do have a similar government, we’ll probably have more informal settlements or expansion of the existing informal settlements. But the likely scenario would be that as they expand, there’ll be even a greater demand for more services to be expanded into these settlements, because they are making up more than 80% of the resident population in the city. So the future we are seeing is that if the settlements just outside of the city do expand and grow, as is expected, if they are not pushed out by the next city government and we retain the same ideology, we’re probably going to see a scenario where they’ll be forced to expand services, so that they can cover the demographic deluge that will be seen, because even as of now, they are contributing the greatest percentage of the resident population in the city. And the only way that the city can actually improve the welfare or create a certain image is by expanding services in these areas. And we are having a metropolitan region expanding, the affluent, the middle-income are moving out of the city. So, while we don’t expect that all these informal settlements in the city will expand exponentially, the fact that the population living in the city will more or less be mostly informal, there will be that pressure to expand services and provide them in those settlements. And that could also transform and also lead us to a different kind of character of informal settlements. Because the danger with the expansion of these services, and these informal settlements as they grow, is the aspect of gentrification, the attraction of commercial interests or capitalist interests, who come in and push them away. So those are some of the big questions we have still yet to really grapple with.

Smith Ouma Indeed. Thank you. And from what I hear from you, so the geographical location of the informal settlements, the politics, the political dynamics, both at the city and national level, and the inhabitants themselves, how they will respond to these dynamics, are important factors that we need to pay attention to, in trying to see how these settlements evolve.

Peter Kasaija Exactly. The conjunction of the local-level politics with city-level politics and national-level politics will play a very important role in shaping the character of these settlements in the next five, six, ten years to come. Because, as I explained a little more specifically, it will very much have a lot to do – how is the population growing? What are the needs? And if the population is growing, there are certain needs that have emerged. If we do expand social services, social service delivery into these neighbourhoods, what is going to be the unintended impact, in terms of gentrification, in terms of value capture and the change in terms of how these particular settlements are valued, for example, from a national political level? Because ultimately what we found out from our research is that the electoral benefits of informal settlements in the city are not really the priority for the NRM government. If the economic benefits outweigh the electoral benefits for the NRM government, it’s a no-brainer. They would definitely just go with the economic benefits because for them it’s about “how can we be able to accrue the economic benefits so that we can stay in power?” And money is very important beyond capturing the city as an NRM support base, because the reality is, it appears that it’s a gone case – they cannot be able to wrestle it back from the opposition. They’ve tried, with the recentralisation of the city government, but the last ten years has shown that very little has changed in terms of substantive political electoral support for the NRM. So it will mostly move to what outweighs the other. And for as long as the economic benefits outweigh the electoral benefits, we’ll probably see some of these informal settlements disappearing.

Smith Ouma Okay, great. Thank you so much, Peter. That’s very fascinating. And thank you for joining us and for sharing these very interesting insights around informal settlements in Kampala.

Peter Kasaija Thank you very much Smith. I was delighted to be able to share my experiences with you.

Smith Ouma Thank you. You’ve been listening to the African Cities podcast. Remember to subscribe for more urban development insights and interviews from the African Cities Research Consortium.

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Header photo credit: Andi Edwards / iStock. Accomodation and road structure on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda.

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