Hamisi Mugerwa is a Kampala-based businessman who makes more money from Arua than any other town in the country.
This, however, was not the case when he first ventured into business just slightly over a decade and half ago. He says his fortunes started changing for the better after suddenly noticing a change in his clientele, many of them coming all the way from West Nile.
Worth noting is that about the same time, South Sudan signed a peace deal with the Khartoum government before gaining full independence five years later. As a result, there was an acute demand for almost everything in South Sudan.
Given its location and industriousness, the responsibility to feed the South Sudan market fell into the hands of West Nile traders, who now needed to increase their stock to furnish both the indigenous market as well as the new one in South Sudan.
Mugerwa, fondly referred to as Mambo Yote by his West Nile customers, seems to allude to the aforementioned fact as one of the major reasons that can explain how his business grew. Mambo Yote is a Kiswahili phrase which refers to a person with everythingower, and in this case it is being used to emphasise Mugerwa’s ability to provide all the necessary merchandise, including mattresses, bales of clothes, shoes and even stationery.
Speaking with certainty, he says to date, his largest orders end up in Arua Town if not, it is brought by traders that are bound for Arua.
He is now planning to supply construction materials to West Nile with his base being Arua, a dream he hopes to accomplish in the next two months. He believes this is a venture that can fetch him lots of money, considering that Arua also provides a pathway to the lucrative markets of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mugerwa’s narration in many ways tells the story of what Arua Town has since become in the grand scheme of things—a booming multicultural hub for both internal and cross-border businesses.
A closer look further reveals that there are more similarities between Kampala and Arua Town than there are differences.
Similarity to Kampala
Just like Kampala, Arua Town is cosmopolitan. Business there is vibrant in the same way it is in Kikuubo and Owino market in downtown Kampala. The urban population is high just like in the Kampala city, with the majority inhabitants in their youthful age.
According to the provisional results of the National Population and Housing Census, 2014, Arua Town annual growth rate is at three per cent, slightly higher than the one of Kampala at two per cent. Currently, the population of Arua Municipality is about 62,657 people while the one of Kampala capital city is 1,516,210 people.
And yes, Arua urban dwellers hardly sleep, with the slight difference being that in Kampala, the city life never sleeps whereas in Arua Town activity tends to stop by 5am and then resumes nearly six hours later—way beyond 10am.
According to security agencies, the boom is possible because of improved security across the country.
In an interview with the Arua District police commander, Jonathan Musinguzi, crime such as aggravated robbery, murder, assault and bodily harm is not as prevalent, save for mob action and land disputes.
Where it has come from
It has not always been this way however. The Mayor of Arua Municipality, Mr Charles Asiki, says when trade increased, thanks to the South Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, by 2006, Arua Town had degenerated into a shadow of its former self. “This town was covered in filth—it was stinking,” he says.
Even though this claim is corroborated by Muzamil Musa, a senior citizen in Arua, it is worth noting that the period between 2006 to date coincides with Asiki’s reign as the mayor of Arua who in Muzamil’s opinion, has been the best mayor thus far.
Muzamil says before Asiki became the mayor of Arua, preventable diseases such as cholera, due to uncollected garbage in the centre of the town, were the order of the day.
First forward, there is now an attempt to keep the streets clean. Roads under the municipality seem fairly well taken care of, although the tarmacked roads spot rough edges.
Streets such as Dorcus Inzikuru – named after the athlete who ended Uganda’s 33-year wait for an athletics world title – Rhino Camp Road Street, Adumi road, Transport Street, Hospital Street, Wadrif Street and Weatherhead Parklane are fairly well taken care of.
There is also something about the inhabitants of Arua. The dwellers’ broad smiles are disarming. This is well demonstrated in a section of Arua market, the only market place so far, where a customer is showered with smiles even though he does not spend a coin.
The energy and vibrancy of the people is evident in the way they talk, work and even laugh. The laughter, particularly of excited women is rather shrill and elongated. And that of a happy man is normally deep, a little exaggerated and wide.
And by their very nature they rarely mince words. If you are wrong you will be duly told so and should you deserve a pat on the back you will swiftly be given your fair share.
Congolese music blasts loud most of the day. Out of every five shops in the town, at least two are playing Congolese music, something that seems to serve as a reminder of the historical connection between the two countries.
The night life is busy with several night clubs and hangout joints littered across the town.
Casablanca and Oasis 247 are currently some of the trendiest night spots. Both are located in the middle of the town. They both generate the kind of excitement, thrill, cosiness and flirtatious feeling similar to the ones produced at Kabalagala in Kampala, probably a no go zone for pious souls.
The major activity in this part of the country is farming, with tobacco being the leading cash crop. Trade in merchandise is the other preoccupation. Sugar, rice, cigarettes, clothes, shoes and cosmetics are in high demand both in the local market and across the borders of South Sudan and DR Congo.
Most of the manufactured goods are sourced from Kampala or imported from Asia, particularly China, India and Japan before being re-exported, either through smuggling or legally through the designated border points.
The distance between Arua town and the DRC is no more than 20 kilometres while South Sudan, another lucrative market, is 470km away.
Lugbara is the most dominant language in Arua, with others such as Madi, Aringa, Alur and Kakwa are also widely spoken across West Nile.
Kiswahili, imported especially by traders and refugees from mainly DRC and the other neighbouring countries is another fairly common language. English is fairly understood, though not widely spoken.
The sight of school-going children trekking barefooted to catch early morning class is normal. But the quality of education they get is still under scrutiny.
The same argument applies to the health centres. Arua is not short of physical infrastructures, but modern medical facilities and human resource is lacking.
Despite all that, there is no clear indication that people in this part of the world have given up the fight yet. This time however, the war is not against the colonial captivity that saw their ancestors imprisoned at Aru, but the struggle against poverty which seems much tougher than the one their ancestors encountered.
Understanding historical facts of Arua Town:
The name Arua originates from the word Aru, literary meaning prison.
In many ways, the current generation believes the identity that comes with the historical name tells something about their will as a people as well as their ability to unshackle any form of captivity.
Originally, the name symbolised the struggle between the colonialist and the indigenous people who were opposed to the occupation of West Nile by British colonialists.
Folklore has is it that about a century ago, when the British established their authority over West Nile, which was part of Belgian Congo then, not many locals were excited by the development. So most of them resisted the move. Those who were subdued by the British-assembled forces were incarcerated at a location called Aru, which was up a hill.
It was about the same time that Arua Municipality, complete with a plan, was founded by a British colonial administrator called Arthur Evelyn Weatherhead, the first district commissioner of West Nile.
It was not until the late 1970s that the district officially took up the Arua municipality (town) name, after the regime of Godfrey Binaisa declared that all districts and and provinces take up names of their regional capitals.
Following that pronouncement, the district came to be known as Arua District, inheriting its name from Arua Town (municipality).
To date, only one-third of the Lugbara, the biggest inhabitants of Arua, are found in the present day Democratic Republic of Congo as the majority became part of Uganda after Britain annexed West Nile which was part of the present day Democratic Republic of Congo.
By the time the Union Jack (the national flag of the United Kingdom) was brought down and the Ugandan one raised, symbolising self-rule, Arua was steadily shaping into a strategic location for commerce, diverse culture and a gateway to countries such as South Sudan in the north, and the DR Congo in the west.
Speaking to different senior citizens of Arua, there was a consensus that during independence through to the 1970s, Arua town, just like many other municipalities, was neat and organised.
The border between the neighbouring DR Congo and South Sudan—two prime markets for the people of Arua and West Nile in general happens to be the most porous after the eastern border—Uganda-Kenya border.
A Uganda Revenue Authority report for the period beginning July 2014 to February 2015, showed offences such as undervaluation and mis-declaration of items contributing to nearly 70 per cent of the smuggling offences.
Whereas the eastern border accounts for nearly three quarters of that form of smuggling, the northern border comes second with nearly 15 per cent of such cases.
Outright smuggling contributed to 14 per cent of the offences with the northern border taking the lion share of such offences. Outright smuggling involves getting physical items to the other end of the border, normally by hook or crook—no matter the circumstances. This is the most risky and employed method of smuggling from West Nile to South Sudan and DRC and vice versa.
The top items smuggled according to the revenue authority include motorcycle spare parts, garments, school bags, mobile phones, gold, motor vehicle spares, used clothes, wheat flour, tiles, bicycle tyres and tubes, cigarettes and polythene bags.
What residents say about the town. By Clement Aluma
“ I feel happy about the developments in the town. If we continue at this pace, the municipality will soon acquire city status. If we continue like this, Arua can easily become regional business centre in East and Central Africa.
Jerry Abejoa, LCIII Chairman Arivu Sub County
“ The growth of the town has brought a lot of opportunities for us. Contractors who take up tenders are now consulting the technical people which is a sign of development.
Mudasir Omia, Civil Engineer
“ We appreciate the developments, but this is what we expected. It is the obligation of government to do so in anticipation of the city status. Arua had remained behind for a long time but now we want to catch up with other parts of the country in terms of development.
Nesma Ocokoru, councillor
“ This town has witnessed drastic changes in the past few years including improved roads that enable even hard to reach areas do business. I hope the municipal authorities take full responsibility of what is happening now in the municipality and its surrounding areas.
Francis Drate, resident
Facts about Arua
• Arua is about 8-9 hours’ drive, about 482km from the capital, Kampala. It is located to the northwest of the country’s capital city.
• In 2001, Yumbe District was carved out of Aringa County of the then Arua District.
• Koboko District was similarly carved out of Koboko County of the then Arua District.
• In 2006, a district comprising the counties of Maracha and Terego was carved out of Arua.
As of now, Arua comprises the counties of Ayivu (whose total population is about 246,196 people), Vurra (with a population of 133,640), Madi-Okollo (with a total population of 138,677 people) and Arua Municipality (with a population of 62,600 people).
Source: Arua District Local Government and Ubos provisional results, 2014
SOURCE: Daily Monitor