On the face of it, Charles Andama looks quite comfortable. He does not seem bothered at all, not even by the hot afternoon sun.
But a second look shows that although he has made strides in his life compared to many of his peers, he is now at crossroads.
He hates this feeling because it reminds him of things he should have done better but he did not. However, he cherishes opportunities that he grabbed along the way, considering that most of them were half chances.
Narrating his experience during an interview recently in Arua, Andama says about two decades ago, he started his working life as a struggling cyclist (boda-boda) ferrying goods between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
From Arua, given its proximity to DRC, the Congolese national who cam with nothing but a go-getter attitude would supply the French-speaking country with basic merchandise such as clothes, sugar, bars of soap and even salt. Occasionally, he would take cigarettes as well.
Most of these items he would either supply on credit, or was hired to deliver them across the the border.
He would return with African fabrics (kitenge), which he would sell to the traders in Arua who in turn would bring them to Kampala where it fetched fairly good prices.
Keen to become a successful businessman, he said he endured the terrain that not many would have negotiated without luck on their side. He would work for long hours throughout the week.
The biggest threat came from the anti-smuggling officers from both sides of the borders. They seemed too willing to pull the trigger against suspected smugglers who were considered common thieves. Because of that, he was in constant fear of his life.
As if that was not enough, beginning in the mid-1990s which was the run-up to the ouster of former president Mobutu Sese Seko of DR Congo, money was hard to come by. He spent days, sometimes weeks labouring for so little.
“It reached a point where I didn’t have enough money to operate as most of it was tied up in debt. It was a difficult time for everybody as there was acute shortage of money due to insecurity at the time.”
He continued: “I unconditionally extended the repayment period to my creditors and agreed to be paid when things got better, which they did, with some choosing to refund with interest.”
Armed with some cash, partly thanks to the accrued interest, he impulsively ventured into money lending.
And before he knew it he had graduated from boda-boda to a taxi, this time not just as a hired driver, but as an owner.
Despite being an imigrant, Andama grew both in stature and income. Actually not until he tells you his story can you tell that he is an emigrant. He speaks the dominant language (Lugbara) fluently and spends majority of his time in Arua Town than in Congo—his motherland.
He now employs six people who are run his transport (taxi) business in Arua and the other side of the border—DRC.
Despite such strides, Andema prefers to conduct his transactions informally, believing that formalising it will earn him the wrath of the state, particularly the taxman.
Caught up in the same web is Mary Alezuyo, a shrewd and witty money changer.
She has been doing this for years now after her husband who had been in the business for nearly 25 years introduced her into it by default rather than design.
She says: “One morning, my husband woke up not feeling well yet he had an appointment with one of his big clients. He didn’t want me do this, but I knew this client. All I did was go to his base—his work station and started work.”
She continues: “That evening when I returned home, I declared all the proceeds and since then I became part of the business.” She says she can now change any currency of whatever amount with minimum or no hassle at all.
As years went by, she progressed as her husband thrived thanks in part to the random investment they have since undertaken in retail shops, re-export business and real estate among others.
While telling her story, it is evident that her desire to succeed is strong although it appears that she doesn’t have a focused strategy informing her decisions. Her husband, it appears, is also a victim of somewhat successful but uncoordinated business.
Then there is also Paul Asega. But unlike Alezuyo and Andama, he has no idea where to get the next meal. He basically lives off the mercy of the street.
The three scenarios involving the lives of Asega, Alezuyo and Andama, in many ways, exemplify the story of contemporary Arua Town and its people.
Fastest growing urban centre
Development experts, analysts, government technical officials, Arua municipality leadership, as well as private sector players Daily Monitor spoke to, all concur that Arua town is not just expanding in population numbers but also making strides in terms of economic growth and development compared to several other towns across the country.
To illustrate the magnitude of the cross-border trade that is orchestrated, largely by the Arua town dwellers, one can look at the revenue missed as a result of illicit trade rather than the one accrued in legitimate business.
As a result of illicit trade in West Nile, thanks to the Arua traders’ significant involvement, the government losses nearly Shs10b in terms of revenue.
“Rice, cigarettes, polythene bags, spirits, cooking oil, textile and tiger head battery cells top the list of most smuggled items,” according to URA enforcement report.
The National Population and Housing Census 2014 provisional results, ranks Arua municipality among the 20 largest urban centres in the country on the account of its numerical strength.
According to the 2014 provisional census results, Arua municipality is home to nearly 63,000 people. A decade ago it was home to about 44,000 and a decade before that, it was resident for 22,200 people.
Newly-commissioned Uganda Registration Service Bureau (URSB) office in Arua indicates encouraging signs in regards to the number of companies registering there.
In an interview with the Arua-based senior registration officer, Charlotte Thereza Mudoola, it became evident that the reason behind having a URSB office in Arua and not anywhere else in the West Nile region is because of the municipality’s economic vibrancy and strategic location.
She said in three months of operation, they have registered about 20 companies as many daily make inquiries on how to go about this procedure.
“Going by what we have seen since we opened shop here in November, we anticipate that it is just a matter of time before we start registering at least 10 companies every day, in addition to offering related mandated services,” Mudoola said.
With booming trade following stability in South Sudan and DR Congo and not to mention a favourable trading environment in West Nile, commercial activities are becoming an attractive option.
And as result of that, the urban dwellers are not only enjoying themselves more but are also investing the proceeds they are generating from the trade in merchandise into real estate, retail shops and shopping arcades.
The bad news, however, is that the kind of exponential growth is disorganised and therefore, undermines both the short and long-term structured development that Arua Town deserves.
“Arua Town is growing randomly. One morning when we wake up we will find ourselves living in a big slum called Arua city,” the Mayor of Arua, Charles Asiki, says.
“Construction is happening rapidly. Good houses are mushrooming, but they’re all being done without adhering to the required plans.”
The mayor blames such chaotic growth and development on the attitudes of the people of West Nile’s most progressive district who still think they live in times where rules and regulation meant nothing.
Importantly perhaps, the resources availed for the development of the municipality, for lack of better word, is laughable.
With Shs11.5b revenue, most of which takes care of civil servants salaries and wages, what is left is barely enough for even a good kilometre of road.
Alex Ojera, the senior land management officer, Gulu District, says the shambolic growth of Arua municipality is a disease that is not unique to the West Nile town. He argues that, just like elsewhere in the country, the problem is unwillingness by the authority to enforce the law.
And for that, the landlords, who are motivated by profits have been left to run the show, explaining the current mess, not just in Arua Municipality but across the urban areas in the country.
“We are now caught up in a situation where land in the urban areas is privately-owned, meaning the owners of the land can do what they want as the authorities watch helplessly. I think we need to define our land tenure system more clearly,” Mr Ojera said in an interview.
Throw away the rosy figures
Plainly speaking, the glowing figures suggesting Arua municipality growth, according to Arua Municipal Council Town Clerk, Francis Byabagambi, does not tell the whole story.
First, he says, Arua has the smallest municipality in the whole country in terms of coverage.
The services that the 10 square kilometres town renders are consumed by residents far beyond the municipal jurisdiction. In other words, according to Byabagambi, it is difficult to tell the story of Arua Town unless this context is properly captured.
He adds that it is too easy for people from the neighbouring countries—South Sudan and DR Congo, to acquire land in Arua, mostly around the municipality, and put up structures without minding urban physical plans.
The same people can as and when enter the country and set up business without the permission from the local authority.
According to Uganda Revenue Authority and Uganda National Bureau of Standards surveillance report, Uganda’s border points remains the most porous, due to lack of enough manpower. And as a result, it is normal to beat the understaffed surveillance team and just walk through undesignated (panya roadsshort cuts) untouched.
Re-echoing the underfunding problem, Byabagambi says maintaining the cleanliness of the town, taking care of roads and other facilities has been a struggle even with the Shs400m of revenue collected locally annually.
Being a multi-cultural society with some difficult and arrogant businessmen who do not want to respect authority due to their political connections, is no easy task to go about.
This is further complicated by shortage in manpower and the erratic growth manifested in uncoordinated, mushrooming buildings.
Politically connected show
According to International Alerts survey, presented by Dr Robert Senath Esuruku, during the national reconciliation conference recently, Arua, Gulu, Lira and Soroti are booming, but as spectators.
The research showed that there is limited access to economic opportunities while at the same time agricultural products do not fetch a lot of money and yet they are labour intensive. This is worsened by the fact that the people in West Nile and northern Uganda have limited skills, importantly perhaps they are outcompeted by those who have connections and are exposed.
Arua boys’ phenomenon
According to Joel Aita, an engineer and a consultant, matters have not been helped by the investment of Arua boys who after years of informal businesses, with the majority profiting out of magendo (smuggling), reinvesting the proceeds in real estate, but doing so without following urban planning plans.
There are different versions explaining the emergence of Arua boys. However, what is not being contested is that the emergence of Arua boys started shaping in the 1970s and properly established itself in the 1980s. By the 1990s, although it had become a force to contend with, due to the wealth they had accumulated, largely through smuggling of fuel and scarce basic commodities then such as sugar, soap and cooking oil, it also marked the end of an era.
In an interview with Ambassador Harold Acemah, it emerged that this group of West Nile “boys” would smuggle fuel (petrol and diesel) from the present DR Congo and sell it in Arua. It was not long before beer and even gold was added on the list of smuggled goods into the country. This, according to Acemah was smuggled through “panya” routes as they avoided customs points as much as possible.
By the late 1980s, they had grown so rich that they were thought to be politically dangerous.
“After 1986, most of them (Arua boys also known as OPEC boys) were suspected of funding rebels and that was the beginning of their disbandment,”Acemah said. He continued: “Those who were arrested were later released after investigations showed they were innocent.”
Speaking about the emergence of Arua Park, located on the stretch between Ben Kiwanuka and William streets in Kampala, unlike Aita who appears to allude to the park as the brainchild of the Arua boys’ activities, Acemah thinks differently.
He said: “The smuggled fueled then was sold in Arua and not at Arua Park although the emergence of the two all started in about the same time, in the 1970s.”
He continued: “Arua Park emerged after commercial vehicles, mostly buses from Arua, namely Arua Bus Syndicate, A.B Wadriff of Pakwach and Sabena Bus company would park between the Ben Kiwanuka and William street. And that is how the name evolved.”
Importantly, the generation of the founders of Arua boys, among them Kaku son of Kefa Langalanga of Mvara, are no more. Presently Arua Park has become a multiethnic with both formal and informal businesses being conducted there. What has remained unchanged is the fact that it is a meeting point for West Nile community and the central park for Arua-bound buses.
More facts about Arua
•The district covers a total area of slightly more than 3,000 square kilometres of which nearly 90 per cent is good for farming (arable).
•From its inception, over 100 years ago, West Nile was a multi- ethnic district consisting of four ethnic groups – Lugbara, Alur, Madi and Kakwa.
•The CongoUganda boundary partitions the Alur and Lugbara tribes while the SudanUganda boundary partitions the Kakwa and Madi tribes.
•When Uganda achieved independence in 1962, there were only 18 districts listed in the Constitution, with most of them being carved out of ethnic groups except three Bukedi, Kigezi and West Nile, which were multi-ethnic— and still, remain so to date.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor