Arson claim shows depth of civic cynicism

In the early hours of yesterday morning fire engulfed the outdoor Owino market, Uganda’s largest, in a walled enclosure hard against Kampala’s city centre. The dense labyrinth of stalls covered an area the size of two football pitches and provided a livelihood for thousands of small traders in cheap clothes, shoes, household utensils and other goods, all now gone up in smoke.

In the mid afternoon I went down to the scene. It was by then a broad field of sodden cinder and ash, with nothing left standing. Hundreds of traders were sitting or milling about, scraping together piles of metal and shards of broken china, all that was left of the goods stored overnight in the stalls. Incredibly, only twelve hours after the conflagration, fresh, rough-cut timber was piled at several points across the charred wasteland and some traders were slopping about in the black mud beginning to erect new stalls.

But most traders I spoke to said they had no cash for rebuilding. None had insurance and none seemed to expect help from the government. One man took from his pocket the padlock keys of his former stall: “This is all I have left,” he told me, adding that he had been sponsoring two brothers and several cousins through school.

Most traders said they didn’t know what caused the fire but several were quick to repeat the rumours of arson and official complicity that were also rife elsewhere in the city.

“Of course it was deliberate—it started over there, where they threw petrol in,” one man said. He pointed out that Kampala’s central fire station was only a block away but claimed it took fire fighters more than an hour to arrive. Even then, he said, they let the fire blaze on for some while, claiming they had no water to fight it. “How could they say that?” he asked. “We pay licences to the government and this is what they do.”

According to local media, there were stand-offs earlier in the day between angry traders and police who used tear gas to disperse crowds; but by the time I arrived the predominant mood was of sullen resignation, and there was no sign of any authorities at the scene.

Conspiracy theories centre on the management of the adjacent Nakivubo stadium, which owns the site, and on long distance bus companies that operate from the cramped street outside the market walls and want a proper terminal.

The city government has long been discussing redevelopment of the area, which is prime downtown real estate. Local newspapers reported last year that a deal had been struck with a market traders association which had agreed to contribute cash to the construction of new facilities that would also be financed by a loan from the African Development Bank; but the city council appeared to remain divided, with some members calling for further feasibility studies and assessments.

It is hard to know what to make of all this. Possibly, it served someone’s interests to accelerate redevelopment by destroying the market; but a purely accidental fire in what was a highly congested, unsanitary and dangerous place would not have been surprising.

What is striking is how quickly and how far the conviction of foul play spread. Most Kampalans I spoke to throughout the day took the arson hypothesis for granted, evincing deeply ingrained cynicism and generally low expectations of the authorities.

Nick Young
Kampala, February 26, 2009


Late last night I received a text message from one of the traders I had spoken to:

“Mr van [?] cld u plz help e may b hlp me with a job, I did public admin e mgnt, cz evry thg wz spoilt with fire e I hv no one 2 hlp mi,plz hlp mr van.bless u e gnite”