Uganda's first white politician speaks out
Publish Date: Aug 03, 2011
Newvision Archive
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It was Uganda's ubiquitous potholes that first made Ian Clarke want to stand to become the country's first ever elected white politician.

Now, after winning a landslide victory to become the mayor of one of the capital city's five sprawling districts, they are the first thing that the Irish doctor is planning to fix.

"The potholes are a metaphor for Uganda and for the state of Kampala," Clarke told AFP, pointing at a group of labourers that had started work filling in one of the city’s rutted roads. AFP

"If we can demonstrate that we can overcome the potholes and keep our streets clean then we can show that things can change," he added.

He may not speak Kampala’s predominant language -- Luganda -- but that does not mean that Clarke, 58, is not at home in the capital of the East African nation.

Originally from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, Clarke first arrived in Uganda over two decades ago in the wake of the country’s brutal civil war.

Since then the wiry Irish physician has founded Uganda’s leading private hospital and started writing a weekly column for the New Vision.

He is also in the process of gaining Ugandan citizenship and has been given a local name, Busuulwa.

Just over two months after starting his new job Clarke admits that while winning the election might have been difficult, negotiating the bureaucratic minefield of Kampala’s political system is proving equally tough.

"The election wasn’t easy, in that it was long and there were a lot of campaigns and rallies -- and there was the language problem," Clarke said.

"This now is frustrating -- but every little bit is at least something that wasn’t done before," he added.

As Clarke makes his way through the Kampala's Namuwongo slum area to inspect a new latrine that is being built, some of the roughly 400,000 residents that he represents are clearly pleased with the progress that is already being made.

"Everything is good and things are changing -- the doctor is changing everything," said Andrew Muyonji, a local community worker.

"The sanitation, the roads...they have started to improve," Muyonji added.

But while those he represents might welcome the change after years of neglect, Clarke says that his no-nonsense approach has already begun to rock the boat among the capital’s political establishment.

During the election campaign some of his opponents said that seeing a white man running for power was a bitter reminder of Uganda’s colonial past.

Now that he is in power there are suggestions that his skin colour has seen him get special treatment from the central Government.

For now, his counterparts around the city put any disagreements down to Clarke’s inexperience, and say that he still has a lot to learn about how politics functions in Uganda.

"The rest of us we are seasoned politicians, and we know how things are supposed to operate here," said Benjamin Kalumba, the mayor of one of Kampala’s other districts.

Clarke has high ambitions. While he is starting with fixing potholes, clearing the streets of garbage and unblocking the drains, he says he hopes in future to make Ugandan politics more accountable.

"I’ve been in office for a short while and there has already been a measurable difference in terms of the physical changes," he said.

"So over five years, we definitely have to see that there is a cultural change as well," he added.

But a more immediate problem will be managing expectations of the people who voted him in.

As Clarke wanders past the ramshackle shacks and piles of garbage, a passerby stops to express gratitude for the work being done.

"Thank you so much for the good work in filling in the potholes," the man said to the smiling Clarke.

"Now all we need is for you to set up the streetlights and keep them working," the man shouted over his shoulder.

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