In Summary
  • Saving national theatre. Many artists have long been concerned with how Uganda National Cultural Centre matters are handled with such a haphazard combination of secretiveness, high-handedness and undue haste Kalundi Serumaga writes.

For many in the artistic community, the news that the Public Procurement Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA) has halted the tendering for Uganda National Cultural Centre’s (UNCC) much-publicised renovation plans will come as no surprise.

The UNCC management was found to be in violation of the “local content” provisions of the law, despite previous UNCC announcements claiming their procedures had passed PPDA scrutiny. However, the problems around this whole project go far beyond that. This incident serves as a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The concerns
The first concern is about mission. Artists have repeatedly asked the UNCC management, and the ministry officials behind them to explain how they can possibly know what type, size, location and numbers of building(s) the arts/creative industries will need going forward if they have no policy –properly researched, consulted and tested- to guide them?

More than five years ago, senior civil servants at the ministry began floating ideas about revamping and “updating” the culture/arts sector starting with reviewing the 1956 Uganda National Cultural Centre and even older Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Acts.

Even back then the question came: how will they design laws for the sector in the absence of policy?
Finally, some inconclusive sporadic “consultations” on cultural policy took place only to be suddenly supplanted by this “renovating” or “redeveloping” idea.

Many artists have long been concerned with how UNCC matters are handled with such a haphazard combination of secretiveness, high-handedness and undue haste. They worry that this will lead to open-ended disruption of the arts centre’s real work at best, or a complete physical loss of the intellectual, artistic and architectural heritage at worst.

This would be tragic folly: the UNCC building is the site where much of the significant artistic contentions with a succession of dictatorships were developed. It is part of the history of the development of our national discourse.

The building is also considered by a number of architectural bodies and academics around the world to be a work of art in itself. It was not appointed to the grounds it stands in by accident. That too is part of the design.
The second concern centres on feasibility of financing. A figure of Shs360 billion ($100m) was intended to be raised through a loan against the UNCC’s land titles.

The centre owns plots 2, 4 and 6 in De Winton Road next to Parliament, as well as Plot 4 Victoria Avenue, Nakasero, next to the State Lodge. The artists raised questions: would the amount raised be enough to cover the projected costs; how would it be paid back, and in what timeframe?

In response the story then changed “informally” to say that the government was going to provide the cash either to make up for any budget shortfall, or to cover the whole expense, thus avoiding a loan altogether.

On April 25, the UNCC top management did then announce that the Office of the President, had “approved” the project. It should be noted that this is not a requirement under the relevant laws.

In practice, this meant some form of presidential pledge, which had been inserted into Uganda’s 2017/2018 Budget, which Parliament then passed on the assumption that that project had been somehow “approved”. A minority report from the committee cautioned against this.

The ministry and the UNCC management have now settled on a “Build, Own Transfer” (BOT) approach, where the developer will come with their own money. This would mean the UNCC building technically remaining the property of the builder/operator until they have received a full return on their investment and hopefully made a profit.

The announced timeframe for this was given as “10 to 15” years. It remains unclear if this is against the then successful Shs4.1b bid, or the $100m (Shs360b) budget, not to mention what types of other (as in disruptive non-artistic) activities will have to be permitted to generate that expected income.

A third concern is about design; the announcement indicated that a large tower block structure was to be erected on the De Winton Road location. There was some contradiction with one minister saying it would be 14-storeys, and another saying 28.

Whichever, the critical question that arose was as to how this was to be physically possible without first demolishing the existing building, something the decision-makers have consistently denied, even though it cannot be seen in the architect’s “computer drawing” that accompanied the announcement.

Standard official responses
With the notable exception of the Speaker of Parliament, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, the standard official responses, sometimes made very contemptuously, have been to dismiss these concerns as a result of ignorance due to a lack of education; a subsistence mentality born of excessive poverty; and an anti-development mindset. This has killed off all possibilities for dialogue.

Whichever of these mutating plans were to be adopted: they all point to one thing: voluntary indebtedness.
The bank loan route has the most obvious risks. However, a presidential pledge, given their well-known fate, could leave UNCC management in debt to a developer who needs payment for work done that is well beyond the UNCC regular budget to cover.

As for the BOT approach: given the vast difference between the budgeted and bid amounts, further questions arise. Will there be further bids? Will future “bids” not create multiple BOT debtors? When would the clock start ticking on the 10-15 year BOT period for each?
This lack of clarity and shifting explanations has led many in the community to one conclusion: that in fact, indebtedness is the whole purpose of this confusing exercise.

From the beginning, the standing problem for any potential grabber of UNCC land (and there have been a number) is that the UNCC Act explicitly grants the De Winton Road plots to the board. There are only, therefore, two possible routes to UNCC land: the first – amending the Act, which can only happen in Parliament, carried political risks as artists began to “make noise” that the real objective of a review was to legislatively open this “padlock”.

The second route would require a very brave minister working with a very blinkered board of trustees, to invoke their existing powers within the UNCC Act and initiate building projects designed to fail, thus creating indebtedness.

Section 7 (d) specifically provides that: “With the approval of the minister, the board may erect or enlarge any building upon any part of the trust property.” The real grabber would then reveal themselves as the buyers of the land at a rigged “auction”.

About Artists’ counter-proposal

Artists have their own counter-proposal: Before disturbing at the laws and buildings, let the ministry first show seriousness by doing as follows: resolving Gen Elly Tumwine’s squatting on part of the land at the Nommo Gallery; creating a real consultative process for formulating a policy towards culture; tasking UNCC management to explain what happened to the 20 year-old Phase II original development plan for extending the building that has now mysteriously disappeared from the records in the Director’s office.

This design more than doubles the useable space at the centre, while remaining faithful to the heritage, logic and physical appearance of the building we know; and implementing the plan to establish regional centres.
Cultural work is not a service. Nor is it a commodity. It is a vital element of human activity around which we measure and promote civilizational ideas about what we are and what we should be.

There remains is a need develop an meaningful understanding of culture beyond government’s policing native traditions in an endless hunt for “negative cultural practices”, and hiring musicians to compose songs about malaria.
It is time to think again.

A longer version of this article can be found at: facebook.com/SaveUgTheatre