Ms Victoria Nakuburwa, the proprietor of Deposh Bar and Restaurant, on Monday night announced the closure of their branch at Kabalagala, Makindye Division in Kampala City.
“Dear our esteemed customers of Deposh Bar and restaurant Kabalagala, Muyenga road.
Allow me to thank you generously for the continued support you have given us for the last eight years we have been in the industry. …We have indefinitely closed our business from today (Monday) onwards, thank you so much. I have retired from the night life to something else,” Ms Nakuburwa wrote on her Facebook page. De Posh was one of the biggest hangouts in Kabalagala.
There are bad tides sweeping over Kabalagala, a place that has long been tagged as the capital of “happiness” in Kampala, seems to have had enough of it.
Already, Vision Congo, renowned for its rich Congolese music, has remained closed for three months now.
Chillies Restaurant and Takeaway, one of the top fast food restaurants in the city centre, too closed its branch at the end of last year.
Gazebo Pub Restaurant, Punchline, Virgin Bar and Restaurant, Mikom Bar, Timeless Pub, Chuchyz Bar and Executive Restaurant are among the latest causalities.
The Point, a rooftop spot where tourists enjoyed panoramic view of the entire town, has remained closed for a month.
It went through the festive season largely with empty seats and dormant pool tables, yet it used to be the talk of town just three years ago.
Of those that are more than four years old, only Cheri, Capital Pub and Chicken Tonight still hold on.
Mr Noah Tamusuza, who has worked in Kabagala plying different trades for more than two decades, attributes all their problems to government institutions.
“Namusisi (referring to Ms Jennifer Musisi, the former Kampala Capital City Authority executive director),” Mr Tamusuza says when asked about the downturn of Kabalagala Township.
“This place was beautiful and full of people all day. Then she demolished people’s structures and clients fled. Look at Kabalagala now. It is empty. Everyone here is struggling to make ends meet,” Mr Tamusuza says.
In the golden days, he says, “I used to make Shs40,000 to transport revellers (as a boda boda rider) just at night. Now, I can barely make Shs20,000 the entire day.”
Mr Vatanio Kiwanuka, a trader, says Kabalagala has become a punching bag for every authority that wants to show proof of how good they are when it comes to enforcing their standards.
“Go to Makindye, Nateete, Kololo, Luzira or Bugolobi. Do you see police and KCCA harassing bar owners and revellers there on issues of noise, drink-driving, shisha consumption and parking? They only do it here,” M Kiwanuka says.
Mr Kiwanuka cites the January 5 operation by the police and anti-smoking activists where they raided pubs in Kabalagala that were serving shisha and arrested 17 people, including a South Sudanese minister and other diplomats.
“Our clients used to travel miles to Kabalagala because of the uniqueness of these pubs and the services. They (security officers) have been coming and arresting people, including our clients. Those are things that are driving clients away. Even if it were you, you can’t get arrested and return to Kabalagala,” Mr Kiwanuka says.
Smoking of shisha in Uganda is said to have started in Kabalagala in the mid-2000s before it spread to other areas of the country.
Kabalagala’s problems didn’t only start during Ms Musisi’s reign as the city chief executive, but it was its waterloo.
Kabalagala was built on the principles of liberty to pursue happiness. It is this liberty that drove hundreds of thousands of revellers to flock the suburb, especially at night.
Kabalagala was a free world of sorts – the Los Vegas of Uganda with unique setting and decoration. Sex, gambling, fast foods high end restaurants and pubs, beverages and fun were in plenty.
Twenty years ago, terrorists hurled grenades at former Telex Bar and a nearby grocery that killed four revellers and injured another 22 during Valentine’s Day at Kabalagala.
That attack and others that followed led to many changes, some of which have been destructive.
Kabalagala’s Kisementi Zone chairman, Mr Ismail Kinene, says Kabalagala business model wasn’t entirely based on entertainment.
“We used to have grocery shops. In the evening, the grocery owners would put chairs and tables in the yards, play music and sell beverages to the revellers,” Mr Kinene says.
Mr Kinene says the business model changed after the bomb attacks – the first on Valentine’s Day in 1999 at the defunct open-air Telex Bar and a nearby grocery.
Another bomb that killed one and injured nine went off in August 2006 and again in 2010 when terrorists attacked the Ethiopian Village Restaurant.
“Authorities literally banned open-air bars. They insisted that owners of entertainment centres should host their revellers in covered enclosures that enable security checks,” Mr Kinene says.
Entertainment spots later redesigned their bars to have yards roofed.
The new designs were incompatible with the old business model of having a grocery and a bar at the same time. Many chose bars for groceries since they were more profitable then.
But new problems were created. Owners of entertainment centres established these structures in road reserves. City authorities under then Kampala City Council were powerless or too compromised to stop the developments.
The bar extensions, which were semi-permanent structures, allowed revellers to have fresh air and view of Kampala City.
There was a boom in the entertainment industry in Kabalagala.
Major players used their powerful sound machines to drown their competitors in the neighbourhood. The competition on who had the best music sound equipment continued. Music could be heard miles away even in residential areas. The boom didn’t last for long.
Mr Ismail Tabalamule, the councillor for Makindye East at KCCA, says many of these developments did not meet the city standards.
“Landlords didn’t have the capacity and the funding to develop structures that meet the standards of the new city authority,” Mr Tabalamule says.
In 2011, when Ms Musisi was appointed as KCCA executive director, she enforced standards that saw reclaiming of road reserves and stopping noise pollution.
Kabalagala being the biggest culprit, all enforcers focused on it first. And the impact has since been so dire.
In 2012, KCCA enforcement officers razed structures in the road reserve, giving the town a ghost look. Some entertainment centres were brought down, while others had to redesign to conform to the city standards.
“De Posh was renovated, but you can see it doesn’t have enough parking space to accommodate a few dozen cars,” Mr Tabalamule says.
In the same year, as entertainment centres limped on, they were struck by another storm.
In 2012, police intensified drink-driving operations and Kabalagala was the main target. Road checks were erected encircling the town and those who were arrested ended up in Kabalagala Police Station cells and the next day taken to Makindye Magistrate’s Court.
“Revellers who used to commute from far away towns to enjoy nightlife in Kabalagala, stopped for fear of being arrested and detained by traffic police officers,” Mr Kiwanuka says.
Mr Tabalamule says despite the drop in the business, KCCA still classifies Kabalagala as a Grade I area when it comes to paying trading licence rates.
High operational costs
Towns under Kampala City Grade I pay higher rates than those classified under Grade II, III and IV.
“Businesses in Kabalagala aren’t doing well, but they are charged rates that are nearly twice those of towns in Kira Municipality or Nansana Municipality, Wakiso District that are doing well,” he said.
According to KCCA trade licensing rates, a pub or bar in Kabalagala under Grade I is charged Shs187,500 for a trading licence annually. If the same bar has a slot machine and pool table, the owner will pay an extra Shs375,000 for the same.
These charges are nearly double what bars in areas such as Kireka, Nansana and Kyaliwajjala in Wakiso District, that attract more customers, pay.
Property brokers in Kabalagala put rent for a space for a bar at between Shs500,000 and Shs1m per month. Rent rates are also half in other areas of the same level.
Mr Tabalamule says KCCA has not offered them services in terms of infrastructure like roads and lighting commensurate to their grading.
With business on the brink of collapse, many locals are selling them to foreigners. Ethiopians and Eritreans own more entertainment centres in prime areas in Kabalagala than the locals. Amharic and Tigrigna music is now played more frequently in pubs than any other types of music.
Mr Kinene says Kabalagala is not dead yet, but needs to undergo transformation that attracts new clients, especially those living in posh suburbs.
“KFC and Mr Tasty have opened centres in Kabalagala and you can see many people of that class have started flocking them. If we get people with new innovation, you will see Kabalagala rise again,” he says.
Mr Tabalamule agrees with Mr Kinene. He says the future of Kabalagala is in having well-developed, organised and spacious entertainment centres for revellers to return.
Operating license. According to KCCA trade licensing rates, a pub or bar in Kabalagala under Grade I is charged Shs187,500 for a trading licence annually. If the same bar has a slot machine and pool table, the owner will pay an extra Shs375,000 for the same. These charges are nearly double what bars in areas such as Kireka, Nansana and Kyaliwajjala in Wakiso District, pay.
Before De Posh was renovated, it had one of the biggest clientele in the city. It hosted live bands every weekend.
The managers had to deploy guards to get parking space for their clients. The only problem was it had an open-air setting and music sound would travel as far as Muyenga residential areas.
To solve the problem, they renovated the structure and made it sound proof. Although the setting was of high class, it did not attract even half the number of its previous clientele.