Jinja, which derives its name from the local word for ‘stone’ and, along with the Ripon Falls, was collectively referred to as ‘Mayinja’ (stones/rocks), was originally a fishing village. It gained fame after British Indian Army Officer John H Speke discovered that it was the source of the Nile River and documented the details of his journey in his 1864 book.

Later, Jinja became a major station for the Uganda Railway and a main port for the ferries that sailed through Lake Victoria. When the railway reached Kisumu in 1901, the headquarters for administrative transportation was opened in Jinja. It is argued, however, that the town was not really born until 1907, following the opening of the port near Ripon Falls.

Enterprises such as fishing, coffee processing, and cotton ginning slowly elevated the town into a medium-sized trading hub. Infrastructural development like roads, water and railway transport further fostered the development of industries in the town, which is located approximately 81km east of Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

When, on 28 April 1954, Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the Owen Falls Dam, locally known as Nalubaale Dam, it was an assurance that industries had found a home in Uganda. The dam became a steady supplier of hydroelectric power and the country became the third biggest East African economy. Jinja became Uganda’s most industrialised city. The city even boasted the dazzling Ripon Falls Hotel, where Her Majesty stayed on her visit.

Jinja lost its splendour following the expulsion of Asians by former president Idi Amin Dada in 1972

According to 70-year-old Shaban Ngobi, who has lived in Jinja since childhood, the town lost its splendour following the expulsion of Asians by former president Idi Amin Dada in 1972. Amin had accused Asians, who owned several thousand firms, ranches, farms and agricultural estates, of ‘sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption’.

“Almost all the shops and other businesses were owned by Asians before Amin chased them out. But when they left, businesses were operated by Ugandans who knew little about business management,” said Ngobi.

He added that after Ugandans took over these industries, many shops and factories closed.

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A faded glory under siege

When This Is Africa visited the town, most of its historic buildings were in a deplorable condition. Many were abandoned and had not been renovated since their construction in the early 1900s. Abandoned structures include what used to be the colonial governor’s residence on Circular Road, the 1914 residence of the vicar at St Andrew’s Church, and the 1928 Bank of Africa in the city centre, where Bell Avenue meets Main Street and Nile Crescent.

Many [buildings] were abandoned and had not been renovated since their construction in the early 1900s

Ghost Own: Crumbles of Jinja/Mohsen Taha
Honourable mention: Ghost Own: Crumbles of Jinja/Mohsen Taha

All these are connected by a broken road network that is severely potholed. One reason for this lack of care has been that Jinja is one of the places in Uganda that is plagued by land disputes – one of which involves the remains of the Ripon Falls Hotel. Guarded 24/7 by three rifle-wielding men from a private security company, the Ripon Falls Hotel has now been fenced off with iron sheets.

Jinja is one of the places in Uganda that is plagued by land disputes

“This is a no-go area because ownership of this building is under dispute,” a security official, who requested to remain anonymous, told This Is Africa. “Even our boss, who claims its ownership, cannot fully explain how he acquired it. I am told he is battling court cases concerning this building.”

A problematic land tenure system

The 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (Article 237) created four land tenure systems in Uganda. They are: the Freehold: holding of registered land in perpetuity; the Mailo: tenure predominantly in Buganda and premised on the 1900 Buganda Agreement; the Customary: where most of Uganda’s land is owned through communal means; and the Leasehold: a tenure system where the landlord agrees to lease land for a given period.

To operationalise the constitution, the government passed the Land Act in 1998 (amended in 2010) but as time progressed, more loopholes continued to be found. Thus, in September 2016, Uganda’s President, General Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, constituted a commission of inquiry to investigate issues of continuous land grabbing resulting from the exploitation of such loopholes.

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On 26 July 2017, the commission of inquiry named Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, Major-General Kahinda Otafiire, and members of the Uganda Police, among other government officials, as possible sources of Jinja’s land squabbles. According to The Observer newspaper, Otafiire was faulted for having facilitated the land grab, and later demolition, of buildings on plot 60/62 Alidina Visram Road in Jinja municipality. Police Inspector General Kale Kayihura was prompted to suspend the officers accused of mismanaging the case.

Hope in recognition

Jinja has been agitating for elevation to city status since 2006, when the district celebrated 50 years as a municipality and 100 years as a town. However, the plans have not materialised because Jinja has not yet met the population requirement of 500 000 people, which is one of the government’s requirements for any town to be elevated to the level of a city.

However, town clerk Francis Byabagambi told This Is Africa that the town’s population is estimated at 500 000 during the day and 82 000 people at night. The municipal council therefore went ahead and passed a resolution in 2015 to elevate Jinja to a city.

“This was also the president [Museveni]’s campaign pledge [during the 2016 general elections] to develop Jinja into a city,” Byabagambi said. “Afterwards, council resolved and passed the resolution on to the Ministry of Local Government. We are waiting on them to respond.”

He said city status had given added protection to most of the run-down buildings, including Ripon Falls Hotel, even though their ownership was still disputed.

“Following the departure of the Asians, most buildings were never claimed,” he said. “Consequently, a custodian board was instituted to take charge of such buildings.”

Here’s hoping that the land ownership issues will be settled so that the town of Jinja might see a return to its heyday.