From clinics to potholes: Dr Ian Clarke, Ugandan politician

Dr Ian Clarke
Dr Ian Clarke
By Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

With the exception of David Livingstone, probably the most well-known white doctor associated with Uganda is Nicholas Garrigan, the fictional Scottish doctor in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland.

The Garrigan character, played by James McAvoy, was a young, naïve, but ballsy medic seduced into the corrupt court of Idi Amin during one of the most turbulent periods of Uganda’s post-colonial history.

Now, however, a new contender for the title has emerged in the unlikely form of Dr Ian Clarke, a wiry 59-year-old physician originally from South Armagh.

Dr Clarke arrived in Uganda in 1987 soon after the country emerged from the six-year bush war that followed the ousting of Amin in 1980. While the brutality and terror of the Amin years is well known, the subsequent bush war was equally devastating and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Ugandans.

Dr Clarke started out by establishing a small rural hospital north of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. His next major venture was to establish a private hospital providing health care to the emerging Ugandan middle-class. This urban hospital, the International Hospital Kampala, was opened in 1996 and was followed by the establishment of an air ambulance service and a teaching hospital for nurses.

Had Dr Clarke stayed within the bounds of the medical profession he would surely have remained a largely unknown, if very successful, local health services businessman. He did also write a weekly column for the New Vision, Uganda’s biggest-selling daily newspaper; but it was his next move that brought him to the attention of the wider world.

In 2010, frustrated at the poor level of government services, Dr Clarke decided to “put his money where his mouth was” and enter Ugandan politics. He sought to run as an independent for the chairmanship of Makindye division, one of the five municipal authorities within the city of Kampala.

Many were sceptical that a white man would be an acceptable representative for the local community, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. At campaign rallies, his modest personal introduction delivered in broken Lugandan – “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Dr Ian Clarke and I am running for the position of chairman of Makindye division” – was not really necessary. Everyone had heard of the mzungu with the local name, Busuulwa, who was running for mayor.

His campaign priorities of “good roads, good health and economic development” were also just what the 800,000 residents of Makindye wanted to hear. Eager for a fresh approach, the community voted overwhelmingly for Dr Clarke over the incumbent Moses Kalungi, and on 3 March 2011 he was elected chairman – or mayor – of the area.

Five months later, however, Dr Clarke admits that getting elected has turned out to be the easy part. The task of dealing with the bureaucratic jungle that is Kampala’s political system, and sorting out problems such as Uganda’s numerous potholes, is a challenge of a different magnitude. Nonetheless, he is keen to press on and believes that he can make a difference during his five-year term.

While Dr Clarke is not unique as an elected white politician in post-colonial Africa, he does join a fairly exclusive club. Outside of South Africa, others include Dr Richard Leakey, the acclaimed paleo-anthropologist and conservationist who was, for a time, cabinet secretary to the Kenyan government; and Roy Bennett, a prominent member of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Only time will tell if this particular doctor can make a success of his political career, but he will certainly need all the luck that his native land can spare.

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