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Why a Northern Irishman is running for office in Uganda's Feb. 18 election

What would impel a Northern Irishman who's lived in the East African country of Uganda for more than two decades to run for office? Potholes, he says. And he may win.

By Max DelanyCorrespondent / February 13, 2011

A boy carries firewood on a road in Uganda. An unlikely candidate is running for election this year. Where is he from? Northern Ireland. His platform? Potholes.

ZUMA Press/Newscom/File

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Kampala, Uganda

Standing on the back of a pickup truck in garbage-strewn Kisugu marketplace, Ian Clarke tried to explain to a crowd of potential voters why a Northern Irish physician would want to get involved in the minefield of local Ugandan politics.

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“The reason why I first got into this race was potholes. Why are these potholes here year after year? Why does no one do anything about them?” Mr. Clarke said. “The problem is not a lack of resources, it is a lack of management and lack of willpower.”

After a brief pause for his words to be translated from English into Luganda – the main local language spoken in Uganda's capital, Kampala – the crowd started cheering.

Clarke may be the only muzungu, or white person, running for elected office in a round of national and local elections facing Uganda on Feb. 18, but to call him a foreigner in the country is misleading.

Originally from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, the wiry doctor first arrived in Uganda in the wake of the country’s brutal civil war over 23 years ago. Since then, he has founded Kampala’s leading private hospital and started writing a weekly column in a local newspaper. Now he holds Ugandan citizenship.

Still, some say his campaign as an independent candidate to run Kampala’s Makindye district – and the popular support it appears to be generating – highlights the lack of trust many voters have in a political system that has become synonymous with corruption, nepotism, and self-enrichment.

“People believe that because he is a muzungu, he can deliver better,” says Ronald Kabeza, one of Makindye’s roughly 400,000 inhabitants. “We have had a chairman here for 10 years, but nothing has been done.”

For Clarke, however, it is more his track record of founding hospitals and helping the local community that is winning over the voters.

“You can go on talking about everything that is wrong, or you can launch in and do something, and I guess this is me launching in,” he says in his broad Northern Irish accent. “I’m doing this because I am part of the community. I don’t have a home in Ireland, this is my home here.”

Clarke’s rivals argue that his inability to speak Luganda is proof that he cannot reach out to ordinary Ugandans.

“He cannot understand Ugandans,” says opponent Livingstone Kizito. “He may have lived here 20 years but he doesn’t even know the language.”

Plus, seeing a European running for office reminds some of the colonial period, Mr. Kizito says.

For the voters, however, the main issue remains how to improve the local community.

Sitting inside her vegetable stall, Jacqueline Namutebi says she’s already decided to vote for Clarke.

“It doesn’t matter if he is a muzungu or Ugandan, we are just tired of people who don’t do what they promise,” Namutebi says.

And as for the roads?

“When it rains, the street near my house becomes a river,” she sighed. “Who knows if anyone can fix that?”

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