Works and Construction Minister, John Nasasira recently told Parliament that he had a “scientific plan” to rid the country's roads of potholes within the next three years. In other words, come 2011, a teenager will be able to skate all the way from Mbale to Kampala without any difficulty. This statement, coming from a Minister who has been worst performing, corrupt and has been in this same Ministry for more than a decade, is unbelievable.
Before CHOGM, the government took to making Kampala a first class city. Men and women worked day and night on major roads in and out of the city, with particular focus on Entebbe road and the Jinja- Kampala highway. Today, the ‘model’ roads are becoming worse than they were before CHOGM and painfully, in less than one year. Potholes on our roads have become part of our national identity.
Outside Kampala, the story isn’t any better. A trip from Kampala to Busia (a boarder town between Kenya and Uganda) under good circumstances cannot exceed two and a half hours. Today, the journey takes over four hours because of the terrible state of the Jinja-Bugiri road, which has been undergoing repair for nearly a decade now. This highway- the main route connecting Uganda to Kenya – mocks the rhetoric of increased economic ties between the two countries. The company that has been doing this shoddy work working on this road is reportedly doing wonders on the Nakuru-Nairobi road in Kenya.
Understanding what is happening to the roads in Uganda requires one to comprehend how contracts are awarded in most African countries. Contracts are not won on merit. Instead, bids are rigged and for every $100, less than $10 is actually spent on the projects they are meant for. The rest of the funds find their way to personal bank accounts of relevant Ministers and contractors. The end result is shoddy work and roads that collapse in days. African governments are seriously notorious for not maintaining roads.
Ugandans have not got their money’s worth in the road and transport sector. Even the feeder roads in the rural areas are not maintained. They are washed away by rains leaving dangerous craters. This problem partly accounts for the difficulty people face in transporting goods to areas of need, hence increased prices due to the expensive cost of doing business.
Good roads in Uganda would spur information flow, market segmentation, investment opportunities and increased development. Without good roads, it will be impossible for this country to achieve tangible large scale development that includes all citizens and sectors of this country. The high level of corruption in Uganda - described by one consultant at the World Bank as a case of “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” explains why Uganda is in short supply of modern roads. Government officials are bribed and counter bribed to allocate contracts to particular companies. The companies contracted increasingly become financial giants at the expense of the citizens, as they misappropriate the funds meant for the construction and refurbishment of roads.
Ugandan roads cost more but take longer to build than in neighboring countries. The Northern bypass, a 21-kilometre road that should have been completed by November 30, 2006 is almost two years behind schedule. The cost of construction has jumped from UG Shs 89 billion to UG Shs107 billion. Budget overruns, missed deadlines, poor quality characterize our road projects. Most interesting however is that almost all these roads are financed by financial giants like the European Union, which means plenty of cash is usually available to be swindled.
According to Ministry of Finance records, road funds committed to Uganda by multilateral agencies exceed US$1.2 billion (about UG Shs 2.2trillion) compared to approximately US$350m (about UG Shs 630billion) the E.U has spent in the sector over the last five years. According to Dan Alinange, spokesman of the Road Agency Formation Unit, roads paid for by the Ugandan government are completed much faster, normally in just two years. When outside donors fund a road project, the project, money is lost to shady contractors and government officials. But when the country pays for a road, officials often work under political pressure, which speeds up the process.
Unfortunately, political pressure is not consistent with the roads funded by multilateral agencies. The subsistence farmers on the Jinja-Bugiri highway are not informed enough, nor do they have the economic or political clout to influence the process. They pay taxes and receive little in return. Thus the process of road agenda setting is held hostage by the government and aid officials who are under no pressure to hurry road construction. While the complex system of checks undoubtedly eliminates some corruption, there are still lots of embezzlement and questionable math going on.
In the interest of expediency, roads should be privatized. Focused and capable investors should be encouraged to invest in roads. According to Dauglous Shaw in his book Privatization for Prosperity, “Many people believe that certain entities that are currently in the public sector exist there because that is the only way they can function”. Roads are a good example of this thinking. State ownership has all the usual state ownership problems, including the incidence of queuing and a hazardous safety record.
In the 1960’s private roads were a big success in Dhaka (now Bangladesh); a private bus company built its own roads specifically for its buses and was able to get a return on its investment. Since our government is very notorious for not maintaining roads, privatization of our roads will particularly be suitable. Local roads are best privatized by allocating them to the homes that they serve and main roads in towns can be privatized on “a pay for use basis”. This may be a little unusual since car ownership in Africa is concentrated in the upper class; but it’s unfair for the poor to be taxed to pay for roads for the rich. Instead, the roads should be privatized so that people simply pay for their use of the network. This system can deal a blow to the problem of under supply of roads, congestion, road haulage and increased cost. Besides, the road investors will ensure safety to stay in business.