By Okodan Akwap
Entebbe International Airport certainly needs to be upgraded to a level that can help us deal with some of the debilitating effects of our being a landlocked nation.
But when you listen to the ongoing arguments over this matter you realise with dismay that, once again, many of those shouting are failing to capture the scale of our country’s developmental problems.
There are generally two types of problems. Tame problems are those that have straightforward solutions. Wicked problems have no simple way of dealing with; they are complex and require purposefulness, hard decisions, and complex solutions.
Being a landlocked state is truly a wicked problem. A report prepared in collaboration with the UN Office of the High Representative for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Countries and Small Developing States shows why. It says that lack of territorial access to the sea, isolation, remoteness from world markets, and high transport and transit costs experienced by landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) impose serious constraints on their overall socio-economic development, including their trade competitiveness.
As a result, LLDCs are among the poorest countries in the world. Out of 31 such countries, 16 of them, including Uganda, are classified as least developed.
According to the report, LLDCs have the weakest economic growth rates and the direst social development records. Additionally, the development gap between LLDCs and coastal developing countries appears to be growing rapidly. And this is largely because high transport costs undermine the competitiveness of LLDCs in regional and global markets as well as their ability to produce at lower costs.
Ten years ago, I interviewed a developmental expert who had very useful suggestions on how we could go around the wicked problem of being landlocked. Mr. Dato Jegathesan started the acclaimed Malaysian Industrial Development Authority in 1967. He came to Uganda in 1999 in his capacity as a consultant for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. His mission was to brief key officials in our private sector, Uganda Investment Authority, and Government departments on a new economic development strategy known as the ‘big push to achieve a quantum leap’.
I learned from this guy that, to compete with coastal states like Kenya, we should pay more attention to what he called ‘competitive strength’ than to comparative advantage. He talked of the dire need for Uganda to make a quantum leap into a knowledge-based and skill-based economy where we would not have to depend much on our neighbours or their seaports for success. I believed the man.
Mr. Jegathesan singled out Entebbe Airport as pivotal to this entire big push thing. He said Government urgently needed to make the facility a major air transport cargo logistics centre. This, he said, would require appropriate investment in upgrading airport facilities such that turnaround time would be so fast Entebbe would become a First World airport in a Third World economy.
And he told me something that I also believed: ‘This is within Uganda’s control’.
I am sure top Government people heard all this and much more. But when you listen to voices in the media today it seems as if the whole idea of turning Entebbe into a major transit hub is coming from some faraway investor who wants to do us a favour.
The local media are cynical about the impending ‘giveaway’ of Entebbe Airport. This is justified by our history of casual giveaways of community assets like schools, land, public corporations, factories, buildings, even markets. Several ‘investors’ have come to this country with briefcases about to burst at the seams because of the bulky files inside but without a red cent in the pocket. This is so wrong.
Government should fund Entebbe Airport upgrade. It should take a cue from Kenya, where the government in 2004 allocated US$ 41 million to upgrade facilities at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).
The main objective was to win ‘Category One’ status from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which would allow direct flights between JKIA and American airports.
Kenya hoped to join a handful of other countries in Africa ” Egypt, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco and South Africa ” with airports that had attained FAA ‘Category One’ status required for international flights. If a coastal country can do something like that, surely it would be a top priority in a landlocked country.
We may not overcome the wicked problem of being landlocked. But we sure can create a bypass. And that’s why we must fund the upgrade of Entebbe Airport ourselves.
The writer is the head of mass communication and a PhD student of Public Administration and Management at Kampala International University.