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How UNRA merger collapsed

UNRA executive director Allen Kagina (centre) and her staff marking 15 years at the UNRA headquarters in Nakawa, Kampala on July 1. (PHOTO/UNRA)

Merger of roads agency was supposed to take effect with new financial year

Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | Seven months after the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) was to have wound down and its mandate remerged with its mother Ministry of Works and Transport (MoWT) under a grandiose cost-cutting plan, the agency remains untouched.

That was the sense one got from the UNRA headquarters in Kampala as the organisation marked 15 years of existence on July 1.

The celebrations are taking place at the start of a new financial year meaning UNRA staff are busy at work with designing new road projects, managing running contracts, fixing road infrastructure, battling cases in court, and a lot more. UNRA Executive Director Allen Kagina was beaming as she served cake to her staff.

It was a far cry from January when the merger of UNRA with the MoWT looked like a foregone conclusion. At the time, UNRA management were focused on blocking the merger according to staff who spoke to The Independent.

“The woman (ED Kagina) has tried everything but has failed,” one of them said.

The staff appeared frustrated as uncertainty over the fate of UNRA as a top decision seemed to have already been made to absorb the highly funded roads agency into its mother ministry. Many staff said they were moving on from UNRA.

“I am waiting for my gratuity. If you resign, you can’t get it,” one said.

UNRA is an agency of government, under the MoWT established in 2006 to maintain, manage and develop the national road network and advise the government on matters concerning national roads. It was operationalised in 2008. But it quickly became renowned for corruption scandal after scandal involving its procurements which led to high turnover of top managers.

Kagina was appointed executive director in early 2015 and she immediately carried out a restructuring to cleanse a stained organisation riddled with corruption. Her contract was renewed in 2020 but even before her second term, the merger was already dangling over UNRA publicly and privately in government corridors creating an aura of uncertainty and intrigue.

According to staff at UNRA, the proposed merger lowered morale and created a period of uncertainty at the organisation that employs over 1400 staff. This led Kagina, sources say, to push internal change management campaigns to try to motivate her downcast workforce.

According to official government documents, the merger was supposed to take effect July 1, 2023. This was after completion of a process involving three government ministries.

The Ministry of Justice was tasked with the legal issues which entailed sending bills to parliament for approved mergers. The Ministry of Finance had the role of constituting a committee to roll out change management processes while the Ministry of Public Service had the tall order of monitoring the performance of the approved structure among other arduous tasks. All processes appear to have stalled and UNRA has a new lease of life.

Commenting on UNRA’s failed move to the mother ministry, Joel Ssenyonyi, the Nakawa West MP and Chairperson of the Parliament Committee on Commissions, State Authorities and State Enterprises, which has oversight on UNRA, told The Independent that “It is case of not planning properly”.

“The merger was one of several grandiose ideas that government says and never embarks on,” he says, “There is several other entities but that discussion did not go anywhere.”

Ssenyonyi says the merger plans failed over the issue of the motive of merging.

“Some people at Ministry of Works were saying they do not have (even) a quarter of the budget that UNRA gets,” he says.

Ssenyonyi says the plan to cut public management costs by merging related government ministries, agencies, and departments was generally a good idea.

“We have too many entities; the IGG, the State House Anti-Corruption Unit and others. We bleed financially while work is being duplicated by the same agencies,” he says.

Pundits have often questioned the existence of Uganda Road Fund alongside UNRA with both getting different votes on the budget and with supposedly different mandates.

Cabinet formally agreed to merge government agencies in February 2021.

In the infrastructure docket, Uganda Road Fund and UNRA would be under the Ministry of Works. Subsequently, a team from the Works ministry put together a technical committee to “examine how UNRA would be re-absorbed into the ministry without necessarily obliterating their functions,” a government document published in August 2021 states.

Those in favour of merging UNRA with its mother ministry criticise the roads body for being a mere procuring entity, hiring too many consultants on road projects, inflating road construction unit prices and hiring lots of non-engineers amid other issues such as lack of oversight from the Ministry of Works.

In its defence, UNRA says it is responsible for short and medium term planning where collection of data is vital for road maintenance. It also argues that since not all road projects are designed in house, it requires hiring of consultants for supervision.

In addition, UNRA says its non-engineers are critical for other areas like land compensation which creates mounting legal issues for road projects. During one tour of the oil region, Kagina told MPs that UNRA faced 121 cases in court and 101 of those were a result of land acquisition.

Critics of the merger have argued time and again that UNRA has put in place a mechanism of division of labour that the Ministry of Works would find hard to replicate in its current state. The technical committee had its work cut out; to examine institutional arrangements, the legal and policy framework and redefine roles and responsibilities for the large staff structures for all the three entities; the Uganda Road Fund, UNRA , and the Ministry of Works.

Merger process

Experts said this would be the real test of the merger when technocrats from the Ministry who are said to be sidelined from their core mandate of designing and executing Uganda’s road infrastructure finally had to superintend over the exercise of reorganising the 1400 staff-UNRA.

The Ministry of Works technical staff is led by Waiswa Bageya, the Permanent Secretary, who joined the ministry in 2016. A career civil servant who has served in similar roles at the Inspectorate of Government, Directorate of Ethics and Integrity, and Undersecretary at Police, the slog of collapsing UNRA under the structure of the ministry fell on his desk. Bageya is described as “consultative” in his work style.

According to the proposed MoWT macro-organisational structure, if it is to happen in future, will have an Office of the Engineer- in-Chief right below the Permanent Secretary. The Office of the Engineer- in-Chief will then have a Director of Roads and a Director of Technical Services under it. The ministry will have only three directorates including the Directorate of Transport. These directorates are broken down into divisions to take over the work that is currently done by the nine directorates of UNRA.

Some of the busiest directorates of UNRA like Roads and Bridges, and Road Maintenance which do the nuts and bolts of the road work will be subsumed under the numerous divisions created in the new structure.

“The office of the Executive Director is recommended for absorption as Commissioner for National Roads. Functions of Departments in the ED’s Office will be taken over by relevant departments” a 2021 report by the Ministry of Works stated.

The proposed structure has 2452 staff positions and its total wage stood at Shs42 billion.

“After mainstreaming UNRA and URF, with the increased workload under the MoWT departments, the staff establishment and wage will increase by 1800 and Shs31 billion…” the report by the ministry stated. The latter statement in the ministry’s report read like an indictment on the ministry’s own objective.

The goal was for the re-organisation and restructuring of UNRA and included: reducing the cost of doing business, avoiding duplication of roles and to “rationalise government expenditure in line with the National Development Plan III and Uganda Vision 2040.”

Yet by the ministry’s own account, the annual wage bill will shoot up by a no small Shs31 billion and the staff numbers will go up by 1800.

The staff increase would slightly be above the headcount at UNRA- meaning the intended rationalisation would be no more than disbanding the Ministry of Works and Uganda Road Fund and retaining the current UNRA structure with some expert hires.

All this fell under the original 2018 Government Rationalisation Plan (GRP) which has now lingered for five years and remains unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future.

However, as the celebrations of July 1 show, it is a departure from the start of the year when the merger of UNRA with the ministry loomed large. There is now calm at the Nakawa-based authority.

UNRA has remained steadfast at executing its mandate of developing a national road network and working on the connectivity needs of this population, Allan Ssempebwa, the UNRA communications manager. In the last few months, a lot has been happening.

On June 12, UNRA awarded the contract to rehabilitate Matugga—Semuto—Kapeeka road [41Km] to Abubaker Technical Services & General Supplies Ltd, a local contractor, at a cost of Shs217Bn. UNRA has been busy with contractors’ workshops, installation of traffic signals on the Northern Bypass and works on the Kampala Entebbe Expressway. The awarding of this contract was one public sign that UNRA was still on board as a top government agency unlike some that had been collapsed or merged with ministries.

“Amidst all the uncertainty, the leadership led by the executive director has been instrumental in championing resilience and hard work among staff,” Allan Ssempebwa, the UNRA communications manager, told The Independent.

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