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The politics of hydro power stations -Part II

By Akena P’Ojok

Why Uganda should not be short of electricity

In part I, the author showed how the British built Owen Falls Power Station to serve their colonial interests, how they locked in an agreement for Uganda to supply cheap electricity to British settlers in Kenya, and how the Kabalega and Ayago sites that could have produced electricity more cheaply were ignored.

The objection that the Kabalega/Ayago projects would ruin the Kabalega Falls was proved wrong by elaborate hydro-dynamic models that showed the contrary. These models may still be found in the backyards of the British College of Technology and Research at Bedford, UK (now University of Bedford).

The World Bank/IMF that would have assisted funding the project dragged its feet, giving the excuse that it was seriously considering the concerns of the environmentalists and conservationists about the plight of the Kabalega Falls and the parks. Secondly, Kenya’s pull-out had rendered Kabalega economically inviable.

Thirdly, in Uganda, certain influential circles and politicians campaigned strongly to vilify then President Milton Obote, claiming that he was taking developments only to the north. Last, but in fact the most important, were the British who refused to repair the cracks that had developed in the concrete foundation of the British built OFPS unless Uganda agreed to include other new hydro power developments on the Nile as part of the package deal. Uganda government rejected what it saw was tantamount to giving the British an open ended monopoly of power development in Uganda. Relationships with Britain soured.

Uganda then went out of the ‘tradition’ and hired the services of a Nordic consortium, Norconsult and others to undertake the preliminary studies on the Nile. This angered the British and together with Dr. Obote’s attempt to nationalize British companies in Uganda, set the two sides on a collision course. After incited internal uprisings and assassination attempts on Obote failed, the plot to remove him reverted to the Uganda Army. The British, with the help of Israeli professionals commanded by Genderal Bar Lev, planned a coup d`etat. Dr. Obote was overthrown while attending a Commonwealth Conference in Singapore. Gen Idi Amin was ushered in to the Presidency of Uganda January 1971. The destruction of the Uganda economy began as the British faced the ‘Real Amin’ who was a buffoon, an uncontrollable crank, and a ruthless and impulsive killer.

The Kabalega or Ayago Hydro Power Projects suffered as a result of the coup and their documents were banked away and deliberately forgotten in the dark vaults of Amber House and other secret offices abroad. The search that began as a forward planning for a cheap source of electricity for Uganda, ended with a military coup that was to change the course of Uganda political history for ever.

This was not the first time that a president of a third world banana republic was removed because of non-compliance with the will of the Western Powers. In 1954, President Gamal Abdel Nasser proposed to build Aswan Dam on the Nile for electricity and irrigation. America and Britain supported this huge project, but when Nasser turned down their offer due to high costs, they angrily withdrew their grants. Nasser retaliated by nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956 and called in the USSR to construct Aswan Dam at one third of the cost and at half the time quoted by American and British companies. A combined force of the British, French and Israel attacked Egypt to remove Nasser. This failed. Several attempts by MI6 and other agencies to assassinate Nasser failed. However, Israel, backed by the US attacked Egypt in the 1967 war in which Egypt, Syria and Palestine lost territory to Israel. Nasser survived, but died under very dubious circumstances in 1970 at the age of 52.

President Dr Kwame Nkrumah proposed to build a large hydro-power station and irrigation scheme on the Volta River. Although Britain was holding over £400 million of Ghana’s cocoa money in government securities in London, it refused to lend money for this project. The USSR constructed the project at one fourth of the cost and at half the time bided by western companies. Nkrumah had committed a heinous crime, a ‘sacrilege’ and had to be got rid of. Several attempts were made to assassinate Nkrumah by poisoning or gassing, failing which the local Ghana army was called on to remove him in February 1966.

Brazil went ahead and built one of the largest hydro-power stations (20 mammoth generators of 700 MW each = 100xOFPS) in the world on the ITAIPU Dam on River Parana, despite all the western protests. Brazil was starved of all development funds and was asked to pay up all its debts at once.

The pattern of removing Third World leaders if they did not follow ‘orders’ is consistent whether in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Power station developments became part and parcel of the ideological wars by proxy that was strangely called ‘The Cold War’.

When he came back for his second term in 1980, Dr. Obote was acutely aware that the World Bank/IMF and the West did not welcome his return to power. None of Obote’s economic planning programmes could pass the IMF tests. The IMF restricted the second UPC government to such trivia as the 2-3 year Recovery Programme and under funded Rural Electrification and, it interfered directly in the running of the national budget (SAP and conditionality).

Dr. Obote was far too cautious this time, and could not raise the controversial matter of Kabalega or Ayago. The question of another power station was not seriously addressed. (They still overthrew him a second time. They could not ‘trust’ him. See how the British supported M7 through LONHRO).

With the advent of the NRA regime, emphasis was on privatisation or, frankly put, the sharing out of whatever government assets were there.

Globalisation (read as gobble-lisation) had overtaken old fashion colonialism. UEB, like many of its types, was broken up into three pieces and given out like sweets to those who had supported and underwritten NRA/M expenditure. Only then did the question of extreme shortage of electricity come to the fore. This set off a ‘gold rush’ to develop a hydro-Power Station, with the idea of a quick kill. The drawings and papers of an engineer’s play-toy project (the utilisation of excess water on the eastern bank of the Owen Falls dam to generate up to 60MW) were dusted up and presented as a major undertaking. This project ran into trouble sooner than it was completed.

Another inferior project, the Bujagali Power Station, was scrambled.

Bujagali was not from an engineering point of view recommended, because it was considered to be too near the OFPS (only 4 miles down stream and therefore was risky to operate in cascade) and in the event that the OFPS dam was breached and failed, the flood and debris would sweep off Bujagali dam as well. Secondly Bujagali was 5 times more expensive to build then Kabalega or Ayago because it required a huge concrete dam. Moreover, its small capacity of 180MW, when ready, will only serve to replace the dangerously ageing OFPS. There will still be need for Uganda to embark on the development of yet another much bigger and cheaper hydro power station, now, if Uganda has to avoid yet another disastrous electricity shortage in the near foreseeable future.

Bujagali has been steeped in corruption and delay of seven years and therefore will now cost nine times as much and will produce electricity 10 times as expensive. Meanwhile as a face-saving exercise the government treasury must continue to subsidize the bills of expensive diesel/gas generated electricity to keep some semblance of lighting in Kampala. OFPS is now an old cow with dwindling milk and it is on its way to the ‘market’. Bujagali hydro power station will simply be a replacement, an expensive one.

The present regime ought to have already built a new Power Station in its twenty years of paying lip- service to industrialisation of Uganda. Thirty two years behind schedule, the present government is still busy tinkering with expensive and unreliable diesel/gas generation. The frustrations of planned and unplanned outages have become a way of supplying electricity in Uganda. One cannot help but feel that Kabalega/Ayago projects were not brought forward for re-consideration because they are located in the North, a point that was strongly argued by tribalists in 1965 and appears to be consistent with NRM’s policy to isolate the North from the rest of Uganda.

Recently President Museveni offered the Acoli a taste of sugared tea and inferior and expensive electricity generated by raising steam by burning sugarcane waste ‘bagasse’. If President Yoweri Museveni was really serious and well meaning, he should have offered the construction of Kabalega or Ayago hydro power station now. There is nothing better for the Wider North than the building of a hydro power station on their part of the Nile. This will provide abundant employment to absorb the numerous young people and promote business and industry so that they can buy their own cheap sugar and still have enough money to settle on their ancestral land. This issue is an urgent matter which, all the MPs from the Wider North should demand from the central government. It is the only way a meaningful industry-based development can be substantially introduced in the Wider North/Eastern region. The MPs and community leaders should demand this now. Of course the whole Uganda would benefit; Kampala and other towns would be properly lighted; it will blow new life in every Ugandan’s sobbing heart.

The MPs from Acoli, Bunyoro, Lango, Nebbi and Arua should also demand the devolvement of Game Park systems (before they are sold off to some brazen so called investors.) Neighboring communities would be more interested in the modern development of the Kabalega Parks and a hydro power station.

After all it is their land and water to benefit from. The majority Ugandans would agree that land and water are raw materials and we would like to add value to them by developing electricity, and sell the electricity as a finished product. Electricity fetches better money than sugar and saves the national budget on fuel bills, saves the land for food and livestock production for the international market, and promotes community economy. There is no reason why Uganda should be short of Power.


Mr Akena P’Ojok was minister for Power, Posts and Telecommunications in the Obote II government

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