By Andrew M. Mwenda
Since 1996, it has become hard for the government to initiate and implement a big development project because of power struggles.
The contest for political power in Uganda between President Yoweri Museveni and the opposition largely led by Dr Kizza Besigye has become so intense that it has crowded out debate on policy alternatives. The struggle for power seems like an end in itself, rather than a means to an end i.e. serving the public good. The result is that since both sides have dug into this fight for supremacy there is little space for promoting the public interest. Journalists have inadvertently been sucked into this partisan struggle to argue for either side, only whipping up sentiments and seeking to score political points rather than to expose the selfishness of the actors.
Since 1996, it has become increasingly difficult for the government of Uganda to initiate a big development project and see it implemented. The initiative to develop a large electricity dam at Bujagali was fought and frustrated from 1998 until 2006 when an agreement was signed. Even then, the contract would have fallen through had the investor behind it not been the Aga Khan, owner of Daily Monitor where the self-righteous pursuit of government procedure is largely promoted. A dam that should have been completed in 2002 is not yet finished in 2011 i.e. nine years later.
In 1998 I was a central participant in resisting AES Corporation getting a power purchase agreement with the government of Uganda. Our reasons at the time were not procedural but actually of a strategic nature and included the pricing of electricity (which was reduced), the alternative uses of the water where the dam was being built (water rafting and the potential tourist income it would generate in the long term), the security concern of having three dams within short distance of each other, a hydraulic clause that had tied government to guarantee water levels in Lake Victoria, the opportunity cost of Bujagali which was Karuma and which would cost almost half the price to produce almost the same amount of electricity etc.
While our subjective motivations were noble, the objective outcome was to actually paralyse government and keep the country in darkness for another ten years. Between 1998 and 2002, I was an investigative reporter on government procurement. I witnessed how investors, especially big multi nationals were manipulating public institutions to paralyse government. If the Central Tender Board gave a contract to company A instead of company B, the loser would petition the Inspector General of Government and bribe officials there to write a report that the process was fraudulent and recommend cancelling it. It is easy to find fault even with the most transparent procurement process because there will always be a T that was not crossed.
Then company B would retaliate by petitioning Parliament. Finding cash-starved MPs, it would buy off the majority on the committee investigating the matter in order to get its way. These companies and their local auxiliaries would leak all these details to journalists for a story and I suspect even pay some of them to advance their cause. I remember one company offered me a first class ticket with 5-star hotel accommodation and per diem apparently to go to Europe to interview its CEO, an offer I turned down because it was clearly an attempt to co-opt me.
I made my career as an investigative reporter exposing failures in procurement procedures. I learnt that institutions meant to offer oversight on government procurement – the IGG, Parliament and even the courts – can and had actually been compromised. So each of them was trying to leverage its constitutional power to be involved in investigating a particular deal; the aim was not to hold the government to account, but to force bidders to go before it for a hearing so that it can extract bribes from them.
The second lesson I learnt was that often, any bidder is almost as good as the other in offering the service. The differences are never in substance but only in detail. I realised that these pretentious investigations to get a clean deal would take so long and cost so much in bribes that if ever the contract was finally awarded, it would be twice or even three times the original price. Bujagali rose from US$ 650m to US$ 980m by the time it was signed. The result of all these investigations, counter-investigations and all the drama it generated in the media was not a better deal for the public but rather it was to line the pockets of a few people and sell newspapers.
In 2002 I became General Manager of Monitor FM (later KFM) and was able to see the cost of these contestations. Uganda was riddled with limited electricity supply and we were spending millions of shillings per month on a thermal power generator, a factor that was inflicting unbearable damage to our profitability. It became clear to me that the opportunity cost of resisting Bujagali, regardless of our legitimate concerns, was too high. It is in this context that when in 2008 a friend brought me a detailed account of the unfair financial deals between the Aga Khan’s company and government of Uganda on Bujagali, I shelved the story.
I knew New Vision would not run it either because President Yoweri Museveni was keen on the deal and Robert Kabushenga would not antagonise him. Daily Monitor would not run it either because the Aga Khan was the beneficiary of government financial generosity. With the press quiet, the opposition to the dam at Bujagali had no public platform to amplify its voice. The project has thus proceeded because it has not been turned into a public scandal by the leading public moralists of our nation.
The lesson is that given entrenched corruption in Uganda (which I don’t think even the opposition can end), the best way forward is to build a consensus around promoting some public goods while accepting less costly violations of procurement rules. Since 2002, I have opposed every self righteous crusade to resist a big public investment deal because its tendering was not perfect. So I supported the Temangalo land transaction, Nsimbe and the redevelopment of the government’s Lugogo and Nakawa housing estates; and I have equally opposed every commission of inquiry and parliamentary investigation into such public investments.