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Tread carefully on road projects

By Cissy Kagaba

If we stop the leakages and exaggerations in bills of costs, we can save money and borrow less

President Yoweri Museveni has been up and about in various corners of the country commissioning road projects. There is no debate that in this financial year (2014/15), government’s priorities have rotated around infrastructure projects in general and the roads sector in particular. In one week in February, President Museveni commissioned the construction of three roads in Gulu, Bugiri and Kampala including Olwiyo-Gulu-Acholi Bur-Musingo in Kitgum and Musiita-Lumino-Busia .

This not new, since the focus on the roads sector started seven years ago, following a World Bank report which persuasively argued that Uganda’s economic growth was obstructed by under-investment in electricity and transport infrastructure. International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) made similar recommendations.

One of the newspapers in an extensive analysis quoted a working paper authored by David Booth and Dr Fredrick Golooba titled ‘Aiding Economic Growth in Africa: The Political Economy of Roads Reform in Uganda,’ which also quotes DFID research as having prophesied that infrastructure investment would increase real incomes, improve export competitiveness by dipping transport costs, surge Uganda’s appeal as a tourism nucleus and a source of educational and health services to elites from neighbouring countries . Of course contrasts and comparisons were drawn from countries with success stories such as in Europe where roads contribute 11.5 per cent of the gross domestic product (about €2,290 billion) and around five per cent of the total number of persons employed.

An analysis of the budget from 2008 reveals so far Shs7 trillion has been apportioned to the road sector.  This should interest all Ugandans and development partners. We must continue to ask ourselves whether we are getting value for money. This call is informed by the current scandals ravaging the sector. Talk of the Katosi road saga which is yet to be resolved and also considering that it’s just a tip of the ice-berg. What assurance does the President give to Ugandans that we are actually getting value for money considering the fact that our roads are littered with potholes just a few months after completion?  Or, further still, how do we explain the persistent procurement flaws UNRA is choking with.

Each time I read a story in our newspapers, I am keen on ascertaining whether these are domestically financed projects. Unfortunately the biggest chunk of these roads are loan financed. This is sad! Sad because already Uganda’s foreign debt burden is fast hitting the roof, currently standing at a startling Shs12.7 trillion. No qualms would be raised if quality roads were constructed.

One of the newspapers recently reported that figures from the Ministry of Finance indicated Uganda’s external and domestic debt as growing by close to 2 percentage points of the Gross Domestic Product every year and economists arguing that the continuous upward growth in Uganda’s public debt could see the country fall into unsustainable debt burden in the long-run.

The country once had unsustainable external debt burden of US$5.5 billion (Shs14.257 trillion) in the early and mid-2000s which led to the outflow of foreign exchange in form of debt servicing. There are fears that this mad rush for roads could plunge us back. I am not suggesting that we halt these projects because they are necessary. But we must rethink the loan financing approach. I believe that once we stop the leakages, the exaggerations in bills of costs, we can actually save more money and borrow less.

Former Forum for Democratic Change president Kizza Besigye recently wrote a masterpiece, where he made a number of eyebrow raising revelations which the government has either ignored or does not have the audacity to refute. It is tempting to take the silence for admission of guilt.

Dr Besigye said “the recently-signed contract for the standard gauge railway (SGR) project at a contract sum of $8 billion is a scandal of unprecedented proportions! The actual cost of the project is estimated at a maximum of US$2 billion, leaving a slash fund (loot) of US$6 billion- equivalent to 65 per cent of Uganda’s Gross National Income!”   Entebbe Express highway has an estimated loot of US$200 million”

These things must interest President Museveni and all Ugandans because by the time we wake up, a lot might have been looted and Ugandans with suspicious accounts in Swiss Bank HSBC will have tripled overnight.


Cissy Kagaba is the chairperson of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda

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