The government recently announced that incompetent construction companies will be blacklisted, prohibited from being contracted for public works projects in Uganda. This following years of negligent, inefficient, and careless work, evidenced throughout Uganda by roads dotted with potholes that may be more aptly described as craters. But will the creation of this blacklist have any effect on the quality of road construction in the near future? Will punishing incompetence build the capacity that will translate into quality infrastructure?
Approximately Shs 626 billion (about $370 million) will be spent on roads in Uganda during the 2007/2008 fiscal year, according to this year's Budget Speech and the Medium Term Expenditure Framework for 2007/2008-2012/2013. With such a large budget (over three times that of agriculture), why do Uganda's roads continue to be a nuisance at best and deadly at worst? Why are roads built over 10 years ago, like Mubende-Mityana, in better condition than some built recently, like Mubende-Fort Portal? Where is all the money going?
The perception that Uganda's roads are particularly poor is not unfounded.While Kampala's central business district roads look in decent shape following their Chogm refurbishment, many of the rest of the country's roads are falling apart, or else simply inadequate and unable to handle Uganda's growing population and economy.
A 2006 study conducted by the World Bank found that in terms of road quality, Uganda's roads are some of the worst in sub-Saharan Africa. The grading of the roads took into account three factors: the percent of paved roads in the country, the GDP per capita (an index of capacity to maintain roads), and the World Bank's Country Policy and Institutional Capacity (CPIA) index. According to this measure, Uganda scored 10.7 out of 100, just above Sierra Leone (at 9.6) and worst performer Chad (at 1.8). Botswana received 87.5 and Zimbabwe 50. Though Uganda faired only slightly worse than its neighbours Kenya and Rwanda (and slightly better than Tanzania), these countries also spend less per capita on roads than Uganda. So why does Uganda fail to get value for the money spent on roads?
It seems there are primarily two answers to this question – the first is a lack of capacity, and the second is a lack of supervision of contractors. On the first point, Keith Muhakanizi, Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, explains that a world boom in construction has meant that many large and experienced construction companies have ended up in bigger markets, often in Asia. "These markets may have more and larger projects, which allows for contractors to take advantage of economies of scale," said Muhakanizi.
Muhakanizi says he has also heard that some contractors shy away from Uganda due to the perception of widespread corruption. "Quality contractors may decide to keep away upon hearing rumours of corruption, or may decide to leave after they face it head on. Among contractors who do decide to work in Uganda, oligopolistic behaviour and some level of collusion appear to drive up contracting bids in many cases."
Local contractors have yet to fully step up to the plate, largely because they lack experience, but also because there is simply a dearth of skilled workers at every level of the process. Dr. Jackson Mwakali, Head of the Civil Engineering Department at Makerere University and Chairman of the Engineers Registration Board, explains that there are not enough technicians and engineers being trained in Uganda. Many of those who do receive adequate training are lured away to greener and more lucrative pastures. "Brain drain has reached an alarming point," he says. "We are not building capacity, we are losing people."Dan Alinange, Public Relations Officer for the Road Agency Formation Unit (RAFU), has also noted the problem of capacity. "Local companies are just getting into the business of road construction," he says, "and many just don't have the capacity."
There is broad consensus on the second explanation as well – lack of supervision of contractors is widely cited as the cause of poor quality roads. Alinange explains that poor supervision of contractors results in the violation of contracts regarding basic procedures, such as control of dust. Supervisors may also be "compromised," or bribed to overlook shoddy work or contract violations. There are very specific guidelines for road construction, according to Mugisa Obyero, the Commissioner for Roads in the Ministry of Works and Transport, and failure to follow these guidelines does seem to stem from limited or lack of supervision of contractors, he says.
In addition to inadequate supervision of contractors and a lack of capacity, Dr. Mwakali also cites a poor maintenance culture and a lack of adequate drainage. On most roads outside Kampala central business district, "The main problem appears to be drainage," he says, "If you don't have that, you have wasted time." Road maintenance is also critical to road quality and very cost-effective, though often overlooked. According to a 2005 presentation at Makerere University given by Henry Kerali, transport program team leader of the World Bank, "For every 1 km of road built, 3 kms of existing roads are 'lost' due to lack of maintenance, road transportation costs increase exponentially on poor roads, and for each $1 diverted from road maintenance, vehicle operating costs increase by $2 to $3." Patching up potholes and cracks as soon as they appear and unblocking drains would help preserve roads for longer, but these measures are often neglected, explains Dr. Mwakali.
Other factors are also undoubtedly at play in driving up costs and delaying the progress of road works. Take the Jinja-Bugiri road, for example. Work started in 2006, by Basil Read Bouygues. According to Alinange of RAFU, the contract fell through over a disagreement on the waiver of the Value Added Tax (VAT). "The contractors requested that government waive VAT on their purchases. The government viewed that as giving subsidy to the contractors. When government refused to honour their request, the contractors flew their equipment out of the country," Alinange explains. Poor weather conditions in parts of 2006, including heavy rain and flooding, caused further delays in the construction.
Ugandans are not only not getting value for the millions invested in their roads, they also fall victim to dangerous driving conditions daily. A 2006 World Health Organization (WHO) study found that Uganda has one of the highest rates of death due to road traffic accidents in all of Africa – nearly 160 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. In 2004, road traffic injuries cost the Ugandan economy approximately $101 million, according to one study. These figures represent about a third of what is spent on roads.
The issue of adequate planning for a rapidly growing economy must also be addressed. The recently constructed Northern Bypass, for example, remains far too narrow for the amount of traffic it must carry. Commissioner Mugisa insists that this will change. "In the next phase, we are going to construct another double-lane carriageway," which could happen in two years' time, he says.
Roads like the Northern Bypass are critical to the economy as they are the main thoroughfare for goods being imported and exported. Although Uganda boasts an impressive rate of economic growth (over eight percent for the first half of this financial year), this rate could be even higher with an improvement of infrastructure and decreased transport costs. One World Bank study in 2000 found that poor infrastructure in landlocked countries such as Uganda accounts for up to 60 percent of transport costs. With so much at stake, both lives and livelihoods, what can and should be done to improve road quality in Uganda?
Dr. Mwakali says local contractors should be awarded more contracts to help build their capacity. He also stresses that more research should be conducted on appropriate engineering standards for roads in sub-Saharan Africa. "I think we need to use standards developed in developed countries with some caution," he says, "Their roads last but ours don't. We should work on our own standards based on research." Differences in climate, soil, and other environmental factors may play in the deterioration of Ugandan roads even when they are built to the standards that are adequate in other countries.
Muhakanizi wants to put pressure on everyone involved in the process, emphasizing the need to protect the budget for roads. "Work plans and the procurement process should be upfront so everything can be transparent," he says. Changes in the bureaucratic structure overseeing the construction and maintenance of roads may also improve the situation. Both Dr. Mwakali and Mr Muhakanizi believe that the incorporation of RAFU into the Uganda Roads Authority may eliminate some of the bureaucratic red tape and help streamline project implementation. Over half of this year's budget for roads is donor funded, about Ush 150 million more than last year. But no matter whose pockets it comes from, the government of Uganda remains responsible for ensuring that Uganda gets value for this money.
Asuman Bisiika and Melina Platas