The following is a feature published in the Daily Monitor April 25, 2008, by Angelo Izama, a great friend and brilliant journalist and analyst.
Visitors to Uganda who fly into Entebbe International Airport at night are often struck by how dark the place is.
Night flights these days also show something else; the bright lights of the Chinese-rebuilt residence of the President which stands out in contrast to the kerosene powered homes around it.
Darkness could be amusing for tourists on their first trip to Africa who fantasize about elephants leaping out of roadsides and whose only introduction to Uganda are paperback digests ( mostly written by former tourists or resident ones) that fail to inform the thrill seekers that Idi Amin is no longer President here.
However the lack of electricity to light streets, homes and businesses is not a funny joke propped up as a tourist accessory. For its 31 million people Uganda generates and uses less electricity than a small division of Hyundai industries, just one of the many big enterprises in a country with which Uganda was at par a short forty years ago.
Since the use of electricity is an important measure of how economies are performing Uganda's case has been one of stagnation and regression.
Whenever critics of the government single out the power sector for bludgeoning the government at pulpits and radio studios, they are told to be optimistic because Uganda has made a "recovery" from a politically darker past when Amin was actually an Entebbe resident himself.
"You cannot always be pessimistic" said Energy Minister Daudi Migereko in a phone interview on Monday about the state of the energy sector. But even he admits the present situation is trying on the patience of the discipleship or cadres who are the foot soldiers of the revolution started by Yoweri Museveni.
Uganda has registered negative growth in the energy sector. Electricity production today is lower than at independence 45 years ago and much lower in the last half decade when a series of unpunished blunders turned load shedding into a way of life.
But a far more serious problem facing the country is not its candlelight economy: It is the affliction of low expectations and even lower standards that have made mediocre performance acceptable particularly within the government. Even if the administration wanted it simply does not have the energy to take the country to another energy production level.
It must be noted that the back peddling in the energy sector is occurring in a period dominated by what many Ugandans, their neighbors and the world community consider the most progressive government in the country's history. The World Bank, which according to Migereko (and his predecessor Syda Bbumba) has been a lousy partner, has been selling Uganda and its reform process one of the brightest spots in Africa.
However progress tended to be measured in terms of a stable currency, stable government and tons of paper reforms. Uganda remains one of the biggest missed opportunities in Africa and the energy sector is a microcosm of this colossal squander. According to Engineer Hilary Onek, a leading authority on hydro-power dams, the country's potential is in the region of 28,000 megawatts of electricity. The distance between the 120 megawatts being produced today and that potential is what a new government would have to cover.
Add to this are commercially viable oil deposits which could theoretically power the country, with its young and enterprising population into a truly great industrial nation. There is also talk of exploiting uranium for power generation, but this is viewed by some as an alarming prospect to allow a country that cannot not even keep inventory of military arsenal to handle radio-active material.
The crisis of Uganda has therefore been the inability of its managers to reel in progress and it is on the change in management and not the conditions that progress will ultimately depend. Ironically the hamstring on progress has come on the back of too much politics and too little government.
The Museveni government reaped where it sowed. Both human and material resources in the hands of the state have been disproportionally allocated to regime maintenance and if progress were to be measured by longevity in power then NRM and Museveni have been extremely successful.
The energy sector has been a victim of this politically purposed state which has prioritised spending on defence and political projects. The reality is that lack of electricity itself does not affect the stability of the state or Mr. Museveni's ability to stay on for 20 more years if he so wished.
Only 6% of the country is connected to the national grid - not enough to turn the lack of energy into an electoral issue but more of a middleclass nuisance. Uganda's rural electrification program has been an expensive joke, sucking in as much money as would build another dam on the River Nile.
Logic would have it in fact that rural progress is ultimately a political risk for states with weakening legitimacy like that of Yoweri Museveni whose electoral margins have been dropping by 10% in the last three elections. Peasant to commercial farmer transitions, which require increased electricity for semi-processed value addition, come with consolidated demands for better and more reliable services from the state which ultimately translates into political pressure.
Weak state structures in a fluid political system easily buckle under this kind of pressure.
The question then arises whether or not the current administration with its huge political wage bill which has been the price of stability will be able to mobilise future legitimacy on economic progress which would require re-awakening the economy with its potentially volatile political stakeholders without serious risks to regime stability.
The answer is no. Only a new administration will have the political capital to recalibrate the purpose within the state from one in which political stability is not an end in itself but simply a requirement for economic and social progress. Current energy projects can therefore not succeed in unlocking their own potential or the wider gains of reliable electricity for a country starved of it.
Framers of Uganda's soon to be launched National Industrial Policy have emptily written that the "political leadership in Uganda is unequivocally committed to industrialisation, economic transformation, modernisation, and diversification" on one hand and then go right ahead in the next section to say that "electricity [is] judged to be the most severe impediment."
The somewhat muddled policy paper has all the fluff that accompanies a dreamy government document but is a good example of how Uganda is running on optimism and little else.
In the energy sector these good intentions have been extended to sheer fantasy.
Uganda has drafted a nuclear energy bill even if just a quarter of a million Ugandans have a power connection compared to over 3 million who carry cellular phones and can therefore afford electricity connection if only they had access. The nuclear generated electricity would be transmitted by wireless, perhaps? The demand is there but without mobilising it through a grid, it remains a dream.
According to Migereko the strategy of the country is to generate enough electricity from the various hydro, thermal and biofuel projects so that supply is forever ahead of demand but the truth is that government today subsidises power consumption in billions of shillings every year- in effect sustaining demand by paying for it.
So what is this talk of 11% growth in demand? Clearly demand itself must be mobilised. Official figures in "Discover Uganda" a public relations document produced for the Commonwealth Summit last year puts Uganda's labor force at 13 million. It is anyone's guess what percentage of the able and willing do work in an environment where there is at least one light bulb.
One of the biggest scandals in Uganda is not the corruption or impunity of state-based actors but underemployment of those able and willing and skilled which like the country's vast energy potential remains locked up and chained to the vagaries of leadership in government.
Most Ugandans may have only heard of the National Oil and Gas Policy which is the framework for managing the exciting prospect of oil in the Albertine graben (western Uganda). Again the policy itself has been excellently written but the potential problems in the sector [which have all to do with the politics of oil in Uganda] are telling of what is to come.
Some of these problems are immediate. According to the government it will build a mini-refinery by Christmas next year. Such aggressive timelines have dominated the rhetoric of President Museveni and in the energy sector embarrassingly so. The Oil and Gas Policy requires setting up of a national petroleum company and a regulatory agency first. This is unlikely to be accomplished properly in the next 18 months.
The proposed refinery according to Migereko will "happen" on time but judging from the speed with which procurement of badly needed thermal energy has taken (an average of 3 years for heavy fuel generators which are yet to be set up) there is very little hope here except for the uniquely optimistic.
The Minister admits that the capital intensive sector he is heading attracts the corrupt like hyenas to a deer feast – one of the major headaches for any Ministry - but truth be told, a serious government or one desperate to succeed would not be stopped by rent seekers who are everywhere in the world.
Instead corruption-inspired load shedding has become a Ugandan way of life. One of the biggest heists in Ugandan history will be the fake dam extension project at the Owen Falls Dam for which reliable information suggests Ugandan officials from the Ministry simply (hopefully inadvertently) acted to avail more water from Lake Victoria to downstream countries.
The dam extension known as Nalubaale has been draining the water from lake leading to a drop in levels but despite all the blabber about fighting corruption, no investigation was instituted and the Minister in charge at the time (Syda Bhumba) was sent to the Labor and Gender Ministry instead.
This scandal is a low even for the notoriously corrupt Ugandan government described by peer reviewers at the World Bank as a government of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."
When a new President sits at Mr. Museveni's desk his biggest challenge will be to inspire genuine change, something Mr. Museveni has been talking about for 21 years.
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