Q & A: Dr. Jackson Mwakali on Road Infrastructure in Uganda
Faculty of Technology, Civil Engineering, Makerere University
March 20, 2008
What is your assessment of the current condition of Uganda's urban roads? Rural roads?
You have to isolate Kampala from the rest of the urban areas. The central business district (CBD) roads are good following Chogm (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). They did a good job resurfacing, the quality of resurfacing is good. They did careful drainage, which is very important when it comes to preservation.
What are the primary factors that account for [poor] road conditions in Uganda?
As you get outside Kampala, where drainage is poor, the roads are also bad. The main problem appears to be drainage. The pavements are done according to available standards, so I suspect drainage is the culprit. If you don't have that [proper drainage] you have wasted time. There is also a poor maintenance culture, and you need to maintain roads – patch up potholes and cracks as soon as they appear, unblock drains, etc. Quality is also substandard, there is poor workmanship. There are two reasons for this – first, there is inadequate supervision of contractors, and second, some of the contractors are incompetent. Things go wrong in the procurement process. Supervisors get compromised, contractors tempt supervisors with money. The contracts are in the billions of shillings so a Ush 50 million bribe is just peanuts to the contractor.
What safety standards [if any] do Uganda roads fail to meet?
My own observation is that we don't provide enough road furniture (sign posting). When signs get damaged they are not replaced. There is also inadequate marking of lanes. In many Western European countries you drive with the lights on all the time. Drivers in Uganda should also turn their lights on in the early morning and earlier in the evening. Many drivers should not be on the road because of the way they overtake, hoot, and ignore pedestrian crossings. They need to do something about the drivers, to make sure the right drivers are using the road. The boda bodas are especially bad.
What can be done to improve the quality of road construction and increase the number of skilled workers?
I think we need to use standards developed in the developed world with a bit of caution. Their roads last but ours don't. Climate and soil could be partly responsible. We need to work on our own standards based on research and give research at universities the importance it deserves. Most research is funded by donors, but donors don't always fund what is good for us. The incoming head of civil engineering has done research on roads, and we are currently piloting a road within Makerere campus built based on his research.
We also need to build the capacity of local contractors. We need to give them more jobs, and bias awards in favour of local contractors (both constructors and consultants). They are not earning anything and not building capacity as it is. It is extremely urgent that the proposed Local Construction Industry bill is made into law. We need to train more technicians. The current government policy to give more emphasis to the sciences is good. Most government sponsored students are sponsored to do sciences – engineering and other applied sciences. About 40 students come to do engineering – that's not enough. A student loan scheme should be available – it's done in Tanzania and Kenya and we think they are training more engineers as a result.
Brain drain has reached an alarming point. We are not building capacity, we are losing people. Many people are going to South Africa, the UK, and the US. It's as if we are training for them! It's very easy to get a work permit in these countries, and many people are taking advantage of that.
We need to make the engineering practice more attractive. Pay them well, provide them with good working conditions. We also need to regulate the engineering practice. The engineering registration board and others need to execute their mandate to the full, so that they keep out the bad ones, the pretenders. One way is to punish the errant engineers in courts and also to fight for a fair share of the cake.
Regarding the quality of road construction and cost-effectiveness of road maintenance – according to a presentation given at Makerere in 2005 by Henry Kerali of the World Bank, "For every new 1 km built, 3 km or existing roads are "lost" due to lack of maintenance. Road transport costs increase exponentially on poor roads. For each $1 diverted from road maintenance, vehicle operating costs increase by $2 to $3."
Do you think Uganda's current road network is sufficient to handle current and future levels of traffic/transport?
It is not able and it is not adequate for current traffic volumes. This is very evident from traffic jams. We still don't have sufficient road infrastructure. Roads are narrow, poorly maintained, and they are often badly designed. For example, in general, there is no provision for pedestrians. They are forced to walk on the carriageway and shoulders. Crossing of roads can be very hazardous. On Entebbe road, for example, it is so glaringly obvious that something is wrong. We need overhead bridges or tunnels. Non-motorized traffic is also a problem, as they fight for narrow roads. We can do better in our poverty I'm sure.
Also, traffic management is very poor by traffic wardens and police. They often override traffic lights where they are, they interfere and mess up the whole system. Instead they should apprehend those who jump the lights, they should be punished and receive fines. Lastly, axel load requirements are not enforced, and this is also doing a lot of damage to our roads.
In your opinion, is the annual budget for roads (this year approximately Ush 626 billion) sufficient for construction and upkeep of the road network?
There is a lot of construction that needs to be done; lots of areas are still inaccessible. But the budget doesn't appear to be bad for this small economy. The problem is that much of it is lost to shoddy work. It is also lost to corruption, bribes and so on. Most goes to the large backlog of unmaintained roads and roads to construct.
Dr. Jackson Mwakali is a civil and structural engineer and has been the Head of the Civil Engineering Department at Makerere for over eight years. He is the first Ugandan to receive a PhD in structural engineering and is currently the Chairman of the Engineer Registration Board in Uganda, a position appointed by the Minister of Works.
Interview by Melina Platas