The signing of the Standard Gauge Railways (SGR) agreement between China and five East African Community member states in Nairobi, Kenya, at the weekend is a positive step for the region and Uganda in particular.
Foremost, this project will revive Uganda’s existing rail network that has remained largely non-functional since the 1980s. Currently, only a short stretch of the rail network is actively used for freight services between Kampala and Tororo-Malaba on the Kenya border. The links to northern and western Uganda are largely broken. The SGR should, therefore, offer an efficient alternative to road transport and move more volumes of goods and passengers, faster.
On the regional level, the planned interstate rail network for Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, and South Sudan will open up East Africa’s inaccessible hinterland to great potentials for free movement of goods and services. Additionally, SGR should boost the countries’ individual rail transport fortunes and uniformly bring down freight costs for the entire East Africa Common Market, which is important for doing business.
Crucially, the railway project should insure the region against risks that modern development poses to the environment as rail transport networks, world over, are reputed as environmentally clean.
However, Ugandans must be conscious of fears that the projects China often generates rarely employ local workforce. For instance, Sinohydro Corporation Ltd has already raised concerns that Uganda cannot provide the required workforce, including crane operators, electricians, welders and carpenters for the Karuma Hydro Power Project.
Although junior Energy minister Simon D’Ujanga has dismissed the claims, Uganda must avoid similar concerns in the SGR project. Consequently, when China Communications Construction, the main contractor, begins work, Uganda should provide the workforce, and cut down on the human resource gap and reliance on expatriates.
The queries notwithstanding, Ugandans know China to have delivered on solid projects, including the durable Kibimba Rice Scheme, now Tilda Uganda, and the Mandela National Stadium, Namboole.
Furthermore, just as Kenyans have posed questions about the project’s procurement issues, Ugandans too, must ask similar questions. It is important that the country knows what terms Works State minister John Byabagambi actually signed to in the deal. They also need to know what the Ugandan taxpayers will sacrifice to co-finance the Ugandan section of the railway project.
Overall, the Standard Gauge Railways project, is good for East Africa. The region needs an efficient transport system to boost trade and development.