Sunday July 13 2014

At 6, road agency wants to be cleaner and here is a thought

By Bernard Tabaire

A month ago, I drove on the Hoima-Kaiso-Tonya Road, the first of the oil roads so to speak. For a layman, I think those Turks are doing one decent job. Driving on “their” road gives the notion of rubber hitting the tarmac a nice literal spin. Which is why I follow the national roads agency on and off Facebook.

UNRA is in charge of “managing, maintaining and developing the national road network across Uganda”. The road agency is all of six years and has been all over the newspapers, hollering about its work: more than 1,500 kilometres of major roads currently under construction; 1,800 kilometres more due to commence construction in 2014/15.
UNRA seems to have taken the opportunity, as it usually does, to provide some detail about its various projects. In the recent newspaper blast we got information on road project, funder, number of kilometres, and status of works.

Take Ishaka-Kagamba. We learnt that it is 35 kilometres, the Government of Uganda is funding it, and 40 per cent of the works have so far been done and that the project completion date is June 2015.
The most striking thing is that the Government of Uganda is funding wholly just more than half the roads presently under construction.
So far so good, but we should be learning more from UNRA if it wants to demonstrate seriousness about openness. On top of the information provided on Ishaka-Kagamba, I would like to know who the contractor is, how much the contractor is being paid, whether the works are on schedule and project is on budget.

The UNRA website reveals that the contractor is General Nile Company for Roads and Bridges in joint venture with Dott Services Ltd, whom the government is paying Shs113 billion. That is good but routine information.
As a public-spirited taxpayer, I want to know whether when UNRA says 40 per cent of works have been completed as at July 2014, that means the project is running bang on time. If so, then UNRA is doing a great job on that specific project. If the project is behind schedule, why is it? Is UNRA to blame or the contractor and why? What are the implications of the delay, if any? How is the delay being addressed?
Then the budget. UNRA should be telling us whether at 40 per cent, the road project is still within budget. If there are cost overruns, is that because of inflation or some other reason and who is culpable? Who is paying the extra money?

It could also help if UNRA published the names of contracts committee members for each project. We need to put faces and names to good works. UNRA can find a neater way of relaying much of this information without overwhelming us with numbers and text in the media. How about giving us what it is giving us today in the newspapers and then providing a web address where we can find details?
I may be speaking too soon. UNRA is seeking to be transparent and accountable to Ugandans. It is looking to hire a consultant to help it implement the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative to “improve governance in the sector by promoting transparency and accountability” in its operations.

The consultant should start the job by clearly describing to Ugandans the character and extent of corruption in the road agency. For the public to be effective collaborators in ensuring good governance in road construction, it needs to know what is going on.

A friend with a road construction company has told me that “eating” in UNRA is becoming less brazen. While elsewhere a government official takes a bribe and zero work is done as with those bicycles in Ministry of Local Government, in UNRA the bribe comes in form of akasiimo (token). You get your deal competitively, and only after does an official expect some tea. And the official actually expects the contractor to do a good job.

My friend lost a bid. Turns out the contractor who took the deal was lousy, falling behind and running up costs. UNRA’s regional supervisors got jittery because it was going to reflect badly on their record. They terminated that contractor and my friend got in. No one asked him a penny. Even he, a hardened pragmatic fellow, was impressed. He delivered. Yet he somehow felt obliged to “see” the regional supervisors. But he was a happy man.

Happy Sixth to Uganda National Roads Authority. May you live to be 600 and build every single little road in Uganda. Don’t believe the rubbish about building only those roads that make economic sense. That is received wisdom. It is no wisdom. Roads are roads.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.