Uganda is building roads, but will they lead to ‘Rome’?

Kenya recently responded dramatically. In addition to unconditionally ending pre-arrival visas for Africans, it removed work and resident permit requirements for East Africans. Soon any East African can live and work in Kenya, all they need is an ID


BY Charles Onyango-Obbo


We shall return to Uganda shortly, but first go on the Internet and search for an illustration of the “Central Corridor”, a transit and economic swathe that snakes from Tanzania, the southwestern tip of Uganda, Rwanda, eastern DR Congo, and Burundi.

That is the corridor where the Tanzania-Rwanda railway line is being built. It is very lively, and if you look long and hard at it, you realise that the centre of gravity of future wealth in our region is shifting south.

That, partly is because Kenya’s Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor is off schedule, and Uganda too chose to build its oil pipeline through Tanzania.

Also, it is not clear now whether the Kenya-Uganda standard gauge railway will happen, with indications that in a race with Kenya, Kampala seems to be focusing on building the SGR to South Sudan instead.

In many ways, there is a strategic logic to that. When South Sudan had not yet plunged into the hell of the last four years, it had changed Uganda’s economy in very intriguing ways.

Though Uganda does not have even a small shed that makes mobile phones, it became one of the largest exporters of mobile phones on the continent. That was because it was re-exporting the phones to South Sudan. That now is history.

Recently, Rwanda announced that all citizens in the world could get visas on arrival, becoming one of the few countries in the world to do so.
A while back, Rwanda removed all pre-arrival visa requirements for all Africans.

Kenya recently responded dramatically. In addition to unconditionally ending pre-arrival visas for Africans, it removed work and resident permit requirements for East Africans. Soon any East African can live and work in Kenya, all they need is an ID.
You do not have to be a genius economist to figure out what that will do.

To give you a hint, the Kenya Bureau of Statistics not too long ago, released a long hard-to-read report, but the section on tourism had very surprising insights if you could endure it. Bed occupancy in Kenya’s hotels, it showed, was dominated by East Africans. But the one area where they were really big was the number of regional visitors who occupied camp sites.

Most of the Africans who go to another country and stay in camp sites do not drive there in their four wheels, or fly. They come on buses, trains, are young, adventurous – and probably have photo or blog sites, and use the experiences to generate content for their Instagram pages.

They are the innovators. It seems, one of the things Kenya is seeking to do is to convert this traffic of innovators travelling on the new infrastructure in the region, into a resident visitor enterprise class.

And, of course, it wants to corner the bureaucratic capital and rents in East Africa through security of residency.

Which brings us back to Uganda, and to the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). One of these days when you are sitting frustrated in a Kampala restaurant because your date is late, visit the UNRA Twitter page and spend some time on it. There are very interesting posts about what people in Kampala might find in places where UNRA is building wonderful roads.

There are the likes of Fort Portal-Kamwenge, of course, but my favourite is Moroto-Nakapiripirit road. These are nearly world class roads.

If you think about how immigration policy, and infrastructure investment is shifting the centre of the regional economy, it becomes clear that Uganda needs a response to Rwanda and Kenya to protect its future economic interests. That response does not have to be via immigration policy.

It can learn the lessons of having become a leading mobile phone exporter (to South Sudan), follow the UNRA roads, and turn them into a potent weapon of regional trade competitiveness.

Just one policy, around food, would do it. It could turn all the towns near the border where those UNRA roads run into food tax-free export zones - with the bigger ones hosting commodity exchanges.

All the money that is being spent inefficiently in “Operation Wealth Creation” could be given to the building of just two things in food export zones – food silos, and cold storage. This is really cheap, because that is all Kampala would need to do, then sit back, and watch miracles happen. It is something that it can do, at least in announcing the policy, before Christmas.

It would upend the wider Eastern African economy, and change the dynamics of Uganda’s own national economy, boost the return on its infrastructure, and stop its strategic drift to the edge of the East and Central African political-economy.

The advantage is that for reasons of geography, ideology, and history, it is the only East African country that can do that – for the next 10 years or so. After that, the bets are off.

Africa will be a different place, and the rest will have closed the window through innovation.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of africadata visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

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