The promise: One of the areas that the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) committed itself to in the period between 2016 and 2021, was the improvement of infrastructure and facilities under the water transport sector.
According to the party’s 2016-2021 manifesto, which was released under the theme, “Taking Uganda to modernity through job-creation and inclusive development”, the party was to make new investments in the sector by working on existing lake ports and deploying more vessels on Lake Victoria.
‘We will also undertake new investments in water transport by constructing and deploying three ships on Lake Victoria, modernising Port Bell (in Kampala) and Jinja Pier, constructing a new port at Bukasa and launching six new ferries,” the manifesto reads in parts.
“All these will go a long way in improving water transport and also opening up new routes. For instance, the modernisation of Port Bell and the Jinja Pier will present the opportunity of passenger and cargo service on water between Jinja and Kampala,” the document adds.
The promise was very sweet music to the ears of most members of the business communities in both Jinja and Kampala.
Prior to the breakup of the East African Community (EAC) in 1977, the two ports were formerly properties of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation (EARHC), which operated sailing operations between Kisumu in Kenya, Mwanza in Tanzania and Port Bell in Uganda, using rail ferries that carried loaded rail wagons from tracks on the three ports.
However, the breakup of the EAC and subsequent sharing out of assets of the EARHC resulted into massive cuts in what Uganda was investing on the development of the water and railway transport sector, which inevitably led to a decline in the quality of services on offer.
The competitiveness of rail and water transport was at the same time undermined by the further collapse of Uganda’s industrial sector in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the shift of focus to the development of roads.
Jinja town, which had been Uganda’s most industrialised town, was dealt another blow when the fortunes of the Busoga Growers Cooperative Union (BGCU) changed for the worst and it ceased operations.
That left Jinja Pier, where steamers between Jinja and the Tanzanian Lake Victoria Port of Mwanza used to dock, as the only driver of the local economy, but that too changed around 1996 when the Ministry of Works and Transport took the decision to shift main operations to Port Bell.
Port Bell’s fortunes suffered slightly less than 10 years later as it found itself without vessels to move goods and services, a scenario which arose after the May 8, 2005 accident in which two vessels, the Port Bell-bound MV Kabalega and the Mwanza-bound MV Kaawa collided. MV Kaawa’s bow was damaged while MV Kabalega, which suffered extensive damage below the waterline sank about 15 kilometres southwest of Ssese Islands.
Matters seemed to have been complicated by the government’s decision to hand the operations of Uganda Railway’s Corporation to Rift Valley Railways (RVR), which seemed to channel more of its energies and resources on railway operations than it did on the marine operations.
The various movements and changes in the railway and marine transport sectors took a toll on facilities at both piers.
According to a December 2016 report of a due diligence study carried out on Lake Victoria by the Dutch consultants, Maritime & Transport Business Solutions, the pier is in a “very poor condition” with many components either decayed or completely nonfunctional.
“The general cargo berth mooring facilities (quay wall and bolders) are damaged and the quay pavement is very poor. The port’s rail infrastructure, consisting of tracks to the link-span and a rail shunting yard, is not functional and is in very poor condition,” the document reads in parts.
The document also reveals that the tracks linking the pier to the main rail line is missing thanks to the work of vandals and that the oil pipeline jetty is not functional. It adds that the access road is poor and unpaved and it has neither a fence nor a proper gate.
Port Bell may be more operational, but it too has serious challenges. The study by Maritime & Transport Business Solutions reveals that trains cannot access the port due to encroachment on the line leading to it, has uncovered drainages and a very old crane for lift on and lift off operations and that its warehouses, customs houses and toilets are in a state of disrepair.
Against such a background, the promise raised more than optimism for the business communities in the two towns as it would open up prospects for increased profits accruing from a reduction in the cost of doing business.
The problem though, is that this seemed to be another one of those promises that Mr Museveni and the ruling NRM were regurgitating and dangling as another vote catcher. Why?
It was not the first time that the promise to revamp the piers and provide more vessels to improve water transport on the lakes had been made. It was first made by the President on June 8, 2011 as he delivered the State of the Nation Address.
In line with the promise made to have the piers redesigned, a Danish firm, OSK Ship Tech was hired to carry out the work and list what they required. The redesigns are said to have been completed in September 2013 at a reported cost of $4million, but work was never been implemented due to a failure by the government to make available the projected $19 million for the actual rehabilitation.
During the presentation of the budget for the financial year 2013/2014, the then Minister for Finance and Economic Planning, Ms Maria Kiwanuka, said development of the lake and water transport sectors was very much at the centre of Uganda’s plans for achieving economic development and fostering regional cooperation and integration.
To that end, she said, government intended to revive lake water transport with special emphasis on rebuilding infrastructure on Lake Victoria and providing them with appropriate technologies to enable it become a major waterway.
A movement in that direction, she said, would ensure that Ugandan got a strategic alternative route to the sea and also facilitate bulk movement of agricultural produce, but this has not happened. Uganda remains heavily reliant on the Kampala Mombasa highway for its exports and imports.
Plans to revive the Southern route to the Indian Ocean through Dar es Salaam are not moving at the desired pace.
Ms Kiwanuka said this would help lower the cost of transport to internal and external destinations and in the process lower the cost of doing business.
As it were, the developments have not taken place and the ports and the facilities therein continue to be in a pathetic state.
The benefits that had been expected to accrue, especially in the area of a reduction in the cost of doing business, increased profitability for the business communities and creation of employment opportunities have not materialised.