In 2012, residents of Mafubira Village on the Jinja-Kamuli highway took to the streets and demonstrated over an impassable pot-holed and dusty road.
Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga also threatened to lead a group of Basoga in a demonstration against the same.
Although the road has spent several years dogged with potholes, when the government contracted Dott Services to work on the road, the company dug the road and left it unattended to for close to a year, prompting the fury from those who stay on the road.
The enraged residents claimed that the dust left behind by moving cars was unbearable and had forced them to close their businesses.
The 70km Jinja-Kamuli highway is just one of the many road construction projects the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) is undertaking in eastern Uganda.
Although many of such projects have faced delays, a recent tour of the projects by Members of Parliament on the Physical Infrastructure Committee revealed that UNRA, and not the contractor, is responsible for the delays.
“You (UNRA) should be smart in your work instead of taking on a slow approach and waiting to put the contractor on pressure,” committee chairperson Ephraim Biraaro told the UNRA eastern region manager, Mr Godfrey Kaaya, during a tour of the Mbale-Soroti road, one of the delayed roads.
“You obviously have to blame in these delays because there were no plans, no road designs and there is no way Dott Services could have started work on time,” Mr Biraaro said.
When asked about the delayed road designs and plans, Mr Kaaya admitted that mistakes were made but said everything has since been streamlined and the road constructions are back on course.
But the delay of the eastern roads projects aside, a scrutiny of a UNRA publication of the on-going and upcoming projects reveals a regional imbalance with western Uganda having more projects than north and eastern Uganda, combined.
Out of the 47 projects, both on-going and upcoming projects under UNRA, 19 are in the western region; 11 central; nine in the north and eight in the east.
In distance terms, the west has 1,407km, central 690, the north 692 and 631km in the east.
UNRA head of planning directorate David Luyimbazi says they do not decide on which road goes where and when, adding that it is the work of the Ministry of Works.
“As far as I am aware, we have put too much money in eastern and northern Uganda. Most road projects are on-going. If you separate on-going from what we are processing, you will see that the scenario is different,” he says.
Although he disagrees with the analysis, Works minister Abraham Byandala, says western Uganda is getting the roads because of economic benefits there.
“We are constructing roads there because they lead to areas with lucrative tourism – parks and eco sites – and it is where the majority of food we eat in Kampala comes from and a lot of cattle farming, leading to big diary output,” he says.
Mr Byandala said the ministry gives priority to regional productivity, access to district headquarters, political roads and roads opening up regional corridors to the border points.
“Western region connects to [DR] Congo and Rwanda, where many Ugandans transact business,” he said. “The north and eastern regions, you say are being side-lined, have projects that we are planning. Roads in Bubulo to Mbale, Bukiro, among others that will start in 2015.”
“So, it’s not true that we are side-lining some regions and doing better in others,” he said.
Public Accounts Committee of Parliament chairperson Alice Alaso says the UNRA imbalance “simply” speaks a lot about government unwillingness to redistribute resources, and shadow minister for works William Nzoghu pushes the blame to what he calls “westernisation” of government departments.
“First the technocrats and civil services are dominated by ‘westerners’ so they prioritise their area,” he says. “Many ministers in Cabinet come from that area so they originate plans to benefit them and not the entire country.”
Road construction has been one of the government’s top priories for the last two and a half decades.
Roads since 1986
According to the 2006 NRM manifesto, in 1986 the total national road network was 7,900Km. Of the 1,900Km that had been tarmacked, only 114 (6 per cent) was in fair condition. The remaining 1,786, the manifesto notes, was in poor motorable state.
The 6,000km of gravel roads were in dire need of repair and so were the 22,000km of district feeder roads and 15,000km of urban roads and about 30,000km of community roads had become foot paths.
While addressing MPs at Kyankwanzi in January last year, President Museveni said the NRM government has since taken long strides in the road infrastructure docket.
“We have done a total of 1,355km of new tarmac roads and repaired 1,621km of old tarmac roads since 1986,” he said.
Having spent 27 years in power by the time of the Kyankwanzi address, it means the NRM government tarmacked 50.1km of new roads per year and repaired 60km.
Some of those roads include the Nyakahita-Kazo-Kamwenge road, Fort Portal Bundibugyo-Lamia road and the Gulu-Atiak-Nimule road.
The President said the main method used in selecting which roads to tarmac is relying on the Internal Rate of Return (IRR). Simply put, IRR is the rate of growth a project is expected to generate.
Basing on that method, the President said Nyakahita-Kazo-Kamwenge-Fort Portal road with 22 per cent IRR, Fort Portal-Bundibugyo-Lamia with 18 per cent; Kabale-Kisoro 18 per cent; and Soroti-Dokolo-Lira with 15 per cent were constructed.
A road must have an Internal Rate of Return of above 12 per cent to qualify for international funding.
“It is us who, when we are able financially, or can engineer a financing solution, that depart from this principle,” the President said.
And that’s how Mityana-Fort Portal road, Ntungamo-Rukungiri road, Muyembe-Kapchorwa road, Kapeeka-Matugga road, Isingiro road, Ishaka-Kagamba roads, were constructed.
“Here we used the need to connect the different corners of our country or for some historical reasons (Luweero war or the 1979 war) in spite of the IRR being low,” he said.
Ms Alaso says the argument that the west has a lot of milk and bananas, is reckless. “Does that mean potato farmers in Kumi should also relocate to the west to start producing milk or they should abandon farming for cattle farming?” she asked.
“It’s just a matter of skewed politics and lack of accountability by the government. We get a lot of fish from L. Kyoga in the north but the only way to get there is through Masindi because other places like Dokolo are unreachable.”
Shadow minister for finance Geoffrey Ekanya says for any country which wants to develop, government needs to put money in areas where it gets comparative advantage “and those regions are the border points”.
“The major import and export area is the east - Busia and Malaba. These areas need good road networks so that economic activities can spread into the hinterland,” he said.
But a quick check in the list of proposed roads, those with finalised designs, eastern Uganda has only one road, the Namutumba–Butaleja-Nabumali road (88km).
Western Uganda has eight roads: Kisoro-Mgahinga Gate (14km), Kisoro-Nkuringo/Bwindi (40km), Hamurwa-Kerere-Kanungu (47km), Hamayanja-Ifasha-Ikumba (50km), Harutenga-Ruhinja-Mpungu-Buhoma (30km) and Kanyantongo-Butogota-Buhoma (32km), Ishasha-Katunguru (88km) and Kabale-Bunyonyi road.
The Transport and Works ministry is one of the highest funded sectors with shs2.5 trillion in the bag.
According to the budget frame work paper (budget projection per ministry) for 2014/15, the works and transport sector has improved, especially the road condition of the national unpaved road network currently at 66 per cent, national paved road network at 77 per cent and intends to improve it further in the medium term to 75 per cent and 85 per cent respectively.
The budget framework paper shows that this ending financial year, a total of 90km-equivalent were upgraded from gravel to bitumen standard (tarmac) roads against the annual target of 200km-equivalent, representing a 45 per cent performance.
It further shows that 94km-equivalent of existing old paved roads were reconstructed/rehabilitated against the annual target of 180km, representing a 52 per cent performance.
It also notes that the sector intends to improve the condition of urban unpaved roads in fair to good condition to 45 per cent and urban paved road condition in fair to good at 74 per cent, while improve district road condition in fair to good at 65 per cent.
This includes a plan to improve 1,500km of national roads from gravel to tarmac, rehabilitation/ reconstruction of 700km of old paved roads to reduce on the road maintenance backlog.
Shadow minister for finance Geoffrey Ekanya says: “We need roads to northern Uganda to connect to South Sudan. It is very unfortunate that road development has been skewed to one region yet east and northern Uganda have economic activities too.”
He adds: “Bugisu Matooke has not been able to compete because of poor road infrastructure in the area. The rail network in the 1960 used to boost internal cultural and education trade but in the absence of rail you need roads to be equitably constructed.”
Impact of roads
But do roads have a direct impact on economic activity?
Mr John Van Rijn, an economic expert and former transport policy advisor at GiZ, says in his paper, Economic Impact of Roads, that directly or indirectly, transport infrastructure may affect production processes, interregional/international trade, industrial location, distribution systems, housing/labour markets, land prices and price setting.
Mr Rijn highlights three opinions about the relation between transport and regional development. The first is that transport hardly influences the regional economic development and that availability of transport is considered only a precondition for economic development, but does not stimulate it.
The second is the opposite of the first and the third and, according to him, the most accepted opinion is that the reciprocal relation between transport improvements and economic development is a not understood “chicken or egg” relationship.
Least effect on poor
A March 2006 study, Roads to Poverty Reduction? Dissecting Rural Roads’ Impact on Mobility in Africa and Asia by Deborah Fahy Bryceson of African Studies Centre at Oxford University, notes that roads will impact on rural economic groups differently and are likely to have the least effect on the poor.
The study says in considering the impact of roads on rural mobility and trying to relate this to the potential for poverty reduction, one must acknowledge the complex interplays between road infrastructure and range of transport model choice and mobility and accessibility enhancement.
“In rural situations where long distances are the norm, people are likely to have a strong preference for improved accessibility, which reduces their travel distance to basic services and economic activities rather than seeking to increase the overall distance they travel,” the study says.