On February 6, 2006, President Museveni, while addressing a campaign rally in Arua town ahead of the 2006 general elections, promised to tarmac the Vurra-Arua-Koboko-Oraba road during the period between 2006 and 2011.
The road, a 92Km affair, starts at Vurra at the common border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and leads northwards through Arua and Koboko, ending at Oraba on the common border with southern Sudan.
Mr Museveni said that work on the road, a key link between the three countries, would also see the road linked to the Karuma-Pakwach road and the railway line from Pakwach to Juba.
Once complete, Mr Museveni said, it would ease transport and communication, and facilitate the free movement of goods and services between the three countries.
The promise followed complaints from the business and farming communities in the West Nile sub-region that the bad road was denying them access to vital markets in the two neighbouring countries.
But it was not until November 2009 that the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) put out a notice inviting bids for consultant engineers, after which nothing more was done about it.
The road was therefore once again listed in the NRM’s 2011 manifesto as one of the 176 roads that would be upgraded from gravel to tarmac in the period between 2011 and 2016, and it once again became an issue in the campaigns ahead of the 2011 general elections with the opposition seeking to cash in on it as a manifestation of the failings of the NRM government.
A year after the NRM had won the election, Mr Museveni returned to the sub-region on May 11, 2012 to flag off the Shs 132 billion project that would see the existing gravel upgraded to tarmac, bridges and drainage channels built.
The contractor, Chongqing International Construction Corporation (CICO), was expected to do the work on the World Bank funded project in a period of 36 months, which would come to a close in July 2014. The contractor, however, failed to beat the deadline, forcing UNRA to extend the deadline to December 31, 2014.
Some of the hitches that the works ran into were complaints that the road was too narrow for Arua town, a busy business hub and gateway to both South Sudan and DR Congo.
“We shall not have sufficient space for parking if the road remains as narrow as it is now. The dual carriageways should be widened so that trucks can be diverted to leave other cars on the different sides,” the senior municipal physical planner, Mr Moses Findru, said during the road construction phase.
There were accusations that original engineering designs had been tweaked to cut costs. Whatever had been saved, it was believed, had been pocketed by unidentified officials in UNRA and the government.
A copy of a July 2009 “final detailed engineering design report” prepared by the Ghana-based Comptran Engineering and Planning Associates, however, pokes holes in that argument.
“The width of the bitumen surfaced carriageway will be 6.5m with shoulders generally of 2m width, but possibly reducing to 1.5m in some places (according to the terrain),” the report says.
District chairman Sam Nyakua had a different complaint, saying that the size of the road was not befitting of a town that was nursing aspirations to be elevated to city status.
In the meantime, UNRA and the contractor were experiencing challenges in the areas of compensation of those who had been affected by the road works and the locations of service lanes for utilities such as water and electricity.
As Mr Davis Kofi, the resident engineer for Chongqing International Construction Corporation later explained, while the contractors were running into trouble because of the locations of the service lanes for utilities such as water and electricity, UNRA was finding difficulties in compensating various people who did not have Tax Identification Numbers.
“We have already compensated the power company to relocate their electricity poles in the town so that we can widen the road, but the other adjustments will also involve costs,” Mr Kofi had explained.
Some of the structures that delayed the compensation works included two storied buildings, namely Terego House and another opposite Arua Regional Hospital, a commercial building belonging to an absentee landlord who had at the time been believed to be resident in Egypt, and a swath of land that had until that time been serving as a nursery bed for a tree plantation project based in Aroi Sub-county.
Given that some of the challenges that the contractor had faced were not of their own creation, UNRA was once again compelled to extend the deadline. Even though it had not been completed by the time of the 2016 general election, the road never made it back to the list of what were considered campaign issues in West Nile region.
Despite the poor infrastructure that characterised the years before the completion of the road, a triangular cross border trade between Uganda, the Sudan and DR Congo has been thriving for more than half a century.
Initially, the Congolese would smuggle gold and other minerals from mines in north eastern Congo, which they would sell in Arua and use the proceeds to buy foodstuffs, garments, fuel and other commodities.
On the other hand, the Sudanese would come in with their dollars which they exchanged for local currency to purchase clothes and foodstuffs, mostly coffee, the bulk of which would always be smuggled into Uganda from the eastern parts of DR Congo.
Upgrading of the road started having an impact on Arua and the West Nile sub-region more than a year before the works were completed. The numbers of traders operating in markets such as Onduparaka, Lia, Odramachaku, Osidribiku and Kampala, where most of the trade had previously taken place, has continued to grow, and so have the volumes of trade.
Motorists plying the routes here now spend less time and fuel than they had previously been doing and the levels of investment increased as seen from the number of storied buildings that sprouted to change the town’s skyline. The town has also seen investments in the manufacturing sector, with plants such as the Shs5 billion fruit processing located in Dadamu Sub-county, which Mr Museveni commissioned in January 2014. The plant can process juice from mangoes and other fruits such as guavas and oranges.
Tobacco processing factories, mineral water and honey have also opened up over the years, and many more are expected to come in with an eye to markets in southern Sudan and DR Congo. These developments have in the process opened up indirect and direct employment opportunities at a time when the economy is hardly generating jobs. According to the 2014 National Housing and Population Census report, about 10.4m people out of Uganda’s 18 million in the productive ages of between 14 and 64 are unemployed.
Currently, Uganda is believed to be reaping more from trade, especially with the DR Congo. Uganda’s influence and dominance of the trade in Congo can be detected from the predominant use of the Uganda Shilling in areas up to as far as 25 kilometers inside the eastern parts of DR Congo. The Shilling is believed to constitute up to 85 percent of the currency in circulation in the region.
Ugandan business people take foodstuffs, second-hand clothes and all sorts of consumer goods into DR Congo and return with timber, cotton and coffee. Uganda’s influence and dominance in trade is expected to grow even further.
UNRA’s Director for Communications, Mr Mark Ssali, says despite the numerous extensions which had cost implications for both UNRA and the contractor, work has since been completed and the road handed over.
“The substantial completion date for the Vurra-Arua-Koboko-Oraba Project was January 28, 2015. Then followed the customary Defects Liability Period (DLP) – the 12 months period within which the contractor must stay on site to fix any defects which may arise - and the handover was then in January 2016. The road was commissioned in March 2016,” Mr Ssali said.
Daily Monitor position
That the road has stimulated growth and development in Arua town and other parts of the West Nile region cannot be overemphasized. It goes to prove that targeted or strategic investments can indeed stimulate growth and development.
It is a model that the country can adopt as a means of stimulating the economy, especially in the eastern and western parts of Uganda.
According to the World Bank’s “Uganda Poverty Assessment Report 2016”, while 68 per cent of Uganda’s poor had by 2006 been living in the north and the east of Uganda, the numbers had by 2013 risen to 84 per cent, adding that while annual reduction has been running at 7.4 per cent and 7.9 per cent in central and western regions respectively it has remained at 3.1 percent and 4.7 percent in the north and the east.
This calls for some drastic action in the north and the east. One way would be by investing in areas that could be drivers of the economies in those regions. Investments in infrastructure in those regions could be a starting point.
As you know, before the instability in South Sudan, all the goods and services destined to that country used to pass through Oraba border crossing. The focus has now shifted to Vurra, but we shouldn’t forget that Vurra is the food basket of the (Arua) district. The road is now playing a critical role. It is enabling farmers and people to access the markets.
Gabriel Aridru Ajedra, MP (NRM) Vurra County & Minister of State for Finance General Duties
“Business was first boosted by the construction of the Karuma-Pakwach-Arua road. Now the Arua-Vurra-Oraba has increased it several fold. We in the hospitality industry are benefitting a lot because visitors from DR Congo and Sudan can now use their private cars and come over without fearing that their cars will be spoilt by the bad roads.”
Jackson Atima, Proprietor Hilltop Hotel Arua & Chairman Uganda Chamber of Commerce and Industry Arua
“It has eased the movement of heavy trucks to the border, but here it’s only Vurra custom which seems to be the busiest. With the unrest in South Sudan, it means that we cannot use Oraba border post and is our only alternative for business is DR Congo. But all in all the road has been very good for the movement of people, goods and services.”
Mr Ali Ismail Ogama, MP (NRM) Lower Madi constituency, Arua District.