In this pandemic, good Uganda needs to die with its neighbours

Wednesday April 29 2020

Uganda has continued to do relatively well in the face of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) and, together with Rwanda, are the only two countries in the region that have more than 70 confirmed cases that haven’t yet had any deaths attributable to the virus.

For both countries, the majority of recent confirmed cases of coronavirus have been of truck drivers from Tanzania, where the government of John Magufuli lost valuable time during the early stages in Covid-19 denialism, and farming the crisis out to God (you don’t employ God, He/She employs you).

Kenyan truckers have also contributed to the new infections. Now, there are nationalism-laced demands to shut off Tanzanian and Kenyan transporters. It would be a disastrous move for a landlocked economy like Uganda’s. Fortunately, some people are thinking clearly, and have put up more imaginative solutions, including changing drivers and transferring cargo loads at the border.

But that is short-term. The best thing Uganda can do from this crisis is seize the opportunities they present for doing things differently, and making it more competitive. For starters, Covid-19 and the problem with infected drivers tells us not that we should shut doors on neighbours, but rather add health as a big element of East African cooperation.

With the East African Community coming together with a regional approach to fighting viruses, it would dramatically lower the cost for each of them doing so by gaining the economies of bulk buying of vaccines, medicines, personal protective equipment, and testing kits.

But most importantly, because each country has its strengths in healthcare, they would double the creativity if they came together. At a national level for Uganda, there are obvious other pointers. We have flogged the issue of developing more airports, reviving the railway and creating a loop around the country, with stops at the major border points where the bulk of trade with our neighbours transits.


But perhaps the biggest change, whose impact is likely to be most revolutionary, is to overhaul the archaic logistics logic which has governed many African economies. Recently, I was talking to a Ugandan who thinks about these things (interesting, the niche specialisations clever people have).

“Do you know that if you import wine from Europe through Kenya into Uganda via Malaba, it will pass by truck via Tororo, to Kampala first, and then return to Tororo, or next door in Mbale, to be drank?” he asked.

It was obvious, but I had never thought of it – and it didn’t make sense. The effect is that the wine takes longer to get to drinkers, and becomes more expensive than it should be when it returns to Tororo or Mbale, because of a roundtrip it shouldn’t have made.

I asked why this happens, and what can be done to fix it. It isn’t straight forward. One, he said, is policy and the way regulatory structures have been formed since colonial times. Because of the concentration of key tax processes, payments, and certification in the capital (the Standards Bureau main lab is in Kampala), goods have to cross from the borders to the centre, then back out. He said there are some things imported from Rwanda that also pass through Mbarara, to Kampala, and then back again.

Reorganising the way the state works, would bring these processes and regulatory interventions to the regions, so that an imported wine can stop in Tororo, then go to Soroti, instead of to Kampala first. The additional possibilities here are clear. It would bulk out health controls to the regions near the border, and we can go one better: Kenyan truck drivers don’t have to come to the border or into Uganda. The Covid-19 testing would take place in Webuye or Kisumu in common East African facilities, and no infected drivers would continue into Uganda, or vice versa from Uganda, with test facilities in Tororo or Busitema. However, the most critical element, the friend said, was power and logistical infrastructure.

While there is now a reasonable level of road infrastructure to evacuate goods to the rest of the country if, say, Mbarara and Tororo were the key stops for goods from the west and east of the country, respectively, there just isn’t enough electricity, warehousing, and water in these places to manage the load.

These, though, are things that can be brought to these places through a major push, state investment, and incentives to private developers. I have to throw in one of my favourites. It is time for Uganda to create a continuouslyimmunised emergency force, with the skills, technology, and resources to respond to epidemics and crises like landslides, floods, and locust invasions.

They would even bring national fortunes being hired out as first responders to crises around Africa, of which there shall be many more.

Mr Onyango-Obb is a journalist, writer, and curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’ and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.