Anyone visiting Entebbe International Airport, should they happen to look across at the Old Airport turned air force base, is likely to see two crested cranes captured in time on the wings of two glittering jets. It is one of those moments that tug gently at the heartstrings: Is it really true? Are they really ours? Who would have thunk?
I am talking, of course, about the two Bombardier aircraft bought as the first step in revamping the national carrier, Uganda Airlines, two decades after its assets were stripped and sold for the penny to the dollar. To see the planes in the flesh is thus heart-warming, even to those, including your columnist, who think the airline is a very expensive mistake. It is an eye-wateringly expensive sight.
There is only one problem: The planes are parked on the tarmac. See, the airline industry has very many heuristics or rules of thumb, to our friends in the back joining us from UPE – but the most obvious one is that planes only make money when they fly. So every minute they spend on the tarmac baking in the tropical sun, they lose money.
This week the ministry, in response to media inquiries, clarified that Uganda Airlines was awaiting the necessary certifications and permissions before it could fly. Indeed at the time of writing, one of the planes was scheduled to fly into JKIA in Nairobi, Kenya as part of this process. In other words, there might be a delay here and there but eventually Uganda Airlines will soar into the skies, and with it some deficits.
So the point here isn’t to flog dead horses, but to explore the theme of competence. In a recent assessment of our economy, the IMF gave a cautiously optimistic assessment, which it qualified by warning that our projections would depend, among other things, on our ability to deliver projects on time and within budget.
Your columnist does not remember seeing, in the business case that was bandied around for the revamp of Uganda Airlines, a two-month waiting period during which the planes would be parked on the tarmac awaiting this certificate and that permit. There is a reason the airline industry has wet leases if you want to, and allow me here to mix up my metaphors rather tragically, hit the tarmac flying. More likely this was a case of the horse finding itself behind the cart.
This is not an isolated case. The expressway between Kampala and Entebbe was built on the understanding that motorists would pay a toll to use the road to pay off the Chinese loan. Many months after the road was opened, not a single toll has been collected because the necessary law is yet to be passed.
Or take electricity. A new dam was opened at Isimba on the River Nile adding to our surplus (a good thing), but for which we are now scampering to connect users to the grid to take up the electricity being generated.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, all protocol observed, a country does not go to bed on a Friday night and wake up on Saturday morning to discover that a 51-kilometre expressway appeared overnight linking its capital to its airport city. Ditto a massive dam that requires a river to be diverted and dammed.
This isn’t a partisan argument. It has nothing to do with whether you think we should have built an expressway or a tram, a hydropower dam or a mini solar grid. It even has nothing to do with whom you vote for. It is about competent execution.
We now live in a world of just-in-time supply chain management, where super-efficient companies carry thin inventories, which arrive just when and where they are needed. How are we going to compete when it takes us 20 years to build a 21-kilometre road?
Once we decide something is worth doing, we must then do all it takes to do it right. We are not stupid people. Actually, scratch that; we are not stupid, people.
Our ancestors were routinely carrying out caesarian section births in the 15th Century with the sterilisation that Europe would only discover several hundred years later. And you tell me that we can’t collectively tell which end of the horse to attach to the cart? Or that we need two decades to negotiate oil deals? We are better people than this. We are better than this, people.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. email@example.com