In January, the Chinese built a 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days.
The rehabilitation of Mulago National Referral Hospital, which has been on-going since October 2014, is just about to be completed. India builds an average of 18.2 kilometres of highway every day, but experts there worry that this is not fast enough to meet the needs of the rapidly urbanising and heavily populated country.
In May 2019, the Kampala Capital City Authority handed over five roads to contractors, including the John Babiiha Avenue, which is less than two kilometres long. A year later, it is still being dug-up.
It is, of course, easier for the Chinese or the Indians. A lot of the required equipment is built in-country and many of the materials are also locally available, such as the prefabricated containers that were meshed together to build the hospital. But there are other things at play, of which the most important is perhaps a sense of urgency.
Development, or at least the stripped-down version of building things, is a race; many ‘developed’ countries have a head-start of several centuries during which they build things, tore them down, improved them and so on. Their problem is often one of redevelopment – converting existing stuff or breaking it down to build bigger and better.
We, on the other hand, are often just breaking ground, cutting down banana plantations or coffee shambas to build houses, lay water pipes or build roads. In the majority of places, we are yet to even get around to building sewers. So how can we be so lethargic and uninspired?
Some things must be allowed time. Like pregnancy, or curing concrete. But how do we explain building roads like 8-5 office jobs? In a country with high youth unemployment, is it impossible to consider three shifts that work around the clock, and especially at night when there are fewer disruptions from and to road users?
We used to have this problem at the land borders, which used to close at 6pm, with customs officers acting like chicken that shut shop with sunset – yet the airport continued to work late into the night. It turned out that by merely putting lights in and having shifts, you could keep a land border open.
Today, you can drive through the border at midnight. What does it say about our collective ambition as a country that it takes more than a year to build a two-kilometre road? Are we not able to line up our ducks – get the equipment, bulk materials, pre-cast concrete, et cetera – then do the job quickly?
Disputes over land compensation – our favourite hymn – are not unique to us. When a couple refused to leave their house in eastern China citing inadequate compensation, the authorities redesigned the road, built around them, and left their house in the middle as a round-about.
What stops us from setting up mobile courts along major public infrastructure works to rapidly hear compensation disputes? You are offered a figure for your plot; you dispute and ask for more, giving reasons. The judge listens to both parties, sets a figure. If agreeable, kazi inaendelea; if you disagree, you appeal to a higher court while, in the meantime, we bulldoze. Kazi inaendelea!
More than a decade after discovering crude oil deposits, we are still running from pillar to post, sniffing samples, navel-gazing, while, underfoot, the sands shift away from fossil fuels to renewables. More than a year after we opened the eye-wateringly expensive Kampala-Entebbe Expressway, we are yet to start collecting tolls meant to repay the loan. We have a surplus of electricity and millions without power because we built the dams without building the power lines.
The Tanzanians just hit middle-income status years ahead of schedule; we are busy finding excuses – locusts, floods, coronavirus, neighbours looking at us badly, etc. – to explain why we have to postpone our own deadline, again.
Why does the dog always eat our homework? Competence shouldn’t always be a premium. There are enough smart Ugandans around to figure out even the most complex problems. We need the right people in the right positions, and a sense of urgency. Jesus is coming, people, look busy!
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.