In November 2010, as President Museveni was campaigning for re-election, he promised the people of Nebbi District that government would upgrade the 119km Nebbi-Goli-Paidha-Zombo-Warr-Vurra road from gravel to tarmac.
The road had not been among the 17 that the ruling NRM had listed in its 2011-2015 manifesto as those that would be upgraded.
Mr Museveni was compelled to promise to work on it following complaints from area residents and businessmen that the state of the road was proving to be a major inhibitor to trade and development as it was denying them access to vital markets in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
The road had become a nightmare for travellers regardless of the season. It would oscillate between two extremes – getting rugged, rocky and dusty during the dry season and muddy, slippery and largely impassable when the heavens would open up.
Nebbi, Zombo and Arua have for more than 50 years now been beneficiaries of a triangular cross-border trade between Uganda, the Sudan and DR Congo.
Initially, the Congolese would smuggle in gold and other minerals from mines in north-eastern Congo, which they would sell in Arua District then use the proceeds to purchase agricultural produce, garments, fuel and an array of both Ugandan made and imported manufactured goods.
On the other hand, the Sudanese would come in with their dollars, which they would exchange for local currency in order to be able to purchase clothes and foodstuffs, mostly coffee, the bulk of which would always be smuggled into Uganda from the eastern parts of DR Congo.
However, the state of the road over the last 20 years has been making Nebbi and Zombo, producers of a variety of cash and food crops such as coffee, tea, bananas, potatoes and a fruits and vegetables, miss out on some of the action.
Besides impeding their attempts to access the markets, it has opened them up to exploitation by unscrupulous traders who come and take their produce for a song.
Despite the fact that it had not been listed in the manifesto, Mr Museveni said work on the road would be effected in the period between 2011 and 2015.
Some excitement was generated when teams from the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communication arrived in the area and conducted a preparatory survey in 2013. However, nothing more was done, which made the road become a major talking point in the area during campaigns ahead of the 2016 General Election.
Even then, it was not listed in the NRM’s 2016-2021 manifesto and like had been the case in 2010, Mr Museveni was pressured into promising for a second time that the road would be fixed.
“We shall start with Nebbi-Goli Custom road then come and construct Paidha Road,” he said on November 15, 2015 while campaigning in Bar Okoro in Paidha Town.
He said with the electricity and the improved road network, service delivery would improve because small scale factories could be started.
However, eight years since his first promise, there is no sign that work will be done any time soon.
A good roads network is both about enabling both mobility and access to health, education and economic opportunities for communities. It is also about attracting good professionals to work in an area. Needless to say, the poor state of the roads is making it difficult for the people of Zombo and Nebbi to access those opportunities.
As of May 2016, Nebbi had a staffing gap of 400 teachers and the teacher-pupil ratio stood at 1:80, way above the national standard ratio of one teacher to 50 pupils. One of the reasons why teachers are staying way is due to issues around lack of accessibility to basic social services.
This has also negatively impacted on academic performance. In the 2016 Primary Leaving Examinations, none of the district’s 736 PLE pupils got a first grade.
Zombo and Nebbi are big time producers of an array of agricultural products but the communities here remain largely poor. The Uganda Poverty Map 1999, which was produced by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos), indicates that 239,563 out of Nebbi’s 286,543 people were poor. Only 46,980 were living above the poverty line. The situation could in part be blamed on lack of access to markets. Where attempts are made to deliver goods to the markets, most of them arrive as damaged, which are either sold on the cheap or out-rightly rejected.
Most of the damage is caused by the endless vibrations and seesaw movement of the goods caused by bumpy roads.
Mr Allan Ssempebwa Kyobe, the media relations manager in the office of the Executive Director of Unra, Ms Allen Kagina, says designs for the road were completed in June and works will soon begin.
“What is left now is for us to secure funding and enter the procurement process before work can begin. We hope that this will happen in the not so distant future,” he says.
The situation in Zombo and Nebbi and the outcries of politicians from the area over the last one decade to try and draw government’s attention to the state of Nebbi-Zombo-Vurra road and others in the two districts once again reignites debate around the rather thorny topic of inequitable distribution of development projects.
It is commendable that government has moved to increase the number of kilometres of roads under tarmac but it is at the same time unacceptable that some regions are living a nightmarish life, often getting cut off on account of poor roads.
There is a need for government to take deliberate action to prioritise Zombo and Nebbi districts and indeed other areas that are disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure. Whereas we appreciate that budgets could have been made and work plans drawn, they are not cast in stone. Resources can always be redistributed to address an issue as critical as this road.
Tacking inequity is a valuable goal and improving equity leads to change and development that are beneficial to all and help in the fight against poverty. That is why government should be encouraged to go for it.