Govt to pay Shs6b per 1km of oil road

A section of the newly-paved Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road. PHOTOS/ANDREW MUGATI

What you need to know:

  • There are allegations of shoddy work on particularly the first 30 kilometres of the road, which have led to an an inquiry by different government agencies.

A multi-faceted fight has erupted over the cost and quality of the newly-paved Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road, pitting a Ugandan law firm against a Chinese contractor, weeks after completion of the construction works.

The East African Litigation Centre Ltd, a public interest litigator, has through Anguria & Co. Advocates, sued ChongqingInternational Corporation (CICO) alleging, among others, shoddy works, and inflated costs and collusion with unnamed officials of Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra).

Unra and CICO officials have denied the claims, variously describing them as false, unfounded and biased.

This notwithstanding, the Inspectorate of Government and the Office of the Auditor General, the latter at the urging of the State Minister for Economic Monitoring Peter Ogwang, are separately investigating the allegations.

“I called the Auditor General [John Muwanga] and he informed me that by the time they did the first audit on the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road, the works were at only 30 percent, which I think was too early [to make a lasting conclusion],” Mr Ogwang said by telephone last evening.

The auditors conducting an engineering audit are expected to submit their final findings within a month. 

Unra had indicated that both Members of Parliament’s Physical Infrastructure and minister Ogwang in September 2021 examined the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road, and gave it a clean bill of health.

In yesterday’s interview, Mr Ogwang admitted a visit to the site, reported unspecified anomalies for Unra to resolve and that his asking of fresh audit is based on new allegations and the deployed auditors include engineers.

“I am very confident that they will do a good job since they are experts in that field,” he said.
Neither Mr David Karubanga, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Physical Infrastructure, not his vice, Mr Robert Kasolo, was available yesterday to speak on the matter.

It is alleged that contracting out the 111-kilometre road to CICO at Shs665b means the government of Uganda on average is paying about Shs6b for every kilometre of the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko stretch, one of the critical oil roads.

This pricing, the lawyers argue, is exaggerated because other road upgrades in similar terrain cost under Shs4b per kilometres and CICO has charged about Shs3b per kilometre in other construction tenders it won around the same period in other parts of Uganda.

The government contracted the Chinese firm through a competitive bidding process on January 18, 2018 to upgrade the 111-kilometre road from gravel to bitumen, and works were completed in May, a year past initial contract date.

CICO pre-financed the project for the first 15 months, an arrangement that Unra says partly contributed to the comparably higher cost of the project bankrolled by the government using a China Exim Bank loan.

The new road is technically currently under the defects liability period, which means that the paved road is being monitored for its performance and the builder --- in this case CICO --- will be using its own resources fix any identified or emerging defects over the next 12 months.

The summary of the allegations --- now a matter of inquiry by different government agencies, including the Ombudsman, and subject of litigation, include shoddy work on particularly first 30 kilometres of the road with thin layers of sub-base, base and wearing course, inflated bill of quantity, corruption and collusion between Chinese firm and Unra officials and questionable award of the contract.

In a detailed response to our inquiries about the claims, Unra said it “condemns” corruption in all its forms, but in the instant case, no evidence has been adduced to incriminate any of its staff, making it difficult to take any administrative or criminal prosecution decision. 

A motorist rides on the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road. PHOTO/ANDREW MUGATI

The Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road upgrade cost higher because it involved construction of two bridges and four kilometres of its rocky section in the rift valley escarpment had to be cut up to 40 metres high while flood-prone Wanseko-Butiaba part had to be filled with layers to level the road, prevent cracks and road failures.

In addition, according to the road agency, the embankment and pavement layers, running through Lake Albert flood plains, had to be specially treated and about 10 kilometres of road within Hoima town and a branch off to Wantembo military barracks were upgraded to bitumen, and charged on the project, in fulfilment of a previous pledge by President Museveni. 

“The project also explored new engineering technologies such as use of geocells and geogrid to prevent failure of embankment in the flood plain section due to poor soils as well as use of rubble concrete to found the bridge structure,” Unra’s written response read in part.
In the applicant’s prayer in court, and IGG Beti Kamya’s directives to Unra, both want the road agency to halt any payment to CICO until the substantive case is decided and, in the Ombudsman’s case, inquiries are concluded. 

They also want Unra not to award any new road contract to the Chinese firm until allegations are resolved. 

As investigations by her office got underway, IGG Kamya last month summoned CICO’s deputy head of project, Mr Mao Jiawei, but he did not show up to give evidence as expected. 

He was expected to bring his passport and Uganda work permits, contract for the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko project, detailed project designs as approved by the project employer and consultant as well as Bills of Quantities (BoQs) approved by the employer and consultant. The IGG also asked for a detailed list of all workers employed under the project and qualifications of technical staff, the project’s statements of contribution to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) and compliance report for workers under the project, and income tax compliance report accompanied with salary sheets of all staff.
CICO’s lawyer John Kallemera when contacted for this story almost a fortnight ago, said: “How did you get my number? You cannot get any information from me.”

In an unsigned statement later emailed to this newspaper, the Chinese company noted that it is a “professional and ethical construction company, with time-tested and demonstrated experience of doing quality infrastructure projects in Uganda for the last 25 years in line with supporting [the] government’s plans towards infrastructure development”.

It added: “We do believe that some rogue people have launched a campaign to blackmail us with the intention ofextorting money from us for their selfish interests. We have also learned that the same people are working with other contractors to carry out procurementmal practice by unfairly barring us from all procurements if we do not accept to their demands.”

CICO offered no evidence to back its claims which dovetails with separate accounts, both unverified, that the battle is much less about the completed road in Bunyoro sub-region, but an upcoming award of contract for upgrading the Koboko-Yumbe-Moyo road to bitumen.

The East African Litigation Centre Ltd company says it is acting independently in public interest and its work includes investigating, exposing and prosecuting corruption, and ensuring that human rights and constitutionalism are respected.

In its plaint, lawyers for the public interest litigators aver that CICO stands accused of “practicing fraudulent and corrupt acts against the laws of Uganda, and bribing Unra officials to look the other way as shoddy workswent on”.

It is alleged that CICO exploited its labourers by failing to remit mandatory NSSF and Pay As You Earn deductions to the relevant entities, which may explain why the IGG sought the company to furnish her office with supporting documents.  

In a letter to Unra Executive Director, Ms Allen Kagina, the Ombudsman asked for certified copies of passports and work permits of CICO’s country director and project manager, NSSF remittances and compliance reports for workers under the project issue, PAYE compliance report accompanied with salary sheets of all staff under this project.

Unra is also required to submit detailed project designs, monthly progress reports and BoQs as approved by the employer and consultant, from commencement period of the project to its handover.

The firm says it has done nothing wrong, and primed to defend itself in the case brought against it at Masindi High Court. 

Last Friday, CICO secured an ex parte interim court order to prevent the Inspectorate of Government (IG) and the Inspector General ofGovernment (IGG) from investigating the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road project as well as its directive to block the company from participating in any road bid pending resolution of accusations against it. 
 

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