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Graft claims, cost overruns mar Shs2 trillion World Bank project

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Namisindwa officials led by the Resident District Commissioner, Mr Imran Muluga, inspect Mukoto Seed Secondary School last week. The school is one of those constructed under the Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfer programme. PHOTO | YAHUDU KITUNZI

Wanale Ridge, one of the hidden gems of Mt Elgon, emerges on the horizon like jagged teeth. To get there, a murram road cuts off Republic Street in Mbale City, slants, straightens, zigzags, slopes through V-shaped valleys, and then snakes around the jagged hills to the far ends of the land.

Tucked away atop the hills is Bubenstye Parish in Wanale Sub-county, Bunghoko County North, Mbale District. Bunghoko County North, according to a revised (2017) Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) area profile, has a population of 1,71,430 million.

According to Ubos, the percentage of school-going children aged between six and 12 not in school in Wanale stood at 12.1 percent; 15 percent between the ages of 18 and 30 not in school; and child marriages at 9.2 percent.

Mr Badru Naboze, the Local Council Two (LC2) chairperson of Bunasyoma Village in Bubenstye attributed the high rates of school dropouts in his area to the long distances learners had to endure. The nearest secondary school, he said, was at least 10km away.

All that changed in 2019 when the village was considered for a seed secondary school during the first phase of the World Bank-funded Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfer (UGIFT) programme, geared at enhancing service delivery in education, health and water sectors, across the 146 districts.

The Ministry of Education defines seed schools as those constructed in areas where there was previously no school. The plan, when UGIFT was conceptualised during the FY2017/2018, was to construct 232 seed secondary schools.

Hence came Bubenstye Seed Secondary School with the initial cost of Shs2b. The Mbale District Local Government, project documents show, entered into a contract with a local construction company, Bau Technical Services Ltd on April 15, 2019, with a completion timeline of 12 months ending May 8, 2020.

The contract provided for two classroom blocks, two science laboratories, a computer library, a playground, staff quarters, a five-stance-lined latrine block for boys, and a two-stance latrine for teachers, among other accompaniments.

Then a cocktail of technical and contractual issues ensued. Technical issues, compounded by torrential rains, included blocks of murram powered downstream by running water severely filling the classrooms and teachers’ quarters rendering them both unusable and unsafe.

Contractually, Bau Technical Services Ltd’s contract was then irregularly extended on June 5, 2020, from May 8, 2020, to November 8, 2020, and yet the request for an extension was submitted on March 22, 2020.  On February 5, 2021, the completion date was extended to April 29, 2021, and yet the request was submitted on November 11, 2020, investigations by Daily Monitor showed.

A Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA) audit of the project in August 2023 unearthed a catalogue of issues for which it recommended that the contractor, the district chief finance officer, chief engineer, and internal auditor be reprimanded “for the irregular payment of incomplete works” of the original project works of Shs2b and an additional Shs688m that was paid fully for construction of a retention wall to hold murrams from breaking away in case of rains.

Failings galore

PPDA concluded that the sorry state of works was “due to inadequate technical and financial capacity of the contractor and inadequate bills of quantities that did not provide for retaining walls to hedge against the risk of collapsing soils during the rainy season due to the mountainous nature of the project site.” As a result, the contractor abandoned the project.

Bau Technical Services’ manager Jonathan Namasa, however, discounted the findings. Rather, he attributed the problems encountered to the poor terrain and the failure by the Ministry of Education to undertake pre-geo technical studies, and financial complications.

“The quality of work is not suspect at all and there are no structural defects. The blocks have been used by students for two years,” Mr Namasa argued, adding: “The works are at 90 percent, and still under liquidation period during which we have a few corrections to do. In general, these UGIFT projects awarded in 2019 had their own problems; we bid the contract at Shs2.4b but they deducted Value Added Tax (VAT) of 18 percent and later six percent, so ideally the money came to Shs1.4b, which was not enough. Compare that to projects awarded in phase II, where the money was slightly more.”

Contrary to Mr Namasa’s defence, PPDA documented that Bau Technical Services Ltd was lacking in both “technical and financial competence” to undertake all the four contracts under UGIFT phase one; Bubensye, Sibanga and Buwagogo seed schools in Manafwa District, and Mukoto Seed School in Namisindwa District.

The company, Mbale District officials told PPDA, was hired through “open national bidding”.

Mr Namasa defended that the company has 20 years of experience and so “competent enough” but the UGIFT project left its directors teetering on the edges of financial implosion.

Despite PPDA recommending sanctions against the company’s executives and district officials, no action was ever taken.

The Mbale District Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Mr Luke Lokuda, defended the company on the Bubensye project saying the terrain was problematic coupled with its poor location.

“Yes, Shs2.8b might be a loss, but the Ministry of Education is looking at it (project) as a short-term intervention as they find a more suitable place where a new school can be constructed,” Mr Lokuda argued.

In Bunayo Village in Buwagogo Sub-county in Manafwa District, where Bau Technical Services undertook the construction of the Sibanga Seed School, with 1,150 students, the state of affairs is not different. During a recent visit, we found area leaders up in arms. 

While the school project is outwardly complete, sections of the blocks have started developing cracks; the ICT library and science laboratory are yet to be operationalised, several electrical finishings are hanging, and the school playground that was part of the tender, is grazing ground for cattle.

The area LC3, Mr Mathew Mutambo decried what he termed as the company’s sloppiness and said there was continued deflection of all calls to finish the school project that cost Shs2.2b.

“Each time we raise an issue, we are told that we are not engineers. That we should just sit back and watch. But sit back and watch things which are falling apart before completion?” Mr Mutambo wondered.

At Sibanga Seed School, with 300 students, in Kibikanyo Village in Sibanga Sub-county also in Manafwa, we identified cracked walls and floors while the ICT library and science laboratory are yet to be operationalised. Bau Technical Services Ltd delivered the computers in March, officials said, and have been promising since then to return and finalise the installation.

We also visited Mukoto Seed School, with 650 students, also undertaken by the same company in Bukakala Village in Mukoto Sub-county tucked away atop the hills of Namisindwa District, but the project site appeared abandoned. School officials who requested anonymity indicated that works are ongoing, albeit slowly.

On track?

The Assistant Commissioner for Physical Decentralisation in the Ministry of Finance, Mr Joseph Majanga, under whose docket the UGIFT project is supervised, said despite isolated cases of incompetence and stalled or slowed works, the project has been largely successful.

“First of all, what have we achieved so far? To date, out of 117 seed schools programmed in phase one, 98 are fully operational and enrolment has skyrocketed. After Covid-19, some private schools closed and the students relocated to these seed schools. Under phase II, we planned 111 seed schools, and all are on track: 27 traditional schools were brought on board in phase III,” Mr Majanga noted.

He, however, admitted that “we registered cases of abandoned sites” which they have tried to remedy.

“Every quarter we undertake a joint monitoring and arising of that we write a report approved by a technical, oversight, and steering committee to strengthen oversight,” Mr Majanga added.

According to Ministry of Finance records, 117 seed schools and 124 health centre projects were handed out during UGIFT phase one; 115 schools during phase two; 27 schools in phase three. Several addendums were signed adding more school or health centre projects.

Besides the routine corruption in tendering, sources close to the project cited the awarding of contractors to more than three construction projects, coupled with lax supervision. The 117 school projects handed out in phase one were undertaken by 17 companies, with most contractors undertaking an average of six projects at a time. By contrast, 25 companies were engaged in 115 projects during phase two.

Mr Majanga, further, explained that this time around the government has planned Shs4.8 trillion under the Medium-Term Plan (MTP) for hiring teachers and health workers for the schools and health centres constructed during the coming years.

“The government component is for continuity i.e to ensure that 31 teachers are recruited per seed school; health workers are recruited and drugs stocked, across all facilities,” he added.

However, several UGIFT construction projects have been the subject of probes by PPDA, Inspectorate of Government (IG), Police, and the State House Anti-Corruption Unit, over among others graft claims, shoddy or abandoned works, cost overruns, among other issues. A host of issues are illuminated in the probe reports.

A July 2021 IG probe report of several projects documented slow works owing to “lack of capacity by the contractors” to effectively handle all the sites at the same time.

For instance, PPDA detailed in a March 2024 audit that Otuke District local government officials engaged Mesco Ltd to construct Okum Seed School at Shs2.6b on December 22, 2022, with a completion timeline of 18 months, and a defects liability period of 12 months.

“A site visit conducted on August 18, 2023, by the audit team, revealed that the works on the three two-unit classroom blocks, three twin staff houses, two-unit teachers’ kitchen, two-stance lined ventilated improved pit-latrine (VIP) latrine block, two-stance lined VIP latrine block for staff house, five-stance lined VIP latrine block for Boys, five-stance lined VIP latrine block for girls and the rainwater harvest system with 5,000-litre water tank had all not commenced,” PPDA noted in a March 2024 report.

In Pakwach District, authorities engaged Rhema Engineering Company Ltd on August 22, 2022, for the construction of Wadelai Seed Secondary School at Shs3.2b with a completion date of 18 months and a completion timeline of 12 months. According to Ministry of Finance records, the company secured two projects in Nebbi District and one in Packwach worth Shs9b.

The World Bank did not immediately respond to our inquiries when asked about its impression of the project implementation.

More snags

A PPDA audit of the three projects detailed that: “The Ministry of Education and Sports set inadequate evaluation criteria in the bidding document that could not adequately assess the capacity of a bidder to undertake three contracts valued at Shs9.6b simultaneously. This puts the contract at risk of being frustrated out of lack of capacity by the contractor.”

In Dokolo District, authorities engaged Akol Holdings Ltd for the construction of Okwongodul Lake Side Secondary School at a cost of Shs650m. A May 2024 PPDA audit of the project noted the “slow progress of works” and the expiry of the contract with the company on September 19, 2023 “and the entity did not put in any effort to have the contract extended before its expiry despite the works being incomplete. This contract is thus void and the terms and conditions of the contract are no longer enforceable”.

In Pader District, authorities hired Otada Construction Ltd to upgrade Lapul Owida Health Centre II to health centre III at a cost of Shs500m on February 28, 2018, with an intended completion date of September of the same year. 

An April 2023 PPDA audit of the project detailed that the project was abandoned with incomplete works at the time of the audit field visit on December 8, 2022 “while the district had made an excess payment worth Shs191m to the contractor above the valued works against an advance payment guarantee that could not be honoured by Exim Bank due to the entity paying the advance into the contractors’ bank account other than the one indicated by Exim Bank in the guarantee”.

The list of districts where contractors undertook shoddy works or projects that have been abandoned is long. Mr Majanga maintained that remedial works are ongoing.   

In Dokolo District, authorities entered into a contract with Akol Holdings Ltd for the construction of among others two laboratory blocks, two classroom blocks, a rainwater harvest tank, and a five-stance latrine for both boys and girls for Okwongodul Lake Side Secondary School at a cost of Shs658m on June 19, 2023.

A May 2024 PPDA audit of the project documented among others, irregular advancement of 100 percent of the contract amount to the contractor and yet the civil works remained incomplete while the contractor’s contract expired in September 2023 and did not make an effort to have it extended.

In Lyantonde District, authorities inked two contracts; Shs617m with Kaleeta Construction Ltd on June 16, 2022, for upgrading of Kabetemere Health Centre II to health centre III, and Shs3b for construction of Kasagama Seed Secondary School awarded to Palm Construction Ltd on October 4, 2022.

An audit of the two projects last October lifted the lid on, among others, authorities delaying to handover of project sites, the absence of implementation plans, and the two contractors failing to submit updated work plans which affected the project completion schedule.