A large portion of the mess in Uganda sits in Entebbe airport

Author: Musaazi Namiti. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • ‘‘ People who visit Uganda once do not know that the airport is badly managed”

In 2017, this publication ran a series of articles about drug trafficking through Entebbe International Airport, and one article I read that grabbed my attention had this opening line:
“A number of policemen who work or have worked at Entebbe airport have movie-like stories to tell about how policemen, especially their bosses, have for decades ran a smuggling cartel that deals in drugs and other contraband.”
It went on: “Sunday Monitor spoke to Richard Okullu, a Corporal in the Police Force, who ran into trouble after exposing dirty deals involving ivory smuggling, drug dealing and other issues by officers of the aviation police and other staff.”

The newspaper reported that several police officers who had worked at Entebbe International Airport in varying periods corroborated some of the information Mr Okullo had shared — after reading the expose — and they offered new details about the rot at the country’s only international airport.
That makes the extortion scandal that is grabbing the headlines seem like nothing. It points to a deep-seated problem of worrying proportions. Entebbe International Airport, it seems to me, is home to a large portion of the mess we have in Uganda. It is hard to believe the airport managers are fit for purpose.

Only people who visit Uganda once or a couple of times and return to their countries do not know that the airport is badly managed and is becoming a byword for corruption and incompetence. The problems range from small things to shocking scandals. Way back in 2010, I was writing articles (for the defunct Uganda Record) in which I raised issues about toilets at the tarmac not having — would you believe it — soap.
In 2015, I took a photo of broken door handles in the same toilets. I still have the photo and shared it on social media as the extortion scandal made rounds. What is more, in December 2021, I made a trip to Nairobi in the morning and returned in the evening, but I was forced to pay for a Covid-19 test that I was not supposed to pay for.
Young men working at the airport told me: “Mzee, you are not supposed to pay because the [Covid] results you have are still valid. Ask them to give you back your money.” They referred me to a large, dark-complexioned woman working in security, and they said she would help me. The woman pretended to be concerned and took down my contact details, but I knew that she and I were wasting our time — nobody was going to fix my problem.

In the wake of the extortion scandal, the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority issued a statement saying: “It is important for the public to know that while UCAA facilitates operations at Entebbe International Airport, this is done in liaison with several independent providers of key services, including, but not limited to Immigration, handling agents (NAS and DAS), airlines, Ministry of Health…, security agencies, URA customs, and Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (Labour externalisation agents), among others.”

In effect, the UCAA was saying that it could not be held responsible for the problems at the airport. But the truth remains that the UCAA, not the Gender or the Health ministry or Immigration, manages the airport. That is what Ugandans know. How can you blame the Ministry of Health or Gender for the mess at Entebbe airport?
And, more importantly, if you cannot manage a sleepy little airport like Entebbe effectively, how can you convince anyone you know anything about managing airports?

Mr Namiti is a journalist and former
Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected] @kazbuk