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Why foreign workers are being framed in Karuma power project

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A section of Karuma Hydropower Dam on River Nile. Some local politicians are using victims of a construction project for both political and monetary gains. PHOTO/TOBBIAS J. OWINY

Figures from the Word Bank indicate that approximately one billion people from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have no access to electricity. This is a huge barrier to socio-economic transformation of world’s significant population and has both direct and indirect effects on development efforts on health, poverty reduction programmes, education, and food security, among others.

Despite significant progress in growing the number of people with access to electricity, it is still hard for developing countries to meet the 7th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of all having access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030.

The government of Uganda has been working hard to increase electricity production capacity to increase its accessibility countrywide. Through EXIM bank of China, Chinese government offered concessional loan to fund 85 percent cost of the project, while Uganda government is meeting the remaining 15 percent. A Chinese firm, SinoHydro Cooperation, was contracted to undertake the project, which is Uganda’s biggest hydropower plant. 

The dam will produce 600MW, which will push the country’s hydropower generation to 1,868 MW. The government hopes this will increase power accessibility countrywide and reduce power tariffs in the long run.

Uganda’s Vision 2040, which aims to make a transformed Ugandan society from a peasant to a modern and prosperous country within 30 years lists increased generation of affordable power as a magic bullet for the country’s socio-economic take off. To achieve this, Uganda must increase its electricity per capita consumption from the current 215 kilo–watt hour (kWh) to at least 3,668 kWh. This to happen, we must raise our power generation capacity to at least 41,738MW and increase access to national grid to at least 80 percent!

As Bent Flyvbjerg, a Danish professor at Harvard University, taught us; “Infrastructure is the great space shrinker, and power, wealth and status increasingly belong to those who know how to shrink space,...” Put differently, for Uganda to realise her 2040 Vision, we must shrink electricity deficits. This will, among others, increase multiplier effects associated with increased access to power.

For this to happen, as a country, we must not aim at small and individualistic gains, but rather aim at those that benefit us as a country. We must not kill a hen to save an egg. This means resisting all acts that may delay or sabotage infrastructural developmental projects. For instance, the completion of Karuma Hydropower project partly delayed because of sabotage when unknown individuals vandalised and collapsed five transmission towers on the Karuma-Kawanda 400KV transmission line.

Last year, a team of researchers from the Development Watch Centre and I went to Kiryandongo, specifically to get first-hand information and understand how the Karuma hydropower project was impacting the host communities.

We interviewed 91 people who included residents and leaders of Karuma Town Council and the neighbouring sub-countries, managers and employees of the project. These included 64 men and 27 women. Among the 27 women, some were those some media outlets identified as victims. While interviewing alleged victims, who media reported to have claimed to have children fathered by Chinese workers, a one Lydia Atim (she gave consent to quote her) from Gulu refuted the claims stressing the father of her child was a Pakistan). “No, the father of my child is not a Chinese. He is a Pakistani,” Atim affirmed. 

The findings reached at after several interviews revealed blackmail by some local politicians who some community members say are using the “victims” of the project for both political and monetary gains.

Asked why they cite Chinese employees as responsible, including those who know that fathers of their children are not Chinese, Mr Washington Ochaya, the area district councillor, said: “For us, all foreign workers in this area who are not black in colour are Chinese because they are the majority.” He stressed that as local leaders, they had “registered only five ladies who claimed to have had children with foreign workers.” If analysed, in this case, Chinese employees can easily be accused even when it is clear they are not personally responsible.

Desipte what he called a few challenges, Mr Ochaya who was our contact person during the study credited the project stressing; “Before this project, Karuma was a small town with no opportunities. With the project kicking off, the area has registered significant growth, we now have a town council. Land used to be cheap here, but with this project, it has gained value and impacted on some social services in the area.

“Those Chinese also helped us to have access to clean water by constructing a water tap at Karuma Primary School, which is a source of clean water for the entire community,” emphasised Mr Ochaya.

While one may not conclude that accusing foreign workers of abandoning their alleged fathered children is a common conspiracy against the Chinese, some local leaders opine that some politicians are manipulating mothers who have children with the project’s foreign employees to say it’s Chinese who are responsible. In our interview with Mr Oryem Joseph Lilly, the chairperson of Karuma Cell, he argued that some local politicians use local women with children fathered by foreign workers as a campaign tool so that they can be seen as having fought for what they present as vulnerable people.

Mr Oryem emphasises that some politicians are manipulating those women, hopping they would get compensated and share their money. Describing the act as corruption, Mr Oryem stressed that “corrupt politicians are using the project for selfish interests. They are so determined that some are willing to blackmail the project, inflate victims’ list and list of those who lost land hopping they can gain monetarily from this.’’ Here, one can conclude that some politicians in the area are willing to kill a hen to save an egg!

In this case, a hen is framing and blackmailing huge infrastructural projects such as Karuma hydropower project with its immense opportunities to local communities. The egg saved is someone individually benefiting as a result of blackmail or framing the project that would otherwise benefit the entire society. 

To avoid such blanket claims, the government should interest themselves in this matter and where a person or local politician claims of having knowledge of existence of so-called “many abandoned children” left behind by foreign workers, they should be tasked to help authorities locate the alleged victims. Otherwise, other than the possibility of government or the contractor spending much money compensating such non-existent victims on long lists created for political and other ulterior motives, such unsubstantiated claims have potential to cause unnecessary project delays. 

Allawi Ssemanda is a Senior Research Fellow at the Development Watch Centre.