By Shemei Ndawula
In case you’ve not been paying attention, last week ushered into the Ugandan civic space a new era of online and remote protests. The satirically dubbed #KampalaPotholeExhibition; a brainchild of Ugandan cartoonist and Academic Dr Spire Ssentongo, had all the pomp and novelty of a cultural revolution with Ugandan social media enthusiasts tweeting, posting and sharing various pictures and posts about Kampala’s “endemic pothole problem”. These posts, bordering on the hilarious, concerning and shocking made the online protest viral with features even in some traditional media outlets and many of our mobile phones and computer screens were the frontlines of the protest awash with images of all natures of potholes.
Unlike the physical protests which have for long characterized the Ugandan civil agitation space with debatable results, this particular protest seems to have achieved early level success with the momentum it garnered culminating into a discussion in parliament and the President ordering the release of funds for the expeditious repair of potholes in the city.
One of the most pertinent things that stood out in the discourse is that very little foreign aid is funneled into the transport infrastructure development in Uganda. For the most part Uganda funds its own expansion, repair and upgrading of roads especially within the Kampala metropolitan area, a heavy yoke on the Ugandan taxpayer which bites even harder if you have to carry it on pothole riddled roads. Additionally, this also stunts the road construction sector because with lack of international sector benchmarks and quality controls, many roads are constructed in inefficient and unsustainable outdated ways by local engineers and the foreign engineering firms who aim to undercut their expenditure and remit higher profit margins.
This is why the Chinese development aid structure stands out as perhaps the only major infrastructure driven foreign assistance policy that focuses on building Uganda’s infrastructure portfolio to spur cross-sector development in the national economy. In the past two decades, Uganda has seen a significant increase in Chinese investment and associated diplomatic policy, with major projects including the construction of the Kampala-Entebbe Expressway, the Karuma Hydroelectric Power Station, and the Standard Gauge Railway and many other major infrastructure projects. These projects have been funded by Chinese loans and grants, and some have been actualized through Public-Private partnerships with Chinese companies which share their cutting age technology on the sites and provide the much needed employment for Ugandan workers through the local content parameters. Chinese engineers and other experts work closely with their Ugandan counterparts, sharing knowledge and expertise to help improve the quality of infrastructure projects in the country.
The diplomatic corp of the People’s Republic of China has also played a key role in the development of Uganda’s infrastructure sector with China being a major supporter of Uganda’s development agenda, and working closely with the Ugandan government to identify areas where Chinese aid and expertise can be most effective. This has included the development of a comprehensive infrastructure master plan, which outlines the key areas where investment is needed to support Uganda’s economic growth as well as linking the various economic hubs of the country with road and rail networks to kickstart this development.
An outstanding example of this would be the “Oil roads” in Western Uganda currently being constructed in the Albertine basin to facilitate the oil exploration activities that are already giving districts like Hoima facelifts and encouraging economic and social development within the region. This investment has helped to improve the quality of life for Ugandans, by providing better access to markets, healthcare, education and other multiplier effects.
Looking ahead, Uganda is well positioned to benefit from the Belt and Road project being rolled out across the African continent. This initiative, which aims to promote economic development and connectivity across Asia, Europe, and Africa, has the potential to transform Uganda’s infrastructure sector, by providing new opportunities for investment and collaboration with Chinese companies.
Chinese investment and diplomatic policy have played a critical role in the development of Uganda’s infrastructure sector, particularly in the construction of roads and other transportation infrastructure and if we are to follow its de-congestion strategy particularly by constructing more superhighways like the Entebbe Expressway and investing in alternative means of transport like the Chinese funded East African Standard Gauge Railway, the overall driving experience and road condition within Kampala will be greatly enhanced. While there is still much work to be done to address the challenges highlighted by the so-called #KampalaPotholeExhibition, the progress that has been made to date is a testament to the power of international cooperation and partnership in driving economic development and improving the lives of people around the world.
The Kampala Pothole exhibition has gone a long way to reveal the dire state of the road network within our capital and there’s a collective sigh of relief from the Citizens that expeditious action is being taken to rectify this. It is also a pat on the back for the Sino-Ugandan mutual development strategy that focuses on infrastructure development to spur economic development in the country.
Shemei Ndawula is a senior Research Fellow at the Development Watch Centre.
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