The roads in Uganda have been neglected by the government for decades, and seemingly so has the rest of the society.
Talk to someone who has spent any length of time living and working in Kampala and the topic of conversation will almost inevitably turn to the traffic jams that are a defining feature of travel within Uganda’s capital. It is not just the volume of traffic on roads, built for far fewer which makes for a grindingly slow journey, but the terrible condition of the roads. Cavernous potholes are to be negotiated at every turn.
The poor quality of the roads extends beyond Kampala, with many regions in the North in particular, having roads that are barely passable without 4×4 vehicles. In fact closure of the Moroto to Soroti road in September 2012 for two weeks to allow for emergency repairs had an impact much wider than just affecting travel routes. It disrupted trade and led to increased prices of goods and fuel; coupled with no consumer demand as no-one is passing through. It may not impact greatly on the national economy but it has a hugely detrimental impact on the local economy.
There is, however, one main highway in Kampala that is in very good condition. The Kampala to Mbarara road just so happens to connect President Museveni homeland to his seat in power in Kampala. A coincidence? Or another example of the promises not policies approach that has blighted Uganda’s democracy experiment in recent years and has meant people look after their own to look after themselves.
Only 3,500kms of Uganda’s 20,000kms of roads are tarmaced and the majority of those are the main arteries that connect the countries larger towns but even here the roads are gradually narrowing as soil erodes tarmac. The smaller, local roads, especially in the Northern regions hinder trade and development because of their regular impassibility However it is not just in rural areas where the roads are in a particularly bad condition. Kampala is renowned for its pothole ridden streets.
The famous picture of a man pretending to fish in a pothole is undeniably amusing but also highlights the serious nature of the problem as such potholes are not uncommon and are a chief cause of traffic jams and car breakdowns/damages. It also illustrates that many Ugandans are fed up with their governments inability to solve the road problems. In 2011 a Sanyu FM campaign promised 1 million Uganda shillings to a resident of Kampala who could find a pothole free road in Kampala. There was no winner in what was a damming incitement of Kampala’s infrastructure.
This neglect can be seen as emblematic of a state unable or unwilling to provide for its people while committed to serving their own needs. The metaphor extends not only to a state neglecting its citizens but one that’s solutions merely paper over the cracks and lack no sustainable or long-term solution. Filling in potholes with dirt and stones is a common ‘solution’ but they are often washed out by the regular rainfall. Only when the elite stand to benefit, the building of a new Entebbe by-pass or in the EU and Chinese funded construction of roads to Hoima to help facilitate oil extraction do projects to improve the infrastructure really begin to take place. China’s increasing role in East Africa especially with regards to infrastructure may have a positive impact and there is even talk that they are willing to revive and reconstruct an East African train network.
The Ugandan states neglect of the needs of its people in road maintenance is symptomatic of its failure to deliver other key public services such as health and education. In education there is a will to attend school and learn but the environment that is being provided is not always conducive. Overcrowded classrooms coupled with overburdened and underpaid teachers, especially in Northern Regions, those where the Peace Recovery and Development Plan has failed to have the imagined impact. Many have access to education but it is the quality which is not sufficient. This is a concern when you consider Ugandans demographic and its median ages of 15.1 years. A statistic that underlines the importance of good education services in building for the future.
In the health sector a rise in HIV infections from 6.4% to 7.3% since 2006 is a worrying regression but this has at least been recognised and the government is looking as solutions such as the possibility of an HIV and AIDS tax. Generally health infrastructure however remains a serious problem; cases of ambulances being unable to respond to emergencies because they are without fuel or because they are broken and have not been fixed because of lack of funding is sadly not uncommon. Finally in specialist treatment centres for women like Mulago Hospital in Kampala poor hygiene standards, overcrowding and simply a lack of trained and well paid staff mean that without personal financing the public services offered by the Uganda government really fail to provide for its citizens.
Viewed through this lens of general state neglect of basic public services the conditions of the roads in Uganda is not surprising and merely emblematic of a government that is failing to provide basic infrastructure and goods for its citizens. Coupled with the recent embezzlement scandals in the Office of the Prime Minister this does not settle well amongst many Ugandans who feel they are increasingly disconnected from the government. Will increasing Chinese investment in this areas or the wealth that it is envisaged with flow from Uganda’s newly found oil supply greater resources to enable change. Or is it more than just resources that are required?
It may be that without a change in attitudes towards corruption at every level of society then the situation will not advance. Currently it is so systemic and unavoidable that it really seems as if only with a fresh approach can the state become more responsive to the needs of its people. Yet there is optimism. Neighbouring Rwanda had managed to all but stamp out corruption and maybe Uganda can learn some things from how it has been able to do this. It is not to say that one-size fits all but that the culture of corruption can be overcome and politics can become focused more on policies not promises.
Photos: Rob Gipman & Richard Wanamba, The Daily Monitor / FX Ssempiira