The Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way – what it has so far been for Uganda!

By: ISAAC OKELLO

Rail­way trans­port is one of the most re­li­able means of trans­port for par­tic­u­larly large cargo, even bet­ter if it is the right gauge. Uganda, how­ever, has long been us­ing the rail­way line that was con­structed by the colo­nial pow­ers to fa­cil­i­tate the move­ment of com­modi­ties and peo­ple to the coast. This was the One-Me­ter gauge that does not favour the trans­porta­tion of highly per­ish­able goods for its speed.

It is against this back­ground that the gov­ern­ment cur­rently seeks to con­struct a 1.4 Me­ter gauge, bet­ter known as a Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way. Ei­ther the ur­gency of this pro­ject or the de­sires of in­di­vid­u­als has in­flu­enced the catalysing of the sign­ing of Mem­o­ran­dums of Un­der­stand­ing with dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies. Con­tracts are cur­rently be­ing ne­go­ti­ated with China Har­bour En­gi­neer­ing Cor­po­ra­tion af­ter the ter­mi­na­tion of the Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing with China Civil En­gi­neer­ing Con­struc­tion Cor­po­ra­tion by the Min­is­ter of Works and trans­port.

On 4th No­vem­ber 2014 par­lia­ment di­rected that a se­lect com­mit­tee be set up to in­ves­ti­gate the pro­cure­ment process of the Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way in Uganda be­ing car­ried out by the Min­istry of Works. Par­lia­ment set out the terms of ref­er­ence for the Com­mit­tee and these in­cluded the fol­low­ing: In­quiry into the pro­cure­ment process; ex­am­i­na­tion of the con­tract signed by gov­ern­ment & ad­vice on vi­a­bil­ity; in­quiry into the cir­cum­stances for the ter­mi­na­tion of the con­tract be­tween Gov­ern­ment and China Civil Eng. Con­struc­tion Cor­po­ra­tion (CCECC) and to in­quire into the con­duct of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cers in the mat­ters above.

On the 11th of No­vem­ber, the com­mit­tee was in­sti­tuted by the Speaker of Par­lia­ment. The Com­mit­tee started its busi­ness on the 18th of the same month, set­ting out their work plan and nam­ing their per­sons of in­ter­ests, which in­cluded, among oth­ers, the Cab­i­net Min­is­ter of Works and Trans­port along with his deputies, the Pres­i­dent of the Re­pub­lic of Uganda, Per­ma­nent Sec­re­taries from three min­istries, tech­ni­cal per­son­nel and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Chi­nese com­pa­nies as­so­ci­ated with the Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way.

There ought to have been a root cause for a mat­ter of this mag­ni­tude to be in­ves­ti­gated by Par­lia­ment. This is be­cause in in Oc­to­ber 2014, there was a pe­ti­tion pre­sented by a team of Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment, who in­cluded Hon. Theodore Ssekikubo, Hon. Abdu Katuntu, Hon. Paul Mwiru, Hon. Tin­kasimire Barn­abas, and Hon. Wil­fred Ni­wagaba.

The con­struc­tion of the Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way is ex­pected to cost the Coun­try a whoop­ing USD 6.69 bil­lion bor­rowed from the Chi­nese Exim Bank, with a pos­si­bil­ity of the cost in­creas­ing to USD 13 bil­lion by the time it is con­cluded. This is be­cause the terms of the pro­posed con­tract that the com­mit­tee has now dug from the wit­nesses it has been in­ter­fac­ing with has re­vealed that it is sub­ject to vari­a­tions on the prices.

The se­lect com­mit­tee has since met sev­eral wit­nesses to get to the root of the prob­lem. No­table how­ever was the Pres­i­den­t’s in­volve­ment. Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, when Par­lia­ment re­quests the pres­ence of the Pres­i­dent, he ap­pears be­fore the Com­mit­tee or House ac­cord­ingly. In this case, how­ever, he opted to sit at the com­fort of State House En­tebbe and “sum­mon” the mem­bers of the Com­mit­tee to in­ter­act with him re­gard­ing the pro­cure­ment process of the Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way. In fact, he even had this meet­ing be­hind closed doors and there was no press record!

An­other in­ter­est­ing in­ci­dent that the Com­mit­tee en­coun­tered was the meet­ing it had with an­other wit­ness, Rosa Whitaker, (an Amer­i­can na­tional the Pres­i­dent ap­par­ently termed as a “black Com­pa­triot” in one of his let­ters) whose name has been men­tioned in sev­eral meet­ings as an in­di­vid­ual who has been lob­by­ing for con­tracts for China Har­bour En­gi­neer­ing Cor­po­ra­tion. It emerged that she at­tended a par­tic­u­lar meet­ing with of­fi­cials from the Min­istry of Works and on the agenda was how to by-pass the pro­cure­ment process set by the laws of Uganda. Well, the Com­mit­tee even­tu­ally got an op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with her, and yet again, this was be­hind closed doors. It was re­ported that this was af­ter the pres­i­dent called the Chair­per­son of the Com­mit­tee and ad­vised him to “han­dle her with care”. I am also won­der­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of in­for­ma­tion the com­mit­tee could have ob­tained from her or whether the com­mit­tee has not been com­pro­mised!

Re­cently, how­ever, the com­mit­tee met with the for­mer Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary to the Min­istry of Works, Mr Mu­ganzi Charles, who was in of­fice at the time the pro­cure­ment process was ini­ti­ated. His rev­e­la­tions, to some ex­tent was no longer news to the com­mit­tee, how­ever, there was a twist in the events. The press was asked to leave the room since he wanted to re­veal 16 of­fi­cials in­volved in the pro­cure­ment process who had been com­pro­mised and had taken bribes ac­cord­ingly from the Chi­nese com­pa­nies in­ter­ested in the Stan­dard Gauge Rail­way con­struc­tion.

While they (mem­bers of the com­mit­tee) were meet­ing Mr Mu­ganzi Charles, a cross sec­tion of Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment un­der the um­brella African Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans’ Net­work Against Cor­rup­tion Uganda Chap­ter (APNAC) held a par­al­lel press con­fer­ence protest­ing the man­ner in which the in­ves­ti­ga­tions were be­ing con­ducted. Hon. Karuhanga, a mem­ber of APNAC, ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment stat­ing that the de­ci­sion by the com­mit­tee chair­per­son to work on the di­rec­tive of the pres­i­dent is a sign of weak lead­er­ship. APNAC now wants the Speaker of Par­lia­ment to re­con­sti­tute the com­mit­tee since they be­lieve the com­mit­tee, as is, is not po­si­tioned to de­liver jus­tice to Uganda.

Notwith­stand­ing the fact that Uganda needed this rail­way for faster eco­nomic growth, the style ex­hib­ited by the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have so far been jaw drop­ping. Ear­lier on, the Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary to the Min­istry of Fi­nance Plan­ning and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment, Mr Keith Muhakinizi had re­vealed to the Com­mit­tee that the cost of the rail­way would in­crease the na­tional debt bur­den to over 80%. He noted that af­ter sub­ject­ing the cost to vari­a­tions in the cost of raw ma­te­ri­als, it could be more than the Na­tional Bud­get for two years!

Nev­er­the­less, the com­mit­tee is still con­duct­ing their in­ves­ti­ga­tions and fin­gers are still crossed as to whether the truth shall be ex­humed from wher­ever it has been kept. We, rather, I await their fi­nal find­ings!