29 April 2009

Uganda: Electricity - The Hook That West Nile Needs to Develop


Kampala — IN Obongi village on the shores of River Nile, a naked 12-year-old throws his hook into the water. He jerks and pulls the line out of the water. The hook has a snake-like fish, which is a delicacy in West Nile. As it wriggles for breath, he subdues it by hitting it with a small piece of wood.

"My parents gave me this hook when I was young. I know how to fish," he says.

This is what the bigger part of the West Nile region needs - a hook - such that people can trap fish for themselves!

The West Nile, one of the most gifted areas in Uganda, derives its name from its location - west of River Nile. The region comprises seven districts - Arua, Moyo, Adjumani, Yumbe, Koboko, Nebbi and Maracha/Nyadri, with about two million people.

Endowed with fertile soils, the region boasts of agriculture, growing grains and tobacco. The people also keep animals like goats and cattle, especially in Moyo and Adjumani districts. Fishing is another economic activity in the area. There is also a ready market for the produce just across the border in the Sudan.

The region also has a big potential for tourism since it lies a long the Nile. In fact there are hippos in River Nile and other game in the low lands of Moyo, Yumbe and Arua. However, with all that potential, West Nile lags behind in development compared to other regions. There are no industries in the region and agriculture remains on a small-scale. The region cannot attract investors due to lack of electricity and poor transport system.

"We can grow mangoes and probably use them to produce juice. All this remains untapped due to lack of power," says Michael Nandala, the chief administrative officer of Moyo.

Most of the residents lack the zeal to work partly due to the effects of war. From the 1980s to the mid 1990s, remnants of Idi Amin's forces, led by Gen. Moses Ali and Maj. Gen. Ali Bamuze waged a war against respective governments basing in West Nile. Residents fled to Sudan and only returned after the NRA took over power in 1986.

Even then, a new rebel group, the Uganda National Rescue Front II, continued operating in the area, fighting the NRA/M regime. It was not until a peace deal was struck between the rebels and the Government that fighting ended in 2001.

"The youth emerged out of the war with a dependency attitude. They think they have to be given everything," adds Ali Mawa of Yumbe.

In Arua, Yumbe and Koboko towns, many youth spend most of the time playing cards and arguing about premier league football. A few of them ride numberless or DRC-registered boda bodas.

Today, the region seems to be on the road to development, but this is hindered by lack of power. "We need power if the region is to develop," says Arua MP John Arumadri.

Power is the hook that must be given to the people of West Nile.

Due to lack of electricity, industries that would have provided employment to the people, cannot be set up. Local revenue is also low due to lack of a taxable base.

"Over 95% of our budget is funded by the central government," says Nandala.

For years, Arua and Nebbi towns relied on a generator, which supplied power for less than eight hours a day. The project was run by the West Nile Rural Electrification Company (WENRECO), but stopped operations due to lack of money.

Power in Moyo town is supplied by a small generator for four hours a day, but this is constrained by the rising costs of fuel. By last week, WENRECO was set to supply power again.

Without power, even small-scale businesses like salons cannot operate. Metal welding, another viable source of employment, cannot be set up in the West Nile.

The government has several plans of solving the problem. Before he was overthrown in 1979, Idi Amin had started an ambitious plan to take power to West Nile from Jinja. This is underway.

There are also plans to construct small dams on waterfalls in the region. For many years, the Government has been talking about constructing a dam at Nyagak, but the progress has been slow.

Transport has also improved in recent years, especially after the tarmacking of the Karuma-Arua road.

There are daily air flights from Entebbe to Arua. Despite, the above, many areas have a poor road network. For instance, many roads in Moyo become impassable during the rainy season and the ferry crossings at Laropi and Pakwach need to be reinforced by others along the Nile.

"Sometimes we spend three days travelling from Obongi to Moyo town due to the poor roads," says Geoffrey Vuciri, a sub-county chief.

Just like the young boy at Obongi was given a hook by his father, reliable power supply and a better transport network are the hooks that the West Nile needs to achieve its full potential.

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