GLAMOUR and pompmarked the launch of the new sh250b road units by President Yoweri Museveni at Namanve in Wakiso recently.
The 1,400 units of equipment financed through a $100m (sh260b) loan from the Chinese government comprises dump trucks, graders, wheel loaders, excavators and bulldozers.
The equipment could not have come at a better time since most district and municipality roads are in dire need of repair.
Ministry of Works statistics show that only 20% of the 13,000km of district roads are in fair condition. A similar percentage of the 2,800km of urban roads and 30,000km of community access roads are also graded as such.
National roads are not any better, with only 3,500kms of the 20,000km tarmacked. The delivery of the equipment was, therefore, good news to Uganda, an agrarian country that relies on road transport for 99% of her goods and passenger mobility.
Although Uganda's road network has increased from 400km at independence in 1962 to 65,800km today, most of the roads are in a sorry state due to poor maintenance.
Vehicular pressure on the roads has also increased rapidly over the same period from 5,000 cars in 1962 to over a million vehicles today, according to the minister of state for works, John Byabagambi.
"We need a sustained large investment in maintenance of the existing road network before we open up new roads," Byabagambi observes.
Uganda to get better roads?
The arrival of the road units raised public expectation for good roads with districts and municipality leaders vowing to deliver better roads this time.
President Museveni said: "There should be no excuses for not repairing roads. If you district and municipality leaders do not repair them you are the ones to blame."
The Soroti LC5 chairperson, William Egunyu, welcomed the road units. "I am happy about the development. Contractors price road works expensively, yet they do shoddy work," he observed then.
The Kabarole LC5 chief, Richard Kabuhinga said: "The district road equipment is a blessing because for a long time, we have longed to have our own road units."
Roads maintenance fund
However, six months down the road the Government is yet to send funds to the districts that received the new road units. The Mukono Municipality mayor, Johnson Muyanja says they plan to use the quarterly releases for road maintenance from the Uganda Road Fund (URF) maintain the equipment.
The Manafwa LC 5 chairperson, Charles Walimbwa, points out that the district has not yet received any money for equipment maintenance.
"I do not know how much will be set for maintenance of road units which we got recently," he says.
Ministry raises red flag
Although works minister Eng. Abraham Byandala says modalities of maintaining the road units were spelt out in the 2012/13 FY budget, the Permanent Secretary, Charles Muganzi explains that funds for maintaining the new road equipment were not provided for in the budget.
"I am writing to inform you of the serious implications of lack of funds for the equipment being procured under the $100m loan provided to Uganda by the People's Republic of China," Muganzi said in a letter to his finance counterpart Chris Kassami.
Muganzi added that while URF will meet the cost of Force Account component (routine mechanized road maintenance) amounting to sh101.78b, it would not meet the critical costs for Zonal Arrangement (purchase of equipment for road gangs as well as costs of major repairs for the maintenance equipment).
In the April 16, 2012 circular copied to, among others, the URF executive director, Muganzi said under the ministry's budget (Vote 016) for financial year 2012/13, the Zonal Arrangement was grossly underfunded with an indicative allocation of only sh6b instead of the required sh46.39b.
"Failure to finance the vital elements of the road camps, tools, etc and the Zonal Arrangement of the Scheme has serious implications," Muganzi warned .
Roads Fund speaks out
The Uganda Roads Fund (URF) also says its budget allocation of sh280b for the 2012/ 13 FY for roads maintenance is inadequate considering the backlog and the additional responsibility of maintaining the force accounts.
"For a start, we need a minimum of sh450b to address roads maintenance, attend to the backlog and finance maintenance of road equipment. We need more than the sh280b we were given this financial year," URF boss Dr. Michael Odongo said.
Contractors cry foul
The move to procure road units has been criticised by private road contractors who accuse the Government of "killing" its own construction industry.
"They (districts and municipalities) will take our jobs," says Gumisiriza Birantana, the chairman Uganda National Association of Building and Civil Engineering Contractors.
"But we are not worried. Within one year, the road units will have collapsed due to poor maintenance and mismanagement!" Development partners, have also opposed the use of force accounts, arguing that they promote corruption associated with most government bureaucracies.
A force account is one where local governments utilise their own equipment, labour and buy fuel to maintain their roads.
Donors want road works privatized to promote the young local industry and ensure accountability and value for money. Byabagambi argues that force accounts are cheaper than hiring private contractors.
"It costs sh400m to buy a grader that can serve a district for over 10-years," he says. "If tendered out, sh400m can only be used to work on 20km. Force accounts will help districts have better roads. Road gangs will also create 12,000 jobs."
With graduated tax, the biggest source of local government revenue scrapped, the new equipment might become grounded sooner than later due to lack of funds to maintain it. Local governments used to raise sh60b annually from graduated tax, which was scrapped in 2005.
Its successor, the hotel tax and local service tax, have not yielded enough revenue yet graduated tax compensation of sh45b has proved insufficient and is released intermittently.
"In Kampala, our revenue base is substantive. We get over sh100b, but you find trucks grounded over small issues of fuel," says Kampala Capital City Authority Lord Mayor, Erias Lukwago.
"I do not want to sound pessimistic, but in a couple of years, they will be 'white elephants' grounded at (district, municipality and) sub-county headquarters!" Birantana maintains one grader for a district is not enough.
"A big district needs about four graders. One grader is a joke as people will fight for it." Mukono controversially acquired a grader in 2007 off monies for repair of roads in its 28 sub-counties and four municipalities without approval of the lower local government heads and invests sh5m monthly to maintain it excluding the cost of fuel.
"We will need sh15m monthly to maintain the road units," says Francis Lukooya, the Mukono LC5 chief. "We were using part of our revenue to maintain the grader, but the road unit will be maintained by URF."