15 June 2018

Uganda: Standard Gauge Railway Should Have Been Completed Yesterday

opinion

At the beginning of the 20th Century the British constructed the Uganda Railway to open up the East African hinterland for Britain's exploitation of its resources. It was called the Uganda Railways because it was to link up with the ancient kingdoms in the Great Lakes region, especially Buganda Kingdom, which had welcomed the British 'with open arms'.

With hinterland secured and the coast clearly under their control, the British were now poised to exploit the wealth of the land, under the guise of "civilising the natives and spreading the word of God". (Apologies to the true missionaries).

The construction of this railway, through a land infested with wild animals and hostile natives, was done by Indian labourers from another of Britain's dominions, the Indian sub -continent.

These hardworking Indians stayed on and were joined by their kinsmen, creating the most prosperous community in the region, especially in the areas of commerce and industry.

The railway they built created the much needed link with the outside world; ferrying raw materials to the coast for export to UK industries and for import of British goods into Kenya and Uganda.

Tanganyika was still under Germany. The British took a gamble and it paid off as much needed exports of coffee, cotton, copper, tea and other agricultural products were sent to Britain at prices dictated by the British.

It has been long overdue for this dilapidated narrow gauge railway whose locomotives are no longer in production, to be expired and replaced with the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). SGR was not a choice, but a must if East Africa has to truly move to the 21st Century and prepare itself for the much hyped middle income status. SGR is modern, faster, sleeker ad cheaper.

Those who are still nostalgic about the old 'iron snake line' as it was nicknamed by our grandparents, we are sorry times have changed.

We actually needed the SGR many years ago when the old railway gave way to road truckers, which have destroyed our fragile road system while hiking the cost of transportation of goods from the coast.

I read recently in the East African that Tanzania has already started construction of the SGR in two phases from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro, covering 330kms and from Morogoro to Dodoma covering 426km, using locally sourced funds to the tune of $3 billion. This is a phenomenal achievement for President John Magufuri, the "new kid on the bloc" in the region and goes to prove that you don't have to be around for a long time before getting things done.

Kenya using Chinese funding, has also done the Mombasa to Nairobi leg of the SGR and it is up and running. It is set to start on the Nairobi to the Uganda border in Malaba as soon as it gets confirmation of the readiness of Uganda to continue the journey to Kampala. Uganda is 'committed' and will soon borrow money from China to undertake the task.

Without the link up to Kampala and later Kigali, the Nairobi- Malaba leg would be uneconomic and will also impact on Mombasa to Nairobi since transit traffic to Uganda, Rwanda and DRC are essential for the entire Northern corridor project.

With Rwanda already in the process of co-financing with Tanzania the funding of a portion on the Dar es Salaam-Kigali SGR, there may be a delay in linking up Kigali on the Northern Corridor line, although Rwanda and DRC need both routes.

There is so much economic potential in the region if all countries could get their act together and both the Northern and Southern Corridors will, in the long-run, be economically viable.

Unfortunately, Uganda so far has not moved at a pace one expected of a country whose leaders have been the vanguard of the rhetoric on "need of East African economic and political integration." Sourcing for funds for the SGR should have been done at least two years ago for the country to be in tandem with other partner states.

Mr Naggaga is an economist, administrator and retired ambassador.

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