President Yoweri Museveni's letter directing the Minister of Works and Transport to award the Kampala-Jinja expressway contract to a Chinese company that had lobbied him for the job has exposed how Uganda handles mega infrastructure projects, a fact that has put the country on collision course with the World Bank, with the latter citing corruption and the failure to use established procurement systems.
In the letter, seen by The EastAfrican, the president directs the minister to stop an on-going procurement process in a move he calls "controlling Uganda's growing external debt" but which technocrats in his government say is likely to deny the country an opportunity to lower the cost of the project.
"I have expressly ruled out external borrowing except for the railway, electricity and oil roads," he says in the letter to Monica Azuba Ntege, Minister for Works and Transport.
President Museveni says that instead of carrying out a competitive bidding that would allow the most efficient company to take over the project, the Kampala-Jinja expressway should be given to China Railway 17th Bureau Group Company (CR 17th).
He writes that his decision is motivated by a meeting he had with officials from CR 17th during which they promised to build the road with their own finances and would then take over the road toll collection to recover over $1.4 billion that has been estimated to be the cost of the Kampala-Jinja expressway.
Officials from the Uganda National Roads Authority, however, say the Kampala-Jinja Expressway was planned as a public-private partnership and CR 17th isn't offering anything new.
At $1.4 billion, the Kampala-Jinja Expressway will surpass what Uganda will need to construct an electrified standard gauge railway of the same length.
The standard gauge railway is considered to be a more expensive venture but better at reducing the cost of doing business for the private sector.
Construction of the 95-kilometre road Kampala-Jinja Expressway will cost $1.1 billion. Estimates from feasibility study that was financed by the European Union and the African Development Bank suggest compensation paid to affected persons alone will cost $300 million.
This brings the total cost of the project to $1.4 billion. Per kilometre, the road Kampala-Jinja Expressway will cost $14.7 million.
The cost of the 273-kilometre long Malaba-Kampala standard gauge railway is expected to cost $2.3 billion. This translates into $8.4 million per kilometre of the standard gauge railway.
Asked about the high cost, an official at the Uganda National Roads Authority told The EastAfrican that the cost was appropriate as the Kampala-Jinja Expressway, which is a four-lane road requires additional features.
The official, who declined to be named also said that the features are what will push up the cost of the road. These include lighting, road tolls, bridges and an eight-lane section to carter for daily commute users living in Mukono and surrounding suburbs but working in Kampala.
Most expensive road
If the Kampala-Jinja expressway goes ahead and construction starts June 2020 as planned, the 95-kilometre road could break a record as the most expensive road of its length and size in the world.