Expressway divides Uganda as debts with China mount

Traffic will soar above the muddy swamp between Uganda’s capital and its international airport when a new Chinese-built highway opens in a few months time, but the road itself is mired in controversy. The government has partly funded the 51 km $580 million expressway with a loan, part of $11 billion in borrowings in the decade since the World Bank cancelled debts about a third that size as part of debt relief for poor states. Uganda says the four-lane road is the jewel in the crown of an infrastructure programme that will boost economic growth; critics accuse President Yoweri Museveni, in power for 32 years, of squandering debt relief and mortgaging much-anticipated oil revenues before crude starts to flow in 2020.
China alone has loaned the east African nation nearly $3 billion and is in talks for $2.3 billion more as part of its vast overseas development Belt and Road scheme.
“Uganda will grind to a halt as a country because of Museveni’s reckless borrowing. We’re like a patient on life support,” said opposition lawmaker Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, alluding to a debt warning from the central bank last year.
The government says the criticism is misplaced.
“We’re not borrowing for consumption and luxury, we are investing,” said Finance Ministry spokesman Jim Mugunga. “The heightened borrowing is deliberate, it’s to put up modern infrastructure and push up economic growth.”
Uganda’s first expressway should trim the two-hour trip between the capital and international airport to 30 minutes.
Begun in 2012, construction should end in May, missing the initial target by a year. But it is the price, rather than the delays, that has alarmed Uganda’s auditor general, John Muwanga.
In a 2015 report, he noted the new road’s cost per lane per kilometre was double Ethiopia’s six-lane Addis-Adama Expressway, a road built by the same company — the China Communications Construction Co Ltd — with more features like underpasses and link roads.
“The project costs could have been much lower if the contractor had been procured through competitive bidding,” said the report.
Patrick Muleme, head of design at state-run Uganda National Roads Authority, said single-sourcing was a requirement for China providing a $350 million Exim bank loan for the road.
Muleme said challenges like a 1.6 kilometre bridge over a vast swamp had driven up the cost.
“When you just see two projects and you compare costs it’s misleading because it doesn’t take into account the peculiarities and the unique features,” he said. — Reuters