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Uganda’s new link to the sea is the best

Thursday June 16, 2011

THE photograph of an overweight former President Idi Amin riding a tiny bicycle with his bespectacled passenger and witty adviser Abu Mayanja is the most enduring reminder of the 1976 territorial dispute between Uganda and Kenya.

The duo were heading to the airport for a meeting with a delegation from Rwanda to convince them that the fuel shortage occasioned by the closure of the Kenya border was affecting Ugandans as well.

Amin’s sin had been a casual reference to History that Uganda’s border once extended up-to Naivasha. Time was to vindicate Kenya’s harsh reaction when two years later; Amin claimed and militarily occupied the Kagera region of Tanzania.

A now forgotten though more recent photo of the Kenya - Uganda disputes was taken inside a Nairobi church 11 years later, showing an angry Ugandan Minister of State for Internal Affairs Dr Kizza Besigye fighting for a microphone with an old muzungu priest inside the Holy Family Basilica.

It was during a requiem mass for a Ugandan teacher who died in Kenya Police custody. The teacher’s crime was being a Ugandan at a time when Kampala and Nairobi were trading accusations of harbouring each other’s rebels, and the hot tempered Besigye was busy blasting the Kenyans in their own capital during the Mass when the priest decided to put a stop to his speech.

Matters escalated with both countries massing troops along the common border and after some skirmishes, Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Arap Moi held a meeting in a primary school playing field at the border.

Museveni returned and told diplomats and journalists: “The lesson I have learnt is that the opening of the Kenya border is not a matter of life and death.” Ugandans that December of 1987 had the ‘driest’ Christmas due to the border crisis, but they were so in love with Museveni the phrase “Let them keep their Kimbo” became like a hit song.

Some of the crises that affect the movement of goods and persons across the border are not deliberately targeted at squeezing Uganda during a quarrel. The post-election violence in Kenya three and a half years ago is a case in point, and this time many Ugandans blamed their own government for neglecting the strategic fuel reserves at Jinja. But it usually takes such serious mishaps or bizarre quarrels like one over the Migingo rock in Lake Victoria, for the subject of Uganda’s developing an alternative route to the sea to come up. When the tempers cool, it is back to business as usual at good old, congested and expensive Mombasa.

So when Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka read her maiden budget and allocated over a trillion shillings to transport infrastructure, not many Ugandans could have immediately thought of an alternative route.

After all, the last time someone put serious money in Uganda’s alternative outlet to the sea was when Amin quarreled with the Kenyans and because he had been routinely abusing Tanzania’s Mwalimu Nyerere, he had no other option but the most expensive one imaginable - air.

He expanded the fleet of Uganda airlines and started airlifting the country’s coffee to Djibouti.

Now is Maria about to buy us a fleet of Boeings and Airbuses to carry our bulky, low value exports and oil? Not exactly. But the governments of Uganda and Tanzania have over the past two years been quietly plotting a new direct link between Tanga and Kampala that will have far reaching effects on the trade and economic development in the region.

If completed on schedule in 2014, the little known village of Bukasa that lies somewhere beyond Namboole Stadium will become one of the hottest commercial property spots. That is where government is already acquiring 100 hectares for the location of New Kampala Port.

Tanzanians are also set to hear more of a place called Mwambani – the site of the new port of Tanga. So the alternative route to the sea is going to have the 1,188 kilometre link from Bukasa to Mwambani on the Indian Ocean as its key component. It is shorter than Mombasa or Dar es Salaam but the real beauty about it is the cost.

With the new link, from the time Uganda’s exports or imports are dispatched, they will only travel by water and rail between Kampala and the foreign ports. And it is not only Kampala. A key component in the new link is the Lake Victoria port of Musoma in Tanzania where the railway from Mwambani will terminate and the goods then loaded onto barges.

Barges from Musoma destined for Western Uganda or Rwanda would head straight to Masaka port while those for Eastern Uganda would go straight to Jinja or another port in the east. The potency of the whole strategy is in its simplicity. Water and rail transport are the cheapest.

Back to Maria Kiwanuka’s budget. The ministries of works and transport of the two countries have already taken significant steps to making this venture a reality.

A Project Coordination Unit has already been set up. In the just ended financial year, the two countries allocated $4.5m for the feasibility studies for the project, which is expected to cost $3b. Tanzania has also allocated about a billion dollars in the new budget for infrastructure development and the development of ports and railways feature prominently on the agenda.

A Ugandan official recently intimated that the $3b is being sought from outside the usual World Bank, European Union set-up, and looking more to places like India and China.

“But with the funding of Karuma from our own coffers, we have shown that where donors are not too keen on our strategic interests, we can do it ourselves,” said the Ugandan. Kiwanuka’s budget provided sh800b this financial year towards the construction of Karuma hydro power dam.

President Museveni has also repeatedly said that revenues from Uganda’s oil shall go towards infrastructure development and not consumption.

Uganda has started earning from oil through capital gains tax as prospectors sell off to actual exploiters. It is also set to make some modest earnings from sales of test crude oil. Prospective buyers include thermal electricity makers. The new link to the sea may thus not be short of sources for funding.

In a nutshell, the new link involved building a new port at Mwambani in Tanga on the Indian Ocean, refurbishing the railway from Tanga to Arusha, constructing a new railway from the Arusha-Musoma section, building a new port at Musoma and a new port at Bukasa. The $3b budget includes purchasing marine vessels for $114 for plying the lake. $1.9b is for building and refurbishing the railway followed by $695.5m for building the Mwambani port and $180m for the new Kampala Port at Bukasa.

The upgrading of Musoma should cost $170m. In Tanzania’s budget presented by Finance minister Mustapha Mkulo, the development of the Arusha-Musoma railway link and the Mwambani port feature specifically.

The plan, therefore, is to leave the old port sites of Tanga and Port Bell for local use, upgrade the underutilised Musoma and build Bukasa. Speaking off record in Tanga recently, a Tanzanian official indicated that even if Mwambani growth capacity gets exhausted in future, the government has reserved another location at Mansa Bay for longer term, future development of Tanga’sports.

The new link is poised to bring many benefits such as smoother flow of imports and exports more quickly and cheaply. Besides providing the alternative way to the sea, the new link will help ease congestion at Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. Of great significance to Tanzania is that the route passes through an area of great agriculture potential, thus making the modern concept of enhancing development through ‘growth corridors’ more implementable. Of great significance to Uganda will be its increased importance as a gateway to Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Congo and Southern Sudan.

By Joachim Buwembo: The New Vision Newspaper

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