By Christine Byiringiro

Published: 1st June 2016
he Government of Uganda has placed infrastructure development at the apex of the country’s macro-economic agenda for over 3 years now to facilitate private sector development as the engine of growth and this is highlighted inter alia in the past budget speeches.
It is for this reason that the biggest chunk of the national cake has always and continues to go towards improving the national road infrastructure, a key function of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) which was created in July 2008 to develop and maintain the national roads network. This therefore calls for heavy investment in the sector and Government has had to resort to borrowing in order to achieve this.

As the country prepares to listen to the FY 2016/17 budget speech on 8th June 2016, the UGX 26.3 trillion budget already approved by Parliament has the lion’s share allocation of UGX 3.8 trillion to works and transport, up from 3.3 trillion in FY 2015/2016.
Since the money collected through taxes alone cannot fund all the country’s development needs, Government contracts national debt to fund some of them thereby attracting huge interest payments that the Ugandan taxpayer toils to pay. The Ministry of Finance projected that the stock of outstanding public debt would reach US$ 7.6 billion by end of FY 2015/2016 up from US$ 7.2 billion in FY2014/2015. The increase was attributed to the growing need to finance infrastructure investment.

Ideally, debt should be directed towards investments because these are, by their nature, income generating thus the returns are used to service the debt. The ability of such investments to generate returns is therefore critical in assessing the country’s future debt sustainability. Sadly, Uganda is headed towards the opposite direction, reason the national debt resources are diverted towards unjust enrichment by those in positions of responsibility and have previously got away with it.

This partly explains why corruption in the public service sector continues to thrive with the latest scandal unearthed at UNRA. The UNRA commission of inquiry into mismanagement of the Authority’s resources recently exposed massive corruption at UNRA where a total of UGX 4 trillion has gone to waste since 2008 to date. The Commission, set up by the President in June 2015 to inquire into alleged corruption at UNRA found that top officials in UNRA connived with consultants and contractors to swindle the Authority’s funds; no genuine competition for road projects and contractors were paid billions for no work done leading to shoddy work. According to highlights of the Commission’s report published in the New Vision newspaper on 27th May 2016, the Pakwach-Nebbi and Fort Portal-Hoima roads began disintegrating even before they were handed over to the Government!

What Next?

•    The time to put a stop to such impunity is long past but it is never too late to start. Thanks to the President for instituting the Commission but also unlike in the recent past, we now see him begin to progressively fight corruption. Like the saying goes; even the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We can only confirm the president’s resolve to combat the vice as clearly stated during his swearing-in ceremony by such actions.

•    That the country now looks to the responsible action centers to implement the Commission’s recommendations would merely be stating the obvious, otherwise the tax payers would have to carry the burden of servicing the debt, pay interest but also incur costs to re-construct and maintain these roads. Such cases however also provide lessons to help us tighten the loopholes as we advance towards development.

We must therefore seize the opportunities and act appropriately as we work towards becoming a middle-income country by 2020.