In 2002, Kampala City Council (KCC) condemned the houses comprising what is known as the Nakawa and Naguru Housing Estate. The estate ‘ largely made up of poorly constructed small houses ‘ is a relic of racial discrimination under British colonial rule. Like Soweto in South Africa, it was developed as a ghetto for indigenous Ugandans to supply cheap labour to the European quarters in Kololo and Nakasero. Old and dilapidated today, it is an eye-sour to Kampala but equally a bitter reminder of our ugly past.
In 2003, the estate was tendered for redevelopment. The Comer Group, one of the largest real estate developers in Europe, proposed to spend 500m to build a modern mini city with 1,700 apartments, 5,000 upper and middle income residential houses, a shopping mall, a hospital, clinics, schools, a modern transport system including trams, office complexes and green parks. They won the tender in 2006.
As would be expected, some ‘tenants’ petitioned the IGG, Faith Mwondha, to block the investment. Under Ugandan law, people are not allowed to live in condemned houses. Courts issued an order for them to vacate. But for three years, Mwondha protected this illegality and impunity.
I do not know how perfectly the procedures were adhered to and neither can I vouch for the integrity of the Comer Group or those who represented them during the bidding process. However, my journalistic experience has taught me that every allocation of lucrative rights in Uganda generates contestations. Why?
Because of entrenched corruption and institutionalised incompetence within the government of Uganda, it is almost impossible to have a perfect bidding or procurement process. This creates room for challenging every allocation of a government tender or contract. Over time, such contestations have become standard operating procedure in Uganda. Reason: it forces bidders to offer more bribes. The beneficiaries of this distortion are bureaucrats and politicians who approve such deals.
The result is that most checks on tendering and procurement have not blocked corruption but democratised it. It has thus made our country inhospitable to genuine investors. A deal can sometimes take 5 to 10 years to untangle from such contestations. Always, the country loses time in commencing the investment, and during this time, the price escalates due to increased bribes, inflation and so forth.
For example, the Bujagali dam was worth US$ 560m in 1999 when I joined the forces of resistance to it. We had strong and legitimate grounds which are too long to delve into here. After eight years of power outages and rationing that was inflicting heavy costs on businesses, the project finally took off in 2007 at over US$ 900m. The price per kilo watt hour of electricity had grown from 5.6 US cents to 9.0 US cents.
Although the estimated cost of constructing the dam (according to the World Bank study of the bill of quantities) was US$ 270m, the tender was awarded to Salini at US$ 470m. The award was not contested because ‘all procedures’ were followed. I think it should not be contested because it will bog us down again for many years to come. These contests are never over the substance of the investment, but its form. Except in rare cases, any bidder is roughly as good as his/her competitor.
It is in this context that I was appalled by Mwondha’s intransigence over the Nakawa-Naguru redevelopment project. Rather than see herself as playing a complimentary role to the ministry of local government, Mwondha saw herself as playing a competing role to the minister, Kahinda Otafiire. She had no idea about the economic importance of the Comer Group investment worth over 500m to ordinary Ugandans even if some ‘t’ had not been crossed and every ‘i’ not dotted. Instead, she behaved like a jilted village lover seeking to demonstrate her power.
As I write now, over US$ 3.6 billion worth of investment into Uganda are held at ransom by the IGG and other oversight bodies. Uganda is a poor country that cannot afford such luxury. The problem is not so much the corruption of the Yoweri Museveni regime but rather the way our democratic accountability system responds to it.
We have entered a self-destructive mode where contests over Museveni’s rule are intermingled with investments where he seems to have a hand. In seeking to restrain Museveni’s arbitrariness and his government’s corruption, we are now blocking the very investments that will furnish the social infrastructure for our democratic process.
Since 2000 opinion polls have consistently shown the lower the level of income and education and the deeper the rural area, the higher is Museveni’s support. Equally, the higher the level of income and education and the nearer to urban centres, the higher is opposition to him. Therefore, Museveni has a vested interest in an illiterate, poor and rural population; the opposition in an educated, urban and rich population.
Yet what Museveni needs to retain power in the short term ‘ free primary and secondary education, award of lucrative investment contracts etc ‘ may win him some immediate electoral advantage but at the price of undermining his power over the medium to long term.
The redevelopment of Naguru-Nakawa will create over 100,000 jobs directly and indirectly in Kampala. Its completion will increase the home-owning middle class and create more jobs for educated and semi educated people ‘ the very people this country needs to deepen its democracy. Regardless of how perfect the tender was awarded, that development is good for Uganda ‘ economically and politically.
Uganda’s democracy will not be protected by laws written on pieces of paper ‘ however well sounding those may be. We have seen how Shs 5 million is enough to rent the support of our parliament. The bastion of our democracy is therefore the changing social structure of our society ‘ from rural to urban, illiterate to educated, poor to rich.
In the short term, it is unlikely that Uganda will have a perfect procurement and tendering process because of entrenched corruption and institutionalised incompetence. But that is a matter of tactical detail. The strategic issue is not to lose sight of the importance of large scale investments in fostering the social forces that will deepen our democracy.