- October 10, 2021
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Engineers clash with UPDF over road construction projects
The directive by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to all government ministries, departments and agencies undertaking construction projects to use the UPDF Engineering brigade has raised concerns among professional engineers.
In his July 1, 2021 letter, the president noted that projects were being delayed mainly due to corruption in the government procurement processes and delays in the procurement processes by the ministries, departments and agencies and the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority, PPDA.
The president also said that the army unit has what it takes to carry out the task, adding that the country can avoid all these delays in implementing government construction projects by utilizing the brigade.
“As you may be aware, over time the UPDF has built the capacity of the Army Construction Brigade. This brigade has been very instrumental in implementing many projects ranging from simple to high-level and advanced construction projects. Moreover, because this is part of the UPDF, the country has made a lot of savings in terms of funds and time,” Museveni said in the letter.
Professional engineers have weighed in on the President’s views and many think that while he might have genuine concerns about the procurement regime, his decisions are not well-thought-out.
The Uganda National Association of Building and Civil Engineering Contractors, UNABCEC for example argued that the president is right in seeking to keep the otherwise idle human resource in the army productive for the good of the country.
They however warn of serious economic, technical, legal and social implications to the Private Sector (especially the members) and the country at large.
“The economic implications include loss of the capital invested by our stakeholders, increased unemployment, reduced competitiveness in the sector, decrease in tax revenues and increased burden on the Consolidated Fund. On the technical aspect, there will be an increased risk of poor-quality work due to lack of comprehensive supervision and destruction of the value Supply Chain,” says the letter signed by association president, Eng. Jamesone Olonya.
The letter adds that the limited technical capacity in the UPDF for certain types of civil works will lead to increased project costs. The engineers say that on the legal side, the directive contravenes the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act.
They also agree with the president that there is a lot of corruption and inefficiency in procurement, but say this is abetted by the failure of the government to enact the Uganda Construction Industry Commission Bill, which would establish regulation on the sector.
They say that to build a strong construction brigade, the state does not have to “decimate the private construction industry, but create synergies that enable the two to coexist.” UNABCEC recommends the use of Public-Private Partnership policies where the UPDF can partner with the private sector and share resources while the army can also be encouraged to take on bigger and more complex contracts like irrigation, railways and dams.
The National Construction Industry Policy, 2010, which provides for the regulation of the industry hasn’t been implemented since it was drafted. The Engineers Registration Board Chairman, Eng. Isaac Mutenyo doubts whether the Army unit can ably handle the contracts because they do not have adequate qualified manpower.
“The UPDF has less than 10 Registered Engineers and there will be a challenge in supervising the numerous projects across the Country. Ministry of Health and of Education and Sports need to take note of that and look for a solution.” He says that the engineering fraternity, architects and other associated professional bodies need to come together and advise the government accordingly on how best to implement this Presidential directive.
Andrew Niwamanya, a professional and member of the Uganda Institute of Professional Engineers, says that the president’s directive comes at a wrong time when most local enterprises need to be helped to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of local contractors heavily invested in their companies and are just recovering from Covid-19 and lockdown effects. They need to be supported. UPDF can supply products like heavy machinery hire, material testing laboratories, research, asphalt concrete, consultancy as local companies compete in a regulated environment,” he reasons.
Others wonder if the army should have ring-fenced sectors when it has reportedly failed to execute some projects like the UPDF National Referral Hospital in Mbuya. “It is being built by a Chinese company. It’s surprising it can’t build its own hospital but it is wanting all schools and hospitals. The hospital is behind schedule,” said Eng. Niwamanya.
During the hospital’s ground-breaking ceremony in February 2018, Health Minister, Jane Ruth Aceng said the facility would be completed in three years. In their recommendations, the engineers propose that Uganda should follow the examples of Egypt and Tanzania to develop the country in which both the private sector and the army construction brigade can flourish.
In Tanzania, the Army is involved in big government projects like the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway that is being undertaken by the Chinese. The Army unit has at least 57 professional civil engineers and mechanics participating in the project. In Egypt, which the Ugandan engineers want to emulate, the Army construction unit handles most of the government projects and is exempt from taxes like Import tax, sales tax (VAT) and corporation tax.
The military is also involved in the plan to establish a new capital to replace Cairo by 2022 through a company dubbed the New Administrative Capital for Urban Development. The Egyptian military owns 51 percent of this company, while the remaining 49 percent is vested in the state-owned New Urban Communities Authority. The Army was also contracted to undertake the Suez Canal expansion project.
Another advantage it has over the local private companies is that it uses army recruits as a source of cheap labour, which makes the costs of its operations low.