KAMPALA —It is 8th October 1962. Esther Kaiso is a 14-year-old girl excited to travel to Kampala with her father. Among other activities, she will witness the festivities surrounding Uganda’s independence the next day. The journey had to be started early. Not just early but the day before.
The road from her home in Kyamutaasa village, in the current Kyenjojo district, was a snaky murram all the way to Kampala. The 240-kilometre bumpy and dusty journey on the only available bus was a whole day affair, provided it hadn’t rained. This bus only braved the route once every two days.
26 years later, in 1988, a 40-year-old Esther travelled to Kampala to sort out matters pertaining to her nursing certificate. The journey was not much different, save for the frequency of the still-only bus, she narrates. It was then a daily affair.
Fast forward to 9th October 2022. Esther ‘s children and grandchildren plan to take advantage of the Sunday to visit her in Kyamutaasa from Kampala. This time, unlike when she was their age, the group plans to travel the journey to Kyamutaasa, dine with their grandmother and be back in Kampala for an early dinner.
Esther’s story mirrors the road development journey in Uganda. It highlights that behind the statistics, real human beings from all walks of life are the beneficiaries of the road development agenda. Despite challenges, Uganda’s road infrastructure has come a long and winding way.
Before independence, when the country was still under British Colonial rule, a total of 692km of roads were paved, with the last roads to be constructed just before independence—completed in 1961, being the Tororo – Mbale-Soroti, Iganga – Kaliro and Jinja. The Post-colonial era was characterized by political upheaval with minimal focus on road infrastructure development and an average of only 49 kilometres of road constructed per year.
By 1986, when the National Resistance Movement government came to power, the country’s road infrastructure was dire. As the government went on to mobilize resources, security was the priority and therefore went on to secure all parts of the country. Roads are part of the security and economic system; as government began implementing its policy to develop an independent, integrated and self-sustaining economy, having an efficient road network became inevitable.
Planning and constructing a National Road network is an intricate curated process that requires a vast array of technical skills, political focus, public goodwill, big budgets and good old-fashioned grit. It is common wisdom that roads are essential to any development agenda—a link between producers and markets, the sick and hospitals, students and schools etc. The National Road Network (NRN) is perhaps the country’s most critical infrastructure.
Uganda’s National Road network has improved significantly since the road sector reforms of the 1990s, coupled with increased funding. In fact, in July 2008, the government started to progressively increase funding to the road sector by UGX320 billion annually for three years, increasing the overall road budget to UGX 1.1 trillion, a pivotal time in the history of roads in Uganda.
This was born out of significant reforms to the sector, which saw the establishment of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), under the Ministry of works- the agency responsible for planning, building and maintaining the NRN and the Uganda Road Fund, which provides adequate and stable funding for the maintenance of public roads in Uganda.
The Government of Uganda, through UNRA, is doing commendable work towards paving the road network with an average of 252km of paved roads per year. According to the 2021/22 report, 5,880km of the national road network is paved.
The National Development Plan III (NDP-III) target which is currently being implemented is to increase the stock of paved roads to 7,500 kilometres or 37% of the national road network. At the current pace, the country is on course to achieve its target of paving 80% of the 21,000km national road network by the year 2040, as envisioned by Vision 2040.
The NRN also includes 11 ferries plying ten routes across rivers and lakes, which link the national roads.
Today, one can drive across the country from one border in the south to another in the north in just 7 hours. The impact of that statement on the primary growth areas of tourism, oil, gas and energy, agriculture, social services and industrialization, and city transit is invaluable.
As Uganda celebrates 60 years of independence, the current and planned status of the NRN not only gives us a moment to pause and reflect on where we have come from but also provides us with a reason to get excited about the future.
For a country still recovering from the effects of a pandemic, the road sector growth trajectory is a perfect reason to be hopeful. Anticipated oil revenues, for example, will go a long way in pushing the road construction and maintenance agenda. And then the return on all this investment will be surely justified.
Improved roads come with opportunities for the individual user. The increase in asset values that comes with road construction provides hope for wealth creation in all corners of the country.
Taking advantage of the improved access to markets should follow the adage, luck meets the prepared. The impact on access to social services, tourism and trade call for every Ugandan to align themselves to the opportunities.
As Esther’s children and grandchildren gather to set off for Kyamutaasa on Uganda’s 60th independence anniversary, they ought to recognise that the flyovers, traffic lights, expressways, and social amenities they may encounter along their journey have been a result of generations of meticulous planning and implementation and that it is upon them and every Ugandan to take advantage of, for their development.
To play their part in maintaining them and demanding accountability from those entrusted with the stewardship of this national asset, is their duty. Much as a lot has been achieved in Uganda’s road sector, this is just the beginning, as Uganda continues on its windy journey to becoming a middle-income country!