ICT plans caught up in quagmire of Ugandan bureaucracy · 26 juli 2002

The brewers who produce Club Beer are raffling off five i-Macs among those who have managed to save all the different crown caps. Uganda is ‘ICT-minded’. IICD supports various ICT projects in the country and in doing so is opting quite emphatically for substantial input from local partners. Enthusiasm among partners is considerable but at the same time the reality in Uganda is one of recalcitrance. Corruption, obstruction from officialdom and bureaucracy are a regular quagmire.

A night flight over the African continent gives an entirely new meaning to the notion of ‘darkest Africa’. The ground far below the aeroplane is pitch-black, not a single light shines into the night. Even Kampala, the Ugandan capital, represents no more than a glimmer in the unfathomable darkness. The presence of electricity is not a given in Uganda. Although the hydro-electric power station at the Owen Falls dam in the Victoria Nile yields so much electricity that it is even supplied to neighbouring Kenya, the reach of the electricity supply network barely extends to rural areas. The quality of the network also leaves a great deal to be desired: there are tension drops several times a day, sometimes only for a few seconds, sometimes for hours on end.

Lake Kyoga provides the northern boundary for the Kayunga district, which borders on the Victoria Nile. The only tar-sealed road in the area emanates from Kampala and via Mukono winds through endless swampland where papyrus rises to a man’s height only to end abruptly in the dusty little town of Kayunga, capital of the district.

Stephen Dagada is chairman of the Kayunda district council, which makes him the most powerful man in the district. He has a notebook and a mobile telephone in front of him but the GSM operator whose network reaches Kayunda, has not yet succeeded in setting up an internet connection. Yet in the not too distant future there needs to be Point of Presence (PoP) for internet traffic available for use that will also allow communication with remote villages in the district. Kayunda is one of four districts that are participating in a Districtnet project run by the IICD. Districtnet fits in with Uganda government policy.

The Local Government Act has seen to the decentralisation of government roles. The problem is that district administrators, such as those of Kayunga, are not at all equipped to carry out those administrative and managerial tasks. The absence of telecom connections with villages makes it impossible to run matters adequately, according to Dagada. “If the government asks me to report on how many teachers are working in the district, I have to send out one of my assistants to do a physical count. It can take weeks before all the villages have been visited.

Districtnet is ultimately expected to provide a telecom connection between the district headquarters and the larger villages that make op the administrative centre for the surrounding areas, the subcounties, and also to introduce the administrative and financial management systems that make it possible to produce reports. A third role for Districtnet is the provision of information from government to citizens and vice versa.

While the administrative tasks may have been delegated to the districts, Kampala remains the place where policy is determined. Dagada wants to make use of Districtnet to realise the various ambitious programmes. “President Museveni has initiated an agricultural programme that is intended to result in larger adjoining pieces of land all growing the same crops, creating so-called product zones. Our information officer will need to advise people via Districtnet of the fact that to merge the fields of individual family members achieves greater economy.”

Dagada can picture the PoP, which is to link Districtnet via a satellite connection to the rest of the world (and the internet), ultimately ending up in the hands of an entrepreneur. “With fifty customers in the district, companies and NGOs and an internet cafe in the city, it should be possible for the venture to be viable. In the near future we want to encourage tourism: rafting on the Nile, and that means hotels and catering. It should be possible, for instance, to interest an internet entrepreneur from Kampala in something like that.”

To provide a connection to the villages, it should be possible to make use of a wireless connection via the free 2.4 gigahertz band, which is technology that is much used in Uganda, mobile connection, or restored land lines left over from a distant past. Dagada is optimistic. “Once people have become familiar with the internet, they will continue using it.”

Marcel Werner, programme manager within IICD and responsible for the projects in Uganda, holds a more down-to-earth view. “The connections will make little else possible but the use of e-mail. He considers it important that people have access to information, crop prices, for example, allowing them to negotiate more effectively with traders. Districtnet must also create transparency in local and district government. Citizens must be able to call them to account in matters of policy and expenditure.” Werner spends a week, once every two months, in Uganda to keep a finger on the pulse and, where things have run aground, to get them going again in the right direction.

Districtnet, which is backed by the Uganda Ministry of Local Government, exists only on paper so far. The delay is in the wait for the green light from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which is funding the project. Costs for the infrastructure, software and training are estimated at 300,000 US dollar. Once the network is up and running, the management and maintenance costs will be the responsibility of the district.

DFID has meanwhile agreed to the funding, according to Werner, but it comes with certain conditions attached. “The World Bank has a large project of 100 million dollars on the agenda and this is intended to provide for the establishment of telecom connections and a system of financial reporting between districts and the national government within five years. This project has not yet moved on from the drawing board stage, but DFID and the Uganda Ministry of Finance want the pilots for Districtnet organised in precisely those districts in which the World Bank project is intended to go ahead.”

Werner is not so insistent about this requirement. “We will enter into a dialogue with those parties. Obviously these two projects should end up complementing each other but that does not mean that we have to start in the same districts. That would mean that the efforts in the four pilot districts will have been for nothing and that we would have to start again from scratch in four different districts. Furthermore, the officials in those districts would end up having to deal with two pilots at the same time. That will be an impossible task for them.” The question is whether Werner can keep up his resistance. The Ugandan budget is dependent for more than half on donors and of these the World Bank is far and away the largest.

Patrick Mwesigwa is the technical manager of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the Ugandan Opta. The UCC was established in 1998 to keep a watchful eye on the telecom market which was deregulated under pressure from the IMF. In addition to the former state telecom company UTL, 51 per cent of which is now in foreign ownership, the South African MTN was allowed to enter the Ugandan market. Both parties have their own gateway. The third party, Celtel, which offers only mobile services, depends on UTL and MTN for interconnection..

Uganda, which has a population of 22 million people, has sixty thousand fixed telephone connections. With the freeing up of the telecom market, mobile telephone use has shown an explosive increase. More than 350 thousand people, especially in the cities, use mobile phones. Many parts of the rural areas, however, where 80 per cent of the Ugandans live and work, are without telephone access.

One of the objectives of the UCC is to see to the provision of internet and telephone services to rural areas, Mwesigwa states. “At the present moment, 154 of the more than nine hundred subcounties have no telephone service at all. By 2005 these districts are to have at least one public telephone per five thousand inhabitants. In addition to that, every district must have internet access by then. There are currently eleven thousand internet users in Uganda, almost all in Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja.”

Werner, in fact, tends to doubt the feasibility of profitably operating telecom services in these districts. “The turnover will have to come from the local NGOs, government bodies and one or two small businesses. The local residents have no money.” Nevertheless, Werner wants to call on the funds for the four pilot districts: the Districtnet model expects the PoP in the district capitals to be run as a business. But Mwesigwa throws up his hands in a gesture of frustration. “Before any money can be handed over, a committee needs to be formed to manage the fund and the electricity project must be under way. The tender document for that project is just now being drawn up. It will take at least another six months before it will be ready to be sent out.”

Werner does not want to have to wait another year for that bit of financial propping up, so sorely needed by Districtnet. He tries to persuade Mwesigwa of the importance of the project and points out that the contractors can expect to receive support in the area of training and obtaining ‘soft loans’.

Districtnet is not the only project that is still faced with an uncertain future, more than year after it was conceived at the Roundtable. Three projects concerned with education, **described in an earlier article, were introduced at the Roundtable organised by the Ministry of Education a year ago. Three other plans that were put on the table at that time and were taken up by the Ministry, have not advanced a single step, however.

After the introduction of workflow systems at the Ministry and the setting up of an ICT strategy, the most important task that the education officials were faced with was to perfect a model that would provide for computer maintenance in the schools that are participating in the IICD education projects. Although the computers are already being used, there is no plan for managing their use and maintenance. It is known at Kyambogo University that the Ministry intends to outsource the management of all the projects in the various districts exclusively to one company. In the context of Uganda’s informal economy, it is not difficult to guess that this involves a kickback of some kind

Johnson Nkuuhe, representative in the Ugandan parliament for Isingiro County in the Mbarara district, emits a deep sigh when confronted with the aberrant conduct of the Ministry. “At the Ministry of Education the wrong people are calling the shots. They can only think of their own personal gains, also as far as other projects are concerned. It happens in all the ministries, but Education tops the lot.”

Nkuuhe is closely involved with various IICD projects and acts as ICT lobbyist in parliament. Uganda does not have a multiparty system. The National Resistance Movement of President Museveni, the Movement, for short, calls the shots throughout the country. Nkuuhe: “Unfortunately there is no opposition in parliament but there is a large group of highly critical members of parliament. We have sent corrupt ministers packing and currently there is a commission, much against the will of the president, that is engaged in exposing government corruption.”

The evening before the conversation, at a meeting of the I-Network, an ICT-network initiated by the IICD, Nkuuhe made an impassioned plea for e-government in which he impressed upon his audience of ICT officers, NGO employees and people from the education and business sectors which steps need to be taken in the technology, legal and organisational areas to be able to arrive at a transparent ‘digital’ government. “Obviously e-government is still a long way off here. Some departments have no internet at all, and in the area of ICT coordination is still mostly absent. Connectivity is presenting considerable problems. We are endeavouring to usher ICT inside the doors of government like a Trojan Horse and hope it will result in a government that is open to being monitored.”

In the ministries and government there is very little support for this essential ‘step forwards’, much to Nkuuhe’s regret. “Government is not motivated. No-one wants to carry that load. The upshot is that there is a total of 250 million dollars in donor funds for the construction of electricity networks in rural areas, but these funds are mostly lying idle.”

In spite of the typical African quagmire, the IICD system is working, according to an academic specialist from the Uganda parliament who wishes to remain anonymous. “I can compare the situation with the World Bank projects, where no-one subsequently ascertains what sort of social return the projects have generated. The World Bank only wants to see the auditor’s report once all is finished. That many projects die a quiet death after their completion and that in some cases the acquired goods and equipment simply disappear, is not noted.”

Published in Automatisering Gids week 30, 2002

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