In Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, there is a phrase: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart”.
It is not that Uganda’s local construction industry was ever held together in the first place nor am I aware of any white man having come back quietly and peaceably; but something in the remarks made on the NTV news a few months ago by the head of Corporate Communications for Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) brought Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to my mind. During the said remarks, Ugandan local contractors were accused of failing to deliver on their contracted works, and in the same breath, Chinese firms were praised for winning almost all the big road contracts and satisfactorily executing them. It was said that they are beginning to also take over road maintenance works that some local contractors would otherwise have the capacity to execute but cannot be entrusted with due to the bad image their colleagues have always painted.
It’s true the increase in competition from the Chinese has helped bring down the unit costs of roads development. It is also true that most Chinese firms are doing works the local construction firms don’t have the capacity to do. What’s more is that almost everyone knows that quite a good number of local contractors have consistently excelled at either doing shoddy work or never completing projects. Whereas all this is true, there is a lot of truth still left unspoken. Local companies, for example, have to compete with Chinese companies whose government offers cheap credit and heavy long term investments but this is a detail that the UNRA spokesperson does not talk about. It is alleged that some of the Chinese companies are actually government owned.
So in essence, Ugandan private local construction companies, operating on high interest loans and combating a host of other numerous odds, are essentially competing with the Chinese government! What chance do they have?
However, the local contractors have not done themselves favors either. A good number of those that get big contracts fail to deliver on them. The UNRA spokesman is not right to lump every local contractor in the boat of failures. It would be prudent of him to use the word some or for emphasis, most but not all. Nonetheless, he evidently has no kind words for his brothers.
It is the Chinese way of doing things that has won UNRA over and this is not to say that the Chinese do not have their black spots. A friend of mine tells me they worked on Kaguta Road. Kaguta Road is said to be a good example of bad road construction, and yet that is a road that goes to the country home of the current President of our country.
This, however, does not mean that Chinese contractors do shoddy work; rather, if the rumour is true, then we will say that ‘a’ Chinese contractor did shoddy work. As China slowly but steadily takes over Uganda’s local construction industry, the stakeholders seem to be only worried about themselves individually – to hell with the industry. For example, the Uganda Institute of Professional Engineers (UIPE), Uganda Society of Architects (USA), Uganda Association of Impact Assessors (UAIA), Uganda Institute of Physical Planners (UIPP) and the Institution of Surveyors of Uganda (ISU) are in the process of forming the Uganda Built Environment Professionals Association. Guess what tops their list on issues to deliberate as an umbrella association: harmonizing the scale of fees across the professions. To be clear, and in terms of measuring priorities, the industry is under alien threat and the local professionals’ biggest concern is the scale of fees. Absurd!
One may ask; what a Uganda Built Environment Professionals Association is without the professionals who actually bring the built environment into reality by constructing it?
The Uganda National Association of Building and Civil Engineering Contractors (UNABCEC) is the body that attempts to bring together those that make the built environment a reality, and yet UNABCEC hasn’t been involved. On the other hand, UNABCEC too behaves exactly like its sister bodies in the industry when it comes to guardianship of the local construction industry. The contractors’ association, for example, initiated the formation of the Uganda Construction
Industry Commission (UCICO) without involving other bodies in the industry. The UCICO bill up to now has never been passed. Further, whereas the bill – if passed into law– would regulate the entire construction industry, the other stakeholders do not seem to be aware of it.
UNABCEC, while looking out for the interests of its members, petitioned the minister of Works and Transport about the lack of jobs for local contractors. The minister responded with a 20% offer on all big road construction works. But what comprises the 20% the local contractors always do?
It is mostly masonry works on drainage channels and material supplies! What kind of experience would a local contractor get from such work? It would be the kind of experience that will never help him get out of the drains!
But why, when the local contractors realize that the offer – good as it is – is not a helpful one don’t they find ways of improving their capacity and making it a meaningful one?
Perhaps the answer to that can be found in the famous Zulu King Shaka’s conversation with Captain Fairwell, a white man he had nicknamed Zebana. “Tell me, Zebana. How do you catch a monkey?”
“A gourd is used that has a narrow neck,” Captain Fairwell responds “the top is cut off and something is put inside; a piece of fruit or something shiny. He reaches in and grabs the bait.
He then is trapped because he cannot withdraw his fist.” Shaka, evidently enjoying the conversation asks, “Once the monkey realizes he is trapped, why does he not let go of the bait?”
“Because his greed makes him blind,” the Captain answers.
“And what is he greedy for?” Shaka asks with a wry smile.
“I suppose for something he cannot have,” the captain responds.
After another long pause, “And what new bait have you, Zebana, brought for this monkey? I yearn for something shiny.”
As with this story, this is how things fell apart in ancient Africa, even with wise kings like Shaka who knew exactly what the white man was doing. This is how things are falling apart in Uganda’s local construction industry, even with an array of clever and intelligent industry stakeholders.