Life after m7: No energy to generate energy

The following is a feature published in the Daily Monitor April 25, 2008, by Angelo Izama, a great friend and brilliant journalist and analyst.

Angelo Izama

Visitors to Uganda who fly into Entebbe International Airport at night are often struck by how dark the place is.
Night flights these days also show something else; the bright lights of the Chinese-rebuilt residence of the President which stands out in contrast to the kerosene powered homes around it.
Darkness could be amusing for tourists on their first trip to Africa who fantasize about elephants leaping out of roadsides and whose only introduction to Uganda are paperback digests ( mostly written by former tourists or resident ones) that fail to inform the thrill seekers that Idi Amin is no longer President here.
However the lack of electricity to light streets, homes and businesses is not a funny joke propped up as a tourist accessory. For its 31 million people Uganda generates and uses less electricity than a small division of Hyundai industries, just one of the many big enterprises in a country with which Uganda was at par a short forty years ago.
Since the use of electricity is an important measure of how economies are performing Uganda’s case has been one of stagnation and regression.
Whenever critics of the government single out the power sector for bludgeoning the government at pulpits and radio studios, they are told to be optimistic because Uganda has made a “recovery” from a politically darker past when Amin was actually an Entebbe resident himself.
“You cannot always be pessimistic” said Energy Minister Daudi Migereko in a phone interview on Monday about the state of the energy sector. But even he admits the present situation is trying on the patience of the discipleship or cadres who are the foot soldiers of the revolution started by Yoweri Museveni.
Uganda has registered negative growth in the energy sector. Electricity production today is lower than at independence 45 years ago and much lower in the last half decade when a series of unpunished blunders turned load shedding into a way of life.
But a far more serious problem facing the country is not its candlelight economy: It is the affliction of low expectations and even lower standards that have made mediocre performance acceptable particularly within the government. Even if the administration wanted it simply does not have the energy to take the country to another energy production level.
It must be noted that the back peddling in the energy sector is occurring in a period dominated by what many Ugandans, their neighbors and the world community consider the most progressive government in the country’s history. The World Bank, which according to Migereko (and his predecessor Syda Bbumba) has been a lousy partner, has been selling Uganda and its reform process one of the brightest spots in Africa.
However progress tended to be measured in terms of a stable currency, stable government and tons of paper reforms. Uganda remains one of the biggest missed opportunities in Africa and the energy sector is a microcosm of this colossal squander. According to Engineer Hilary Onek, a leading authority on hydro-power dams, the country’s potential is in the region of 28,000 megawatts of electricity. The distance between the 120 megawatts being produced today and that potential is what a new government would have to cover.
Add to this are commercially viable oil deposits which could theoretically power the country, with its young and enterprising population into a truly great industrial nation. There is also talk of exploiting uranium for power generation, but this is viewed by some as an alarming prospect to allow a country that cannot not even keep inventory of military arsenal to handle radio-active material.
The crisis of Uganda has therefore been the inability of its managers to reel in progress and it is on the change in management and not the conditions that progress will ultimately depend. Ironically the hamstring on progress has come on the back of too much politics and too little government.
The Museveni government reaped where it sowed. Both human and material resources in the hands of the state have been disproportionally allocated to regime maintenance and if progress were to be measured by longevity in power then NRM and Museveni have been extremely successful.
The energy sector has been a victim of this politically purposed state which has prioritised spending on defence and political projects. The reality is that lack of electricity itself does not affect the stability of the state or Mr. Museveni’s ability to stay on for 20 more years if he so wished.
Only 6% of the country is connected to the national grid – not enough to turn the lack of energy into an electoral issue but more of a middleclass nuisance. Uganda’s rural electrification program has been an expensive joke, sucking in as much money as would build another dam on the River Nile.
Logic would have it in fact that rural progress is ultimately a political risk for states with weakening legitimacy like that of Yoweri Museveni whose electoral margins have been dropping by 10% in the last three elections. Peasant to commercial farmer transitions, which require increased electricity for semi-processed value addition, come with consolidated demands for better and more reliable services from the state which ultimately translates into political pressure.
Weak state structures in a fluid political system easily buckle under this kind of pressure.
The question then arises whether or not the current administration with its huge political wage bill which has been the price of stability will be able to mobilise future legitimacy on economic progress which would require re-awakening the economy with its potentially volatile political stakeholders without serious risks to regime stability.
The answer is no. Only a new administration will have the political capital to recalibrate the purpose within the state from one in which political stability is not an end in itself but simply a requirement for economic and social progress. Current energy projects can therefore not succeed in unlocking their own potential or the wider gains of reliable electricity for a country starved of it.
Framers of Uganda’s soon to be launched National Industrial Policy have emptily written that the “political leadership in Uganda is unequivocally committed to industrialisation, economic transformation, modernisation, and diversification” on one hand and then go right ahead in the next section to say that “electricity [is] judged to be the most severe impediment.”
The somewhat muddled policy paper has all the fluff that accompanies a dreamy government document but is a good example of how Uganda is running on optimism and little else.
In the energy sector these good intentions have been extended to sheer fantasy.
Uganda has drafted a nuclear energy bill even if just a quarter of a million Ugandans have a power connection compared to over 3 million who carry cellular phones and can therefore afford electricity connection if only they had access. The nuclear generated electricity would be transmitted by wireless, perhaps? The demand is there but without mobilising it through a grid, it remains a dream.
According to Migereko the strategy of the country is to generate enough electricity from the various hydro, thermal and biofuel projects so that supply is forever ahead of demand but the truth is that government today subsidises power consumption in billions of shillings every year- in effect sustaining demand by paying for it.
So what is this talk of 11% growth in demand? Clearly demand itself must be mobilised. Official figures in “Discover Uganda” a public relations document produced for the Commonwealth Summit last year puts Uganda’s labor force at 13 million. It is anyone’s guess what percentage of the able and willing do work in an environment where there is at least one light bulb.
One of the biggest scandals in Uganda is not the corruption or impunity of state-based actors but underemployment of those able and willing and skilled which like the country’s vast energy potential remains locked up and chained to the vagaries of leadership in government.
Most Ugandans may have only heard of the National Oil and Gas Policy which is the framework for managing the exciting prospect of oil in the Albertine graben (western Uganda). Again the policy itself has been excellently written but the potential problems in the sector [which have all to do with the politics of oil in Uganda] are telling of what is to come.
Some of these problems are immediate. According to the government it will build a mini-refinery by Christmas next year. Such aggressive timelines have dominated the rhetoric of President Museveni and in the energy sector embarrassingly so. The Oil and Gas Policy requires setting up of a national petroleum company and a regulatory agency first. This is unlikely to be accomplished properly in the next 18 months.
The proposed refinery according to Migereko will “happen” on time but judging from the speed with which procurement of badly needed thermal energy has taken (an average of 3 years for heavy fuel generators which are yet to be set up) there is very little hope here except for the uniquely optimistic.
The Minister admits that the capital intensive sector he is heading attracts the corrupt like hyenas to a deer feast – one of the major headaches for any Ministry – but truth be told, a serious government or one desperate to succeed would not be stopped by rent seekers who are everywhere in the world.
Instead corruption-inspired load shedding has become a Ugandan way of life. One of the biggest heists in Ugandan history will be the fake dam extension project at the Owen Falls Dam for which reliable information suggests Ugandan officials from the Ministry simply (hopefully inadvertently) acted to avail more water from Lake Victoria to downstream countries.
The dam extension known as Nalubaale has been draining the water from lake leading to a drop in levels but despite all the blabber about fighting corruption, no investigation was instituted and the Minister in charge at the time (Syda Bhumba) was sent to the Labor and Gender Ministry instead.
This scandal is a low even for the notoriously corrupt Ugandan government described by peer reviewers at the World Bank as a government of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
When a new President sits at Mr. Museveni’s desk his biggest challenge will be to inspire genuine change, something Mr. Museveni has been talking about for 21 years.
aizama@monitor.co.ug

Education in Uganda: The Cost of Collective Action Failure

It is hard to say whether there are more questions or more accusations flying around the country in the weeks since the fire that broke out at Budo Junior School, killing 20 young girls. No one wants to take responsibility and everyone has a different idea of whom to blame. The Ministry of Education points at the local government, local government at school administrators, school administrators at guards and matrons, and the president at all of the above and everyone else in between.

Blame for the Budo incident and the consensus that someone must pay for it has resulted in the prosecution and jailing of some Budo staff. Few, however, have questioned the role of parents and the general public in this and, more generally, the deterioration of the educational system as a whole. The assumption is that parents take actions they perceive to be in the best interest of their children. It may be argued that parents brought their children to board at Budo, for example, because they perceived this school to be the best attainable learning environment for their children.

Many were likely aware of the overcrowding but nevertheless trusted that their children would be in safe hands. A letter written by a parent a few months ago demonstrates this awareness. It was circulated around Ugandan media houses in early February and published in The Daily Monitor, complaining of “buildings being run down, pupils being fed poor and late meals…[and] tap water being available only during the day when parents visit school.” Thus, though concerned parents had evidently been making noise about poor conditions, it was not until disaster struck that all of those involved began to take concerted and expedient action to solve some of the most critical problems. But given the fact that this is not the first, second, or even tenth school fire to occur in the past several years, what reason is there to expect that action will be taken outside of Budo to improve conditions in schools?

A primary issue, not just in education but also in nearly all public service sectors, is the lack of collective action. It is easier for parents to take care of the immediate needs of their individual children – for example, bribing teachers to give their children special attention or extra lessons – than to work collectively to demand that services be improved for the good of all the children. Likewise, it is easier for those with clout to buy a Land Cruiser rather than to demand that roads be constructed for which one does not need a 4-wheel drive simply to navigate potholed city streets. And it is easier to send a family member to South Africa for treatment than to revamp Uganda’s ailing healthcare system. Yet opting to act individualistically in matters regarding public services can actually backfire – catastrophically in the short term or incrementally in the long term.

This is not in any way to suggest that parents are to blame for the deaths of their children. It is merely to show the level to which the collective action of all those concerned has failed with disastrous consequences. This collective includes not only parents, but the larger society that should have a vested interest in ensuring its children are safe, healthy and receiving quality education. It is not news to anyone that public services in Uganda such as education, roadwork and healthcare are in shambles. What is less clear, however, is why in so many cases the collective whole has allowed these systems to flounder and fail.

There is a danger that lies in a myopic investigation of the Budo fire and other incidents symptomatic of wider structural failure. Focusing on the prosecution of individuals and on the details surrounding the Budo fire is ultimately obstructing the larger picture – that the educational system in Uganda has degenerated quite literally into a powder keg threatening both children’s lives and opportunities. The endemic and monumental problems facing education in Uganda require both a vision and collective action.

The educational system is flush with cash when compared to other sectors, receiving around Shs 767 billion in 2007/8 – 16% of the total budget and significantly more than any other sector. Yet in lieu of a vision for what education should provide, the focus of policy appears to be increasing the percentage of children that can fit in a classroom and be passed along from one grade level to the next. Around 7 million children are estimated to be enrolled in Uganda’s primary schools, and this number is expected to increase in the next few years to meet the target of 95% primary enrolment, up from 91.2% currently. High rates of enrolment in P1, though a seeming positive achievement, may distract the public, government and donors from serious structural and substantive issues facing primary education. Aside from the oft quoted statistics on low rates of primary school completion – for example that only 22% of students who began P1 in 1997 reached P6 by 2002 – there are quality and safety standards which are often breached in the few cases where such standards exist at all. Literacy rates have remained stagnant for the past few years, and in 2003 only 20% of P6 students were achieving minimum literacy or numeracy rates.

In addition to quality concerns, a commercialisation of education has resulted in an attempt by schools to pack as many students as possible within their walls, regardless of their capacity to manage and teach these children. Mr James Collins Dombo, Under Secretary of the Public Service Commission and parent of a Budo Junior pupil expressed concern regarding such commercialisation, explaining the perception of some school staff that “the bigger the numbers [of pupils] the more you earn.” And indeed, when asked about the condition of Budo Junior School, one teacher interviewed by The Independent mentioned the first “positive development” at Budo to be the ever increasing number of pupils.

Quality of content is also an issue. A premium is placed on memorising information from textbooks and churning out high scores on tests, without a critical examination of what this crammed information will provide. Since passing these tests is a prerequisite for continued study, however, parents will pay a high price to ensure their children are prepared to perform well by this measure, even if it is at the expense of ensuring quality in other areas, such as the conditions in which these children must live and study. Parents at Budo Junior, for example, pay approximately Shs 400,000 per term per child, and there are over 1300 students in attendance. Nevertheless, there had been no electricity in the school for several days leading up to the fire, children were sleeping in triple-decker beds, and Budo teachers had recently gone on strike after failing to receive their pay cheques. If Budo, one of the “best” primary schools in the country is facing such blatant administrative, financial or managerial problems, what must be the condition of primary schools elsewhere in Uganda?

Serious challenges thus face the primary education system in terms of vision and capacity. But before it has even resolved these critical issues, the government is again off and running with a new campaign, this time for Universal Secondary Education (USE). Though an admirable idea, it is hard to see how USE will not further distract those involved in the educational system from the many problems that already exist. The Ministry of Education, local governments, and schools themselves have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to effectively manage the burgeoning population of primary students – how will they possibly manage a growing population of secondary students as well?

Organisation and management within the sector will have to be addressed. In fact, the disorder within the educational system as a whole is largely responsible for the circular finger pointing that took place at Budo after the fire. Possibly because of the existence of so many institutions and people charged with various responsibilities within the educational sector, each assumes that a lapse in their contribution will not make a meaningful difference. It is perhaps when everyone – central government, local government, school administrators, school staff, parents, etc – is depending on someone else to run the show that the whole system falls to pieces.

For example, on his visit to Budo following the fire, President Museveni called upon the Ministry of Education and minister herself to carry out quality control measures saying, “You [Ms Bitamazire] are the quality controller and you should set the standards.” Yet at a press briefing two weeks ago Ms Bitamazire deflected responsibility, instead stating that as a result of decentralisation in 1997, the local governments and not the Ministry of Education had a “100% mandate to run primary schools.” Ministry officials admitted that there had been a weakening of inspection as a result of decentralisation and rather audaciously requested “stakeholders” help to make sure they enforce the law.

There was no specific mention of who these stakeholders are, but in any case, the principle stakeholders should be the Ugandan people and parents in particular. Granted, the ministry officials should not require stakeholders to breathe down their necks in order to ensure that the laws protecting children are enforced. Nevertheless, this is the state of affairs with which the country is faced.

The minister of education recently tried to assuage concerns regarding school safety by announcing a new education bill creating a “Directorate of Inspectorate,” which would be allocated a starting sum of Shs 2.5 billion. But the creation of even more oversight bodies will not solve the fundamental problems that exist. It may even further dilute the responsibilities that already existing institutions and officials have, creating even more opportunities for free riding within the educational sector. It will take not more institutions working separately, but collective action that will improve education in Uganda. One must hope that the Budo tragedy will not end with the punishment of a few underpaid school staff, but rather will lead to a realisation that acting individualistically within the current system is in the best interest of neither the children nor the society, both of whom have already paid too high a price for systemic failure in education.