Airport Crisis Threatens Commonwealth Summit
(AllAfrica.com English Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Kampala, Sep 03, 2006 (The Monitor/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) --Work to expand and upgrade Entebbe International Airport ahead of the Commonwealth Summit next year has failed to start as scheduled, throwing up yet another example of the government's chronic failure to start and complete any major public project without a hitch.
On Friday, September 1, Ugandan taxpayers begun paying for two major projects to improve the airport but not a single tool was lifted because, while the contracts have been awarded, the Civil Aviation Authority has thus far failed to appoint consultants to supervise the works.
The two projects - the expansion of the arrivals hall and construction of a new terminal building - are worth Shs24.5 billion but will not take off until an architectural supervisor is appointed. This means that the companies - M/s Cementers and China Nanjing - that signed to begin construction work on Friday will continue earning money even if no actual work is done.
The delay raises fears that the two projects, and others in the pipeline, will not be ready for the Commonwealth Summit, which will be attended by 53 heads of government and presided over by Queen Elizabeth II of England.
The Civil Aviation Authority or CAA, the air transport regulator, has a total of nine projects planned for the all-important summit, popularly known as Chogm. The projects are expected to cost Shs72.5 billion.
The government, which is the sole shareholder in the authority, has been asked by CAA to wipe out its current liabilities so that it can borrow money to finance the projects.
One of the other projects is construction of an exclusive terminal for the President of Uganda. The presidential terminal is also meant to serve Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs) such as the Queen and the heads of government coming to the meeting, held every two years in the different countries that were once Britain's colonies or protectorates.
In response to inquiries about the crisis, CAA said construction would proceed while a consultant is sought to supervise the works on the two projects. "In order to ensure timely delivery of the projects at Entebbe International Airport, the Ministry of Works and Transport (MoWT) seconded three engineers to CAA to team up with CAA internal capacity to progress the projects as the consultancy services were being procured," said Mr Ignie Igunduura, the aviation body's publicist.
Igunduura also dismissed talk of any threat posed by delays saying the projects "will proceed under the supervision of the MoWT engineers" and that the two contractors had already taken possession of the sites.
The snag will, however, raise eyebrows about the capacity of CAA to meet aggressive targets for Chogm. The government's own deadline is June 2006, when the first in a series of meetings that will culminate in the heads of state summit in November is expected to begin.
The current problems also mirror a disturbing trend of failure by the government to procure services against its own deadlines without a glitch. Just two examples: the government has made a lousy job of procuring a second thermal power plant amidst a crushing power crisis, and has done an even lousier job in setting up a national data bank. Corruption and incompetence almost always combine to fail such projects at the expense of taxpayer shillings.
In the case of the Entebbe Airport projects, the current delay is related to a complaint by Arch Design, one of the companies vying to provide consultancy services, about the process of picking a consultant.
A source close to the company says its owners, who had worked with the American airport planner, LPA, on the 25-year aviation master plan for Uganda since 2001, were not happy that CAA invited more consultants.
"Arch Design and LPA are responsible for all the technical plans for the projects and also drew the contracts for construction," the source said. "It would be logical for CAA to have retained them for the supervision phase since a new process to find consultants involves delays."
Igunduura said the firm's complaint was being addressed by the CAA but did not say how or how long it would take to resolve the issue. Another firm interested in providing the consultancy services is Sentoogo & Partners, a major Kampala architectural group.
If the airport is not ready to deal with some 3,000 official guests at one go, the government will have to consider using airports in neighbouring countries to park the aircraft.
This may already have been anticipated. Recent news reports said that the Minister for East African Community Affairs, Mr Eriya Kategaya, has visited Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Kigali to explore the possibility of getting air transport help.
"In our African culture, when one hosts such big visitors, you call neighbours to assist when you can't do it alone," The New Times of Rwanda quoted Kategaya as saying. "There is no problem for Uganda to ask her neighbours to give us assistance in facilities, which we do not have."
"The real problem is finding parking space for the over 50 heads of state who often travel with their own jets," said Mr Frederick Ochieng-Obbo, an aviation expert in Kampala. "Another secondary problem is if one uses alternative airports because of problems at Entebbe, how quickly can ground transportation get delegates to the conference venues."
Obbo said that alternative airfields like Kasese or Gulu could become necessary in case of consistent bad weather at Entebbe but added that substantial work at Kasese had already been done.
Upgrading the Kasese Airfield to international status is one of the priority projects of the CAA but financing for works has not yet been secured.
It's not clear whether the pace of preparations is acceptable to the Commonwealth Secretariat or how it will affect Uganda's chances of actually hosting the mammoth event.
During his June visit, Sunday Monitor asked Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon about Uganda's preparedness for the summit. Said he: "I have been pleasantly surprised by other Chogoms that I have been involved in where I wasn't sure things were going to be completed but in the end were completed even though some people sometimes worked 15, 16 hours a day for the last couple of weeks."
"There is a thorough mechanism to eliminate delays," said Mr Kagole Kivumbi, the spokesman for the National Task Force for Chogm.
Even this task force, which comprises 14 permanent secretaries and is led by the Head of the Public Service, Mr John Mitala, is still awaiting approval of its Shs65 billion budget for the event. "Implementation has started and it will depend on release of the funds," Kivumbi said. He added that other government agencies like CAA who are responding to the summit demands had their own schedule and sources of funding.
It is, however, unclear whether the Cabinet, which has a special committee on the summit chaired by Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, can dictate a rapid pace for parastatals like CAA or effectively respond to contractual bottlenecks.
The Opposition in Parliament has said hefty financial relief demanded for CAA to be able to fulfil its summit ambitions should be put on hold until an audit of the parastatal is conducted. "We are not going to allow [the financial relief] unless there's a special audit on CAA," said Mr Nandala Mafabi, the shadow Finance minister.
He was responding to a draft resolution presented by Mr Jachan Omach, a state minister for Finance, asking Parliament to wipe clean CAA's current financial liability, which stands at a whopping Shs151 billion.
CAA says it accumulated the arrears from two loans the government had contracted on its behalf from Spain and Denmark in the early 1990s but which it cannot service because the size of business and the state of facilities means any money made has to be "ploughed back".
It says despite good business at Entebbe, the burden piled up by the principal and interest on these loans cannot allow it to borrow the more than Shs70 billion it needs for the Commonwealth Summit projects.
The authority now wants the government to convert the loans into equity so that it is able to borrow more money. Finance Minister Ezra Suruma has insisted on a performance contract as part of the relief, but even then political opposition could delay the cash release.
When asked by Sunday Monitor if a VVIP terminal referred to in one of the CAA documents as a "presidential terminal" was necessary, Igunduura said that once the current VIP lounge at the airport is moved it would help free up space for other facilities but some sources say it would ease passenger movement since no planes can land or leave once the President is in transit. Some voices feel this project could be postponed to focus on others more acutely tied to Chogm.
Hopes in the summit are fever high with personal fortunes sank into hotel construction and other services directly related to the event that the impact of any last minute change of venue would be devastating.
Copyright 2006 The Monitor. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).
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