By Joseph Elunya
The construction of roads by Chinese companies is spurring growth, regional trade and development in northern Uganda, a region recovering from two decades of the Lordâ€™s Resistance Army insurgency.
The Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency led by the reclusive Joseph Kony at its peak in 2003 displaced nearly two million people in large areas of northern Uganda.
The group which has been designated by the United States of America as a terrorist organization, traces its beginnings to anti-government movements formed in the mid-1980s after President Yoweri Museveni overthrew the then regime of General Tito Okello, an ethnic Acholi from northern Uganda.
The LRA became increasingly brutal as it targeted civilians suspected of supporting the government or forming self-defense forces had their ears, lips and noses hacked off.
During the attacks on villages, rebels carried out mass abductions of children who in turn were forced to commit atrocities forcing thousands of people in northern Uganda to take refuge in the Internally Displaced Peopleâ€™s Camp (IDP).
The insurgency cut off northern Uganda from the rest of the country as the rebels waylaid and wantonly shot and killed travelers rendering the roads impassable hence hampering the movement of goods and services.
The situation has however changed with the construction of four major highways built at a cost of $322.5m Chinese-built roads that have opened up the area to local and international trade with neighbouring South Sudan.
The newly constructed roads include the 225 kilometer Gulu-Olwiyo-Acholibur-Kitgum-Musingo which has opened up the once insurgency wrecked areas to the northern Uganda regional commercial hub, Gulu City.
Gulu, the regional hub which lies approximately 336.3 kilometers north of the capital Kampala now has a new look after a facelift from China Railway 18th Bureau Group and Chongqing International Construction Corporation (CICO) upgraded the dusty narrow roads from gravel to an asphalt surface layer.
By 2012 when the guns had fallen silent and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was closing the Internally Displaced Peopleâ€™s camp, Gulu city was dotted with grass thatched huts, dusty streets and bushy roads.
Today, the China Railway 18th Bureau Group and Chongqing International Construction Corporation (CICO), using UGX83 billion ($23.4 million) World Bank funds for Support to Municipal Infrastructure Development (USMID) have constructed 34 roads, a carriage way of seven meters with two lanes in opposite directions, parking lanes, a cycle lane and walkways, installed street lights, service ducts and drainage channels giving it a fresh look befitting a city.
The improved road network has attracted new businesses and traders, and made Gulu city the commercial hub of northern Uganda. Traders come from as far as Juba in South Sudan to get supplies from Gulu because of the improved road network.
Hotels, street coffee cafes and restaurants are some of the new businesses that have cropped up in Gulu city as a result of tarmacking and beautifying of the streets.
Musa Kamal is one of the businessmen who has opened up a restaurant in the city as a result of the construction of the streets. He says the tarmacking of the streets has improved business.
â€œI have been running this business for five years but over the last four years, I have seen improvement in my earning because in the past, customers would not turn up to eat whenever it rains, stagnant water would cover the road but now they have constructed drainage tunnelsâ€, said Kamal the manager of New Life Restaurant.
A local driver Henry Ochiti says the construction of the Gulu city roads has attracted small roadside businesses which were not there in the past and helped improve the hygiene and sanitation of the area.
â€œThose daysâ€™ people could throw rubbish on the streets because they were dusty but now you can also feel ashamed throwing rubbish on such a clean streetâ€, said Ochiti.
Ochiti said the newly constructed roads like Acholi Road has helped improve the security in the city. â€œSecurity-wise the road was narrow and bushy street kids could rob passersby, now there are no more reports of theftâ€.
For Jimmy Okello a resident of Pece Division in Gulu City, the construction of the streets has brought positive development for property-owners in the city as the value of land and houses has gone up compared to before when the roads were dusty.
â€œThe value of land has increased, those with old buildings along the newly constructed streets are being bought off by the rich people who have been attracted to the area because of the new city roadsâ€, said Okello.
The newly constructed streets have also attracted a hoard of businesses that were ten years ago not possible to run on the dusty narrow roads.
Hawkers dealing in commodities ranging from electronics to scholarly materials have covered the pavements with merchandise and blazing music to attract passerby.
Along the streets, the luganda a Bantu dialect spoken mostly in the capital Kampala and the central region is becoming popular compared to Acholi, a local language of the area, due to the influx of traders from central Uganda to cash in on the new market resulting from the new infrastructural development.
The infrastructural development has opened up northern Uganda, a region that faced decades of insurgency as the Ugandan government battled the Lordâ€™s Resistance Army rebels led by Joseph Kony.
The Gulu-Atiak road constructed by China Henan International Corporation (CHICO) and Wuju Group Corporation at a cost of US$102 million has opened up northern Uganda to trade with South Sudan.
The road starts from Gulu City and continues north, through Pabbo, Atiak, Bibia and Elegu, before ending in Nimule at the border between Uganda and South Sudan, a distance of approximately 106 km.
Gullies and potholes would best describe the state of the road before August 2013 when the construction work was commissioned. The road, which is a major route of transportation between Uganda and South Sudan would become impassable during the rainy season as was the case in 2008 when flash floods caused by torrential rainfall closed it for a week.
During the rainy season, traders would suffer and those who deal in perishable commodities would incur losses as the trucks would get stuck in the mud and spend weeks to cover the 106 km Gulu-Nimule border route.
This has however changed as the road is now an all-weather road and driving along it takes only an hour.
Trading centers such as Lacor, Pabbo and Bibia with booming businesses have mushroomed along the stretch.
Pabbo, which is approximately 39 km west of Gulu City on the Nimule road, was by 2012 a camp for Internally Displaced People but following the construction of the road it has since turned into a town with several shops lined up on both sides of the road.
Okello, who grew up in the Pabbo Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp at the height of the insurgency, says the construction of the Gulu-Nimule Road is aiding former displaced people who have returned to their homes to reach the market with farm produce.
â€œAs a former IDP this road is helping in transforming our lives as traders from Sudan are now able to travel and buy our farm products right here in Pabbo unlike in the past when we would spend days on the road trying to get our products to the marketâ€ said Okwonga, a former IDP who is currently carrying out farming activities from his village in Palwong parish, Pabbo sub-county.
Santa Akello, a resident of Parubanga Parish says the construction of the road has transformed Pabbo from being a displaced peopleâ€™ camp into a busy commercial center which has saved them from traveling for 39 km to Gulu town to buy basic household commodities.
Akello says most expectant mothers are also now able to travel to Gulu and Lacor Hospitals in case of referral from Pabbo Health Centre within the shortest time because of the good state of the road.
Brian Okwonga, a transporter who has worked on the Gulu-Juba route for the past 35 years, said the construction of the road has led to a reduction in accidents and vehicle maintenance costs.
â€œIn the past you could change shock absorbers after each trip and this would make us incur heavy losses but now we can take even a year without replacing shock absorbersâ€, said Okwonga.
Okwonga explained that he is now able to make a return from Gulu-Juba South Sudan, unlike in the past when they would spend days due to the poor state of the road.
At the border town of Elegu where the 109 km road ends, the traders are now able to get supplies from the capital city Kampala, a distance of 436.5 km within a day.
â€œTransport these days is very cheap, I use only 30,000 shillings (US$8.2) on a Gateway bus to travel from here to Kampala unlike in the past when we could pay up to 70,000 (US$19.3) from Elegu here to Kampalaâ€ said Ssenyonga Edward who deals in phone accessories.
Amos Ibwana, who claims to be among the first settlers in Elegu border, explained that the road has brought great changes in the area. â€œMovement in and out of Elegu is now very easy, you order things from Kampala today and tomorrow its delivered at your shopâ€.
Ibwana explained that the construction of the Gulu-Nimule road and the drainage system that was undertaken by Wuju Group Corporation of China has helped in controlling flooding that was very rampant in the border town. He said the flooding which used to disrupt cross border business between Uganda and South Sudan for several days has been put under control by the construction of the road.
Natasha Patience, who operates a mobile money Kiosk in Elegu, town explained that the new road has helped in curbing insecurity that was rampant on the route.
â€œIn the past robbers would waylay travelers at some of the potholed sections of the road where vehicles slowdown and then rob themâ€, said Natasha.
The Member of Parliament for Kilak County in Amuru district, Gilbert Oulanya, says the road constructed by Wuju Group Corporation of China is contributing to the development of his constituency.
â€œTrading centers had collapsed in my constituency because heavy trucks to South Sudan were avoiding that road because of floods, mud and potholes but today as you can see thereâ€™s visible growth. Right from Laco trading center, Atiak to Elegu are all booming with businessâ€, said Oulanya.
Oulanya however appeals to the government of Uganda to ensure proper maintenance of the road, noting that some sections of the road has developed potholes hardly ten years after it was completed.
As the main gateway into Southern Sudan from the port of Mombasa, the Nimule-Elegu road is of strategic importance to the East African Community region. It serves South Sudan, a country highly dependent on imports, mainly from Kenya and Uganda.
Statistics from the Uganda Revenue Authority indicates that between 300-500 trucks transporting goods ply the Gulu-Nimule Road daily to and from South Sudan.
This article was developed with support from the Africa-China Reporting Project.