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Weekly Africa Column

News from Uganda – Gifted by Nature

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Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Kampala  Mar 28, 2008

Ugandan safari lodges and tented camps reported booming business over the Easter Holiday, when many of the expatriate community and Kampala residents took time out to visit the national parks, game reserves, the upper Nile valley near Jinja and the Lake Victoria islands like Bulago Island. Ugandans too were reportedly travelling upcountry in large numbers to visit their rural homes to see their families, filling up the available hotels, motels and inns across the country. This travel boom unfolded inspite of the seasonal rains which started just at the same time with a vengeance, unleashing some of the most violent rain- and thunderstorms experienced in the recent past on Kampala, its environs and other parts of the country. In Kampala, the crucial entry point into the CBD at the Clock Tower junction was again several feet under water, cutting off traffic in and out of the city centre for much of Easter Day and causing hardship for worshippers wanting to reach the main city churches.
The unusually wet and cool weather also prompted a number of outdoor concerts in Kampala and Entebbe planned for Easter Sunday and Monday to be cancelled or postponed, denying those Kampaleans who stayed in the city their post lent enjoyment. The failure of the events to take place also led to the potential loss of hundreds of millions of Shillings for the promoters.
The extremely heavy rains also caused further havoc on main traffic arteries, when a culvert collapsed along the main highway from Kampala to the Kenyan border near Mukono. Half of the road needed to be closed, as a hole several metres deep and wide suddenly opened up during the Easter weekend. Fortunately any possible accidents were avoided when police was deployed immediately to secure the site and divert traffic. An alternative route to Jinja via Kayunga – incidentally also a very scenic route – is however available for traffic, should a full road closure ahead of or during repairs become necessary.
The present rains have also raised the possibility again of renewed flooding in areas which already suffered last year extensively and bridges and roads are undergoing monitoring to allow swift counter action as and where required.

During the week UWA reached another milestone in privatisation, when they at last signed agreements with private operators to provide boat services. Hitherto UWA provided these services themselves in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Park but were under pressure for long to divest of the business activity and allow private operators to bid for contracts. Adrift, one of the leading white-water rafting and adventure companies, will shortly commence boat and launch trips along the Kazinga channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and G&C Tours – local agents for Wild Frontiers in Uganda – have won the right to operate tours in Murchisons Falls National Park from the Paraa river crossing to the falls and the river delta. A second company was also chosen to offer boat and launch trips in both locations, namely the owners of the main safari lodges Mweya and Paraa. Marasa Limited will be happy to now add these services to accommodation and game drives and their clients will have a one stop centre when booking safaris to Uganda’s two main safari parks.
The initial concessions will run for 10 years but are subject to a performance review after 5 years to ensure compliance with UWA terms and conditions and take client feedback into consideration. Further negotiations are reportedly still underway with a fourth company, which had also been shortlisted in the bidding process but where no contract has yet been finalised. The development comes at a time when gate arrival figures in all of Uganda’s national parks have been rising steadily over the past few years, requiring additional services to be provided.

Ugandan passengers of Emirates have been given more good news from the airline office in Kampala. The award winning airline from Dubai has now given the green light for the use of mobile phones on board of their aircraft. Calls from on board phone systems, possible already for a long time on many airlines, proved quite expensive for most of the Ugandan passengers and also required the use of international credit cards, not common yet amongst Ugandans. After resolving the often overplayed safety issues, allegedly caused by the use of mobile phones on board of an airplane, and accepting the findings of many studies that mobile phone use does not endanger airplane operation and flight safety, Emirates is the first of the global big carriers to allow their use, after obtaining regulatory approvals. However, calls during night flights will be restricted. Calls made on board will also require ‘roaming’ enabled mobile phone connections and will still cost quite a bit more than calls made on the surface due to the expected ‘roaming fee surcharges’.
Blackberry and other data services are due to follow the voice calls in due course once the Emirates’ fleet has undergone the necessary modifications. The airline will however retain the seat-side and cabin mounted phones so far available to passengers. It is understood that phone calls will not be allowed during take off and landing.

Celtel Uganda is sponsoring the next big concert in Kampala, when on April 26th this year Akon is expected to perform at the Lugogo Cricket Ground, scene of the recent UB40 concert. Inspite of some ruffled feathers with the top VIP’s in the country over certain aspects of their Platinum Ticket Packages the concert and its management overall went well and, as expressed at the time in this column is now leading to yet another big bash for the music hungry crowds. Tickets can be purchased presently at Celtel’s offices and corporate outlets. The concert is also due to be the highlight of a 1 billion+ Uganda Shilling promotion, which will see some of the winners to fly by helicopter from their residences – or at least near them – to the star’s hotel cum limo rides to and from the concert.
The telecom sector has seen unprecedented growth in the recent past, with subscribers now standing at a reported 4.5 million mobile phone users, compared to the early 90’s when less than 50.000 subscribers had access to the then state owned phone and post company UPTL’s fixed network in the city and across the country.
Recent entrant Warid Telecom has found the going rough so far as the established operators UTL, MTN and Celtel have bombarded the market with promotions, tariff cuts, special tariffs and a range of other goodies for their faithful and new clients, which Warid was so far unable to match. Celtel is Uganda’s first mobile operator (since 1995) and has of late also seen spectacular growth again, mostly spurred by their ‘One Network’ which allows calls at local rates across much of the African continent.

The British High Commission has confirmed, that Visa applicants giving false information or using fake supporting documentation, will receive a 10 year application ban if found out. It can be expected that this information would then also be shared with other embassies and high commissions in Kampala, effectively barring ‘fake applicants’ from receiving any Visa from any Western country. Information received from usually well informed sources confirms that this move was a result of the large number of applications found deficient or information contained suspected to be false, adding another hurdle to the already – often considered tilted, one sided and discriminatory – hard road to obtaining a visitor Visa for the UK. Ugandans have often complained about what many consider excessive cost of such Visa, compared to average wages in the country, and about the way embassies regularly handle applicants. Suspicions are in fact running high amongst even successful applicants and raging rows emerge ever so often in the daily newspapers. This happens in particular when mistaken officials at the Visa office turn down prominent business people with an otherwise excellent record and then have to reverse their initial decisions or applicants complain of severe mishandling. Several applicants working in the tourism industry and known to this correspondent added that ‘when you have to go in person for an interview it is almost like a police interrogation’. One such individual said further: ‘I suspect they use voice stress analysers in some of those embassies to try and sort out people. They cannot of course openly use lie detectors but I am almost sure that they use other technology now. You get finger printed and all sorts of other things. We think that applicants are not really treated very civilly in some of those embassies. And their own citizens just pay a small fee, in fact much less than we have to pay, and when they arrive in Entebbe they not even fill one single form other than the normal arrival cards. Something is very wrong here. My parents could still travel without Visa and got a visitor pass on arrival in the UK or Europe. Maybe this is the price third world country citizens have to pay these days. Some of the countries now ask you to allow them contact your bank directly for information, this has become very intrusive and suspect’. It was also pointed out to this correspondent that Visa refusals are now stamped into applicants’ passports, effectively black-marking them when applying for Visa elsewhere, a practise much criticized by Ugandans falling foul of such methods.
It was also established that the UK High Commission refuses about 30+ percent of all submitted applications, but – needless to say – retains the application fees already paid of course as to almost add insult to financial injury.

The Libyan funded newly built national mosque was last week officially opened by the Libyan leader Col. Gadaffi, in the presence of President Museveni and several other heads of state and government from the wider Eastern African region. Gadaffi visited Uganda to close the first Afro Arab Youth Summit which ended on 17th March. Initial potential for controversy was avoided, when the opening day was set for Wednesday, avoiding a possible argument with the Christian communities over rumoured other plans to do it on Palm Sunday, or worse on Good Friday, key dates in the Christian annual religious calendar.
Gadaffi in his address however was not shy of controversy, and quoting the headlines of the two main newspapers in the country, his utterances were quoted as: ‘Bible a forgery’ (New Vision) and ‘Bible altered’ (Daily Monitor). This incensed staunch Catholics and Protestants to no end of course and a prolonged argument is expected to unfold in coming days and weeks over these unfortunate remarks. Letter columns ‘to the editor’ are presently full of scathing counterattacks against Gadaffi and leading Muslim clerics have been called upon to disassociate themselves from the ill tempered, ill worded and ill considered remarks aimed at inciting religious division and hostility. The Catholic Archbishop of Kampala in his Easter address called Gadaffi’s utterances ‘provocative’ while other Christian leaders and large sections of the public demanded an apology. Muslim leaders too waded into the argument over Gadaffi’s invitation to Christians to visit Mecca. Government of Uganda refused to be drawn into the raging debate saying the comments were ‘individual and government has no business with such’.
It is worth to note that Uganda is an overwhelmingly Christian country, where the minority Muslim communities have their rightful place, protected by the constitution and, more importantly, the accommodating spirit and religious tolerance of her people, who have always shunned religious fanaticism and Gadaffi’s comments did little to enhance this spirit.
Gadaffi in his address also laid heavily into ‘the Scandinavian countries’ – presumably referring to Denmark – over the controversial cartoons the (free of government control) press published there two years ago and again more recently.
During the official opening security scuffles were also reported in the local media, first between the Ugandan presidential security detail and the unusually large security contingent – reportedly some 200 of them – Gadaffi brought for himself and then again when President Kagame arrived slightly late for the official opening ceremony. More details of constant scuffles and disputes between the details were also reported in the media after Gadaffi left, what seemed to have been ‘suddenly’ while he was still expected at another function.
There was also an unusually large number of worshippers who had come to the mosque without invitation cards and who were refused entry, while the dignitaries were in attendance, causing some angry arguments with police and other security surrounding the compound, but the crowd later on peacefully disbursed.
The new mosque however is an instant architectural landmark for Kampala and will undoubtedly be added to the city tours for tourists, who hitherto were able to see other primary places of worship like the Catholic cathedral in Rubaga, the Anglican cathedral in Namirembe, worship temples belonging to the Hindu and Sikh communities near the Clock Tower junction and of course the only Bahai temple in Africa near the Ntinda suburb.
The formal opening and subsequent security measures, which included key road closures, also led to massive traffic jams across Kampala on the day and traffic participants caught up in the situation took hours to get to their intended destinations. Traffic on Entebbe road was also affected when the presidential motorcades passed from and to the airport and some airline passengers are said to have missed their flights when arriving late at the terminal building, due to the delays caused by the road closures.

NEMA SHOWING TEETH AGAIN – but will it bite?
The national environmental management authority has started threatening eviction of squatters once again from wetlands leading towards Lake Victoria – and elsewhere in the country – and has vowed to demolish illegal buildings. Most Kampala wetlands have been heavily encroached over the past 15 years and unauthorised damming, construction and farming have last year led to severe flooding in the city itself, as the drainage function of the swamps were severely impaired. Demarcation of one of the wetland boundaries went underway during the week. However, going by experience this may well be a short-lived publicity stunt again. This correspondent has in the past repeatedly pointed out the ongoing and quickening encroachment at a wetland on the way to his own residence and NEMA has not once acknowledged, responded to or acted on these reports.
NEMA Executive Director Dr. Mugisha has in the meantime in a sweeping statement before a parliamentary committee called mobile masts ‘safe’, probably basing his comments on pro telecommunication industry studies, while obviously ignoring the studies pointing out the inherent dangers associated with radio signals. In fact the off the cuff remarks would indicate that NEMA has not carried out substantial research on their own and is probably ‘borrowing’ studies from abroad. The authority head was also asked about the deficit in mast approvals across the country. This issue concerned the parliamentarians as less than 10 percent of the overall masts erected across the country seem to have NEMA clearance, with the authority standing by in idle mode and doing little if anything about this alarming trend. It could be established however that UTL is subjecting itself to an independent annual environmental audit, a most commendable circumstance were it not for the fact that NEMA seems to have taken no interest in this voluntary measure.
The following ‘Sunday Vision’ quote tells it all: “Scientific information available is that radiation from the masts is so low compared to other radiation received such as the one from mobile telephones,” Dr. Aryamanya Mugisha told the parliamentary committee on Information and Communication Technology on Thursday. Hmmm ….

The American international carrier Delta Airlines has now announced that they will delay their planned Nairobi flights until at least December 2008, due to the prevailing market conditions. Delta was expected to commence direct flights between the United States and Nairobi via West Africa by June this year and it was generally expected to be a code shared operation with Kenya Airways, as both airlines belong to SkyTeam – the KLM / Air France led global airline alliance.
The delay will be a blow to the Kenyan efforts of reviving the tourism industry on the fast track. The new flights were expected to make travel between the US and East African easier, as passengers do not need to transit via European airports nor have to change planes to reach Nairobi. The US is a major source market for safari visitors to Eastern Africa and the flights to Nairobi were also expected to benefit neighbouring countries like Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, all of which have seamless Kenya Airways onward connections.
There is however some speculation by industry analysts and observes that the delay may have something to do with the absence of the FAA Category 1 approval for Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, which presently is a prerequisite for direct flights into the United States.
This status was expected for Entebbe International Airport some time ago but may now take until some time in 2009, and the same may apply also for other airports in the region. Watch this space.

Kenyan low cost carrier Fly540 has now added an F27 freighter service to their domestic and regional passenger flights. The aircraft is reportedly capable of uplifting some 5.5 tons of ‘loose’ cargo, but will not be able to accept palletized cargo shipments. The airline will be offering the service to all destinations already served by them but also offer cargo charters in the entire region.
Meanwhile, local media in Uganda still permit themselves to be duped into making the public believe, that Air Uganda is a ‘national carrier’ for Uganda, while it is actually a ‘designated’ carrier. Former national carrier Uganda Airlines went defunct some years ago and is in the process of winding up. Claims to be a ‘national’ airline tend to impress the market in favour of competitors like Kenya Airways – incidentally a true national airline – or Fly 540, which is a designated airline on the routes assigned to them by the KCAA under bilateral air services agreements. Questions have also been raised on the ‘nationality’ status of the Ugandan upstart, which traditionally requires 51 percent of the shares being held by Ugandan owned corporate bodies or individuals, something which does not seem to be the case here. Other Ugandan airlines like Eagle Air or Royal Daisy Airlines incidentally never laid claim to being a ‘national’ airline although both are in fact owned by Ugandans. Watch this space.

The crisis in Kenya during the post election violence of January and February has taken its toll not only on the hotel occupancies along the Kenyan coast but has now taken another victim. As mentioned in a previous column about the Kenyan tourism situation at the time, the African Safari Club closed several of their hotels at the time due to radically dropped occupancies at their beach resorts. Their flight operation was also reduced at the time, although they were the first ones to gradually move towards a full operations mode again, being one of the biggest operators from Europe to Kenya. They ordinarily use their own resorts and safari properties in an integrated operation from sales over airtransport to accommodation and transportation at the destination.
However, according to reports from Mombasa they have now apparently decided to end their own air operation from Europe to Mombasa, and from next season onwards use the services of other quality airlines like LTU, Edelweiss and Condor to fly their clients to Mombasa.
This will bring a long tradition to a premature end and Kenya coast aficionados will miss the zebra striped planes of African Safari Airways, which over the years brought many tens of thousands of tourists from Switzerland, Germany and other European countries to the sunny Indian Ocean beaches of Mombasa and Malindi. The aircraft used so far is reportedly due to be sold off.
African Safari Club’s domestic flights from an airfield along the Bamburi beach of Mombasa to the safari parks will however continue as usual.

The Tanzanian privately owned airline – 49 percent of which is controlled by Kenya Airways – has now finalised the loan arrangements for the purchase of their French manufactured ATR aircraft. The airline has 7 brand new ATR 42 and 72 models on order, due for deliveries starting soon. The nearly 130 million US Dollar loan facility has been underwritten by Citibank Tanzania and is due to run for 12 years.
In the meantime, the Tanzania government has pledged nearly 40 million US Dollars to upgrade and rehabilitate several primary and secondary airports across the country, including Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Bukoba, Kigoma, Mafia Island and others.
This infrastructural development will undoubtedly spur more domestic and regional air traffic at a time when both Air Tanzania and Precision Air are engaged in a major fleet overhaul and fleet expansion, setting the stage for further growth of the aviation sector in East Africa’s largest country. Many tourists are in fact using air charters and domestic scheduled flights into the national parks and to several of the Indian Ocean Islands off the shore of the mainland. There are however persistent complaints about charters from Arusha having to use the international airport, which is some 50 KM from Arusha while there is an airfield at the vicinity of Arusha, which has to be maintained by the Tanzanian Airport Authority while generating little revenue. The Arusha field has often been mentioned to become a potential ‘safari hub’ – similar to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport – for flights to and from the Northern circuit national parks and could also cater for regional flights with larger turboprop aircraft like the ATR’s now commonly used across Eastern Africa. This would allow swifter access to the parks and also to Arusha itself for visitors, sparing them the long trips to and from JRO.

Ol Donyo Lengai, the no longer dormant volcano in Northern Tanzania, has settled down to a threatening routine since erupting and causing some major quakes last year. Fume and smoke clouds keep emerging from the volcano’s crater and side vents, and earth tremors continue to be felt in the wider vicinity of the mountain. More and more of the population resident in the area have now voluntarily vacated the area, after initially resisting government directives to leave.
The mountain is located near Lake Natron, the annual breeding ground for the East African region’s millions of lesser flamingos – recently in the press over attempts by India’s Tata group to begin mining of soda ash, which was thankfully stopped over grave environmental concerns. The area with one of the most hostile climates known to man, is however of touristic value, not only for the flamingo breeding but also to see other game transiting between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti across very sparsely populated land. The pastoralist Masai of the area, who consider Ol Donyo Lengai as the seat of the Gods, have also been affected by a long lasting draught besides the constant ‘rain of ash’ and ‘breath of death’ caused by floating toxic fumes emitted from the volcano and they have moved their families and livestock to other grazing grounds.

During bilateral talks between the two countries it was agreed last week to carry out a survey and look at the cost of such a project before embarking on construction. Transportation of fuel by road from Mombasa is prohibitively expensive and has a substantial impact on the prices of the commodity in both Uganda and Rwanda, but also other hinterland countries. Uganda will this year commence work for the pipeline extension from the present end-location in Eldoret / Western Kenya to Kampala. This is aimed to reduce accidents, reduce transport cost and secure regular uninterrupted supplies, which during the post election Kenya crisis were severely disrupted and caused the Uganda to temporarily run out of fuel.
Tamoil East Africa, locally incorporated but Libyan state owned company, is the main contractor for the Eldoret – Kampala pipeline extension and is also expected to play a lead role in eventually linking Kampala with Kigali. A further extension between Kigali and Bujumbura/Burundi is an additional option, once the main works in Uganda and Rwanda have been completed. This development is good news for the East African hinterland as it will reduce reliance on expensive road transport of fuel products. It may very well also allow Uganda, once oil production has gone commercial in two year’s time, to export their own fuel products to these neighbouring countries by using the new pipeline.
The contract was signed by Presidents Museveni and Kagame, while Presidents Kibaki (Kenya), Nkurunziza (Burundi), Yusuf (Somalia) and Gadaffi (Libya) were also present at the function. Watch this space.

The often vented sentiments by this correspondent about Congo’s rogue regime’s behaviour were once again proven correct, when news reached Kampala that rebel chief Kony had successfully left his jungle hideout in Garamba National Park and made his way unimpeded into the Central African Republic. There he is reported to have teamed up with a CAR rebel group, supposedly for joint operations after his own ‘forces’ suffered large scale defections in recent months. There are also unconfirmed reports from usually well informed sources that at their new location the Kony group has received new supplies, possibly from their erstwhile supporters in Khartoum and that the terror group may be used to ply there bloody handiwork as far as Darfur in the service of their masters. Kony along the way continued his killing, looting and abducting once again while enroute to his new hide out, and neither the UN forces stationed nearby nor the Congolese army tried to intercept, arrest or eliminate the rebels. Fork tongued talk, made easy to recognize … at least wildlife specialists may now have an early opportunity to return to Garamba and take stock of what other damage the rebels have done there besides eliminating the last freely roaming Northern White Rhinos.
The rebel group was due to sign a peace accord as early as this month but have not only failed to assemble at designated points but now staged an escape once again. Peace talks have been going on for nearly two years in Southern Sudan’s capital Juba between the rebels and the Uganda government, funded by the EU and other well wishing organizations and countries. A positive outcome so far is that the rebel group is now no longer present in Northern Uganda and peace and development can at last take hold in that part of the country. There is now talk that sections of the LRA would sign the peace deal but that may mean nothing at all as long as the ICC indicted head goons are still at large.
In contrast to Kony’s behaviour, the Ugandan government has put an amnesty programme into place of which many former rebels took advantage, deserting from Kony, coming out from the bush, renouncing violence and returning to civilian life with a substantial start up package of support measures.
Meanwhile, in another typical turnabout, existing mining contracts and concessions in the Congo, including and probably in particular in the East of the country, are to be cancelled by the regime in a ‘review’ process aimed at signing new agreements, ordinarily a pretext for another round of corruption, when trying to extract undue payments and considerations from holders of present contracts and applicants for new ones. International observer groups like ‘Global Witnesses’ have already decried the development as ‘far from transparent’ – in other words expressing their own misgivings and suspicions in a more diplomatic language.

News from Uganda – Gifted by Nature

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