Jinja- Constructed on the banks of Lake Victoria around 1967 by the British colonial government, the Jinja Pier was meant to ease freight and passenger rail services within the three East African Community (EAC) member states of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, The Daily Monitor reports.
Indeed, vessels took traders’ merchandise on an expedition from the pier to Kisumu in Kenya and to Mwanza in Tanzania. Coffee was the main commodity in transit while tobacco, tea, hides and skins were the other commodities.
However, a recent visit to the pier, which would be celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year, revealed an overgrown shrub, a permanently locked gate, old and rusted fuel tanks and a general aura of abandonment, indicating that this once monumental business hub is rotting away.
A pier is a raised structure in a body of water, typically supported by well-spaced piles, pillars or bridges, built for several purposes. The Jinja Pier was mainly constructed to allow vessels among the then three East African states to dock. Other piers among member states were in Kisumu in Kenya and Mwanza in Tanzania.
Until 2006, the pier was under the management of Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) before ceding management to Rift Valley Railways (RVR) and the Ministry of Fisheries .
To understand some of the pier’s woes, Daily Monitor sought retired marine Capt, James Wamono, 65, a resident of Njeru in Buikwe District and one of URC’s longest-serving employees who joined the company in 1983.
With 25 years’ experience as a marine second officer, then chief officer until his retirement as captain in 2006, Mr Wamono has nostalgic memories of this pier.
“It was cheaper to transport goods within the EAC member states. I vividly recall the journeys I made from Jinja to Kisumu,” he says.
Capt Wamono and about 120 other marine workers were retired by URC in 2006 following an accident on Lake Victoria on May 8, 2005 in which MV Kaawa that was en route to Mwanza from Port Bell, collided with MV Kabalega, which was en route to Port Bell from Mwanza.
In that collision, MV Kaawa damaged its bow and MV Kabalega was damaged below the waterline. And while MV Kaawa managed to return to Port, MV Kabalega sunk about 15 kilometers southwest of the Ssese Islands where it remains to-date.
What Went Wrong?
According to Capt Wamono, the change in ownership from URC to RVR
greatly affected the operations of the Pier.
“When the ownership changed, RVR concentrated more on the railway and ‘ignored’ the marine (water) section. Remember, when they constructed Port Bell in Luzira, the Jinja Pier became a standby of sorts. But currently, even vessels don’t use the bridge; instead, they pass along the railed part of the dock,” he says. Investigations carried out by this reporter revealed that Bidco Uganda Limited is potentially the biggest user of the pier, as its ships dock at the facility while delivering the company’s Palm Oil from Kalangala.
However, Mr Charles Kateeba, the managing director, URC, last week said the pier was very alive in their minds.
“I assure you that we have not abandoned the facility. Due to challenges that started after the sinking of MV Kabalega, the rail side has not been operational for long; but general purpose vessels have been using the pier,” he said.
Capt Wamono also attributes the lull in pier activity to politicians whom he didn’t name. These, he said, have altered the transport protocol.
What can be done?
Capt Wamono says not all is lost and that the pier can regain its former glittering glory.
“The pier simply needs routine maintenance as well as replacing its timber which vessels keep knocking as they dock,” he advised.
Mr Kateeba noted that they have plans to restore the line which is missing and resume wagon ferry operations by the end of the year.
About 15 years ago, URC conjured up strategies to revive the pier, targeting among other companies; Gapco and Hared to deliver fuel via the pier to their reserve tanks in Jinja.
The strategies were to benefit the vast number of traders, clearing and forwarding companies, fish exporters, horticultural and food crop farmers in Busoga.
However, these strategies have over the years stagnated due to lack of funds.
In mid-2013, OSK Ship Tech, a Danish firm, was hired by the Transport ministry to design new looks for the Port Bell and Jinja Piers, and specify the kind of equipment that would be used. The design and remodeling was expected to cost US$4m (about Shs11.6b then) while the development work was expected to cost US$ 19m (about Shs55.1b then).
Mr Kateeba on Thursday divulged that Ministry of Work and Transport had completed designs for remodeling of the Port to build a new quay and container depot (ICD) at a tune of US$15m (Shs54b), noting that no major capital expenditure has been done at the Port for more than 25 years.
Perhaps some of the problems afflicting the Pier can be traced to a 25-year concession signed between RVR and the government of Kenya in 2007 regarding the management of the more than 2000-kilometer track from Mombasa to Kampala.
Among key provisions of the concession which runs until 2032, RVR was to pay US$3m (about Shs10.8b) in concession fees to the Kenyan government, it (RVR) was set operational performance targets which mandated them to levy and remit fees from whoever was using railway transport.
Since then, RVR has endured a blend of challenges in its quest to meet the set operational targets; and this has affected its general performance. Notable challenges are that; fewer people than projected are using the railway hence little or no return on investment and then, the millions of dollars owed to financial institutions.
“RVR problems have contributed to the closure (of the Pier),” Mr Kateeba conceded, before adding that; “Loss incurred is tens of millions of dollars.”
While 2032 looks a long time ahead, in March 2017, Kenya pulled the plug on the 25-year concession; and in May, while addressing the media in Kampala, Works and Transport Minister, Ms Monica Azuba Ntege, alluded to the fact that government had backed Kenya’s position to terminate the concession.
While explaining the termination, Mr Kateeba said: “Kenya’s termination has a 30-day transition period. RVR Kenya operations will cease on August 31, Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) and URC will take over operations as before the concession.” He added: “URC will resume services to Dar es salaam over the Lake – by the end of August.”
RVR is still recovering from a strike which saw over 400 workers lay down their tools citing non-payment of two-month salaries (June and July); and an explanation regarding their Provident Fund.
The strike that started on July 26, left trains grounded across Kampala, Iganga, Tororo, Iganga and Busembatia stations, leaving the business community counting losses.