There are lingering questions as to why the Karonga-Chitipa Road is in poor state just five years after commissioning as JOHN CHIRWA writes.
The Taiwanese Government had already constructed 13 kilometres (km) of the 101-km road. But the switch from Taiwan meant China taking over the road construction project with a grant of $70 million (about K51 billion).The Karonga-Chitipa Road has been a cause of controversy since Malawi switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China in 2007.
Immediate past president Joyce Banda, who was at the centre of forming ties with China in 2007 as minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, officially commissioned the road on January 7 2013 before it was completed.
And her successor, President Peter Mutharika, named the road Bingu Highway in June 2016, much to the chagrin of some local civil society organisations led by youth activist Steven Simsokwe.
Today, Simsokwe is even more perplexed that the road is in a bad state.
“The road is now a highway to the grave,” he says.
Our recent tour established that some sections on the first 30 km of the road are severely damaged whereas gaping holes have also developed on some sections all the way to Chitipa.
Simsokwe says the poor condition of the road has put at risk lives of travellers as accidents have become numerous.
He says residents of the two districts feel short-changed that the road is damaged just five years after its commissioning.
“The general feeling now is that this is a campaign tool for votes. That’s why one president opened it before completion while the other named it after his brother.
“As Karonga residents, we protested against politicising the project and now we feel vindicated that our concerns were real,” he says.
Simsokwe says Karonga residents are also afraid that the $24 million (about K17.5 billion) Karonga-Songwe Road under rehabilitation by another Chinese contractor may face similar durability challenges.
“The Mzuzu-Nkhata Bay Road is now our yardstick. We need roads that would stand the test of time,” he says.
During the tour, Roads Authority (RA) board chairperson Brown Mpinganjira told journalists that the authority is clueless on what might have caused the road to be damaged five years later.
“Nobody seems to understand this. Even the contractor, China Road and Bridge Corporation, who are still in the country are equally perplexed with what has happened,” he said.
Mpinganjira said RA had engaged a team of engineers and experts from the Central Materials Laboratory to do intensive studies and establish the cause of the damage.
“We are certain that the investigations will give us the right interventions we need to make,” he said.
However, Minister of Transport and Public Works Jappie Mhango says the problem lies on how the contracts were awarded to the contractor and consultant.
“The contractor was Chinese. The consultant was Chinese. And all their papers were in Chinese. So, you have two companies from the same country like ‘father and son’ doing the work. You could not tell what was happening on the project and that was a problem.
“Ordinarily, it should have been a company from another country supervising the contractor,” he explains.
Mhango says his ministry has since engaged the contractor to do remedial work.
He says people should not lose trust in Chinese contractors like the ones doing the Karonga-Songwe Road.
“They say once bitten twice shy. We have learnt lessons on the Karonga-Chitipa Road and we don’t want that to be repeated anywhere else,” he says.
Mhango calls on companies working in the road sub-sector to desist from corruption, saying his ministry will take to task all culprits.
“We call on companies working on the road sub sector that we will not allow any company to deliver shoddy works. We would like to discourage corruption,” he says.
National Construction Industry Council (NCIC) chief executive officer Linda Phiri says her institution, which regulates the conduct and performance of contractors, did not have control over the contractor on the Karonga-Chitipa project because it was a grant.
“So, we don’t have any detail of what went wrong on the project,” she says.
Phiri, however, says it is incumbent upon clients to ensure that they employ a consultant to supervise the standard and quality of roads.
“So, everything else depends on the competence of the contractors and consultants employed by the client,” she says.
Government is currently constructing 17 roads nationwide and it expects to finish five of them by the end of this year, according to Mhango.
But concerns abound on how government is politicising these projects to the extent of compromising on quality.
Rumphi Residents Association chairperson Moir Mkandawire cites the Rumphi-Nyika-Chitipa Road, which he says government is using as a campaign tool.
“For example, shortly after the President launched the road, all machinery was removed on site.
“To this day, there are no activities taking place on the road,” he says.
According to RA, the road will be done in phases. The first phase will cover a distance of 20 km with a cost of K5.1 billion.
However, the authority awarded yet other contracts for construction of nine km of the same road from Rumphi Boma to Chikwawa using what they technically call ‘a Low Volume Sealed Road Technique’.
Mkandawire says the nine kilometres that was constructed before Mutharika launched the project has already been patched in some sections.
“Government needs to make durable roads and not the low volume sealed road as they call it, which to us means government is settling for less and we feel cheated,” he says.
RA spokesperson Portia Kajanga says the contractors were given a one-year defects liability period to rectify all defects that may develop on the road before real. She says the authority withholds five percent of the contract amount which is released at the expiry of the period. n