In the escarpment that separates Chikwawa and Nsanje from Blantyre and Thyolo districts, some people wonder if they count. They still wait for a day they will walk, cycle and travel on a tarmac road along the East Bank scarp.
The wait is overdue, retorts Maliko Molotali, councillor for Ruo Ward. He has no words to salt away.
“We are tired of promises. East Bank Road has turned to be a mere political campaign tool. Since Independence, politicians have lied they will upgrade this road and, most recently, we have been assured that the funds for the construction have been identified. But look, it is still rocky and dusty,” said the outspoken councillor.
Travelling on the road either leaves you with body pains due to unavoidable gullies spreading across the road or coated in sultry dust. The only available mode of transport is lorries and pick-ups. Acting Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlolo says the road is hell for expectant mothers and other patients.
A recent visit to the area by Commissioner of Disaster in the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) Ben Botolo just worsened the anger. Surrounded by a team of community leaders, which included Molotali, T/A Mlolo and area development committee members, Botolo had no option, but to let the cat out of the bag.
“I am a technical expert and to be sincere with you, there is no money to tarmac the road. What we are thinking about is to use the little resources that are there to construct only bridges,” he told the meeting, leaving the leaders in disbelief.
According to documents at Roads Authority (RA), the East Bank Road, which stretches only 59 kilometres (km) and is expected to connect Thyolo-Thekerani-Muona-Makhanga Road at Seveni, will cost $53 million (about K38.7 billion) loaned from World Bank. There is only $18 million (about K13 billion) available.
However, despite this, President Peter Mutharika has been preaching “the resources for the road are available”. At a rally at Nchalo in April, the President reminded the beneficiaries that government has sourced money for the upgrading of the most-awaited road.
“I have heard it on radio and watched Mutharika on television assuring us that the resources for the upgrading of the road are ready,” said Molatali, adding it is hard to tell the people now that there are no resources for the road.
T/A Mlolo was short of words, saying “that is the problem of mixing politics and development. Politicians opt to lie for a political score. I am happy Botolo has undone the secret.”
Botolo reminded the leaders it is Parliament that approves money for projects and there is no allocation to upgrade the road in this financial year.
The political rhetoric on road construction that haunts people in East Bank has turned to be a deep-rooted culture in Malawi. People in Zomba, Phalombe and Mulanje are tired of this joke. They have waited for the Zomba- Jali-Phalombe-Chitakale Road since 2005. The road is 102.2km and the construction project was supposed to be completed in 2013. Three years later, the project remains unfinished.
The initial contract awarded in 2005 amounted to K41.6 billion and was terminated in 2014. A K8.6 billion new contract is underway.
We joined Minister of Transport and Public Works Jappie Mhango on his tour on road construction projects in the Southern Region recently and observed that the new contractors, United Gulf Construction Co. W. L.L (Ungcc) and Fargo Limited parked their machines sometime back due to non-payment by government.
“The project has several sponsors and one of them has some problems with the contract. I will make sure this is resolved soonest and the work resumes. I dont want road projects that drag,” said Mhango after touring Zomba- Jali-Phalombe-Chitakale Road.
The expansion of the stretch from Maselema to Chiradzulu turn-off in Blantyre and the reconstruction of Ku-Chawe turn-off to Matawale turn-off in Zomba have also stalled waiting for government to release money to both the contractor and for compensation.
Also dragging is the Thyolo-Makwasa-Thekerani-Muona-Makhanga Road, which for years has been the route for transporting bananas to Blantyre and Lilongwe cities. Documents show the road construction officially commenced in 2008 and was supposed to end in 2011. Today, the 82km road is still in gullies. Mota-Engil is now on the site. During the tour, we saw some progress on the construction.
Our investigations show that poor planning and contract agreements between government and contractors are costing the country big time in roads constructions. Most contracts are terminated before completion, leaving government with another task to look for additional money.
Currently, government owes contractors over K45 billion in arrears. Acting director of constructions Sam Kadangwe admits.
“We thank Mota-Engil. Realising they were awarded a contract in Blantyre and their equipment were idle, they decided to proceed with the work before we pay them. By June, government owed contractors over K45 billion, but we are paying them through promissory notes,” he says.
Kadangwe agrees that delays on road construction projects deny thousands of people the right to enjoy socio-economic benefits that would come with the projects. n