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Analysts Question Viability of Proposed Ugandan Railway Link to Kenya 

FILE - An aerial view shows a train on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by the Chinese government, in Kimuka, Kenya, Oct. 16, 2019.

Ugandan officials have confirmed switching from a Chinese to a Turkish company to build a proposed $2 billion railway line linking the capital, Kampala, to the border with Kenya. The railway aims to link up with one being built in Kenya to improve trade and travel between the neighbors. But analysts say Chinese investors poured doubt on the viability of the project.

After eight years of waiting, Uganda finally terminated its contract with China Harbor Engineering Company in favor of Turkish construction company Yapi Merkezi.

Confirming the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Yapi Merkezi, David Mugabe, the public relations officer for Standard Gauge Railway Uganda says the change in contractor was due to financial challenges.

The Chinese firm reportedly failed to convince Beijing to finance the project.

Now, the Turkish firm, which is also building part of the Tanzanian railway network, is expected to submit a response to the government's request for construction in the next few weeks, paving the way for the procurement process to start.

Mugabe tells VOA that the Ugandan government is now looking more closely at whether or not contractors can help the government procure funding for the project.

“Government decided to widen its nets and open up a bid. And a Turkish firm has expressed interest in partnering with government. Now, it’s early days, I should let you know that this has not been finalized. There is no contract yet with the Turkish firm. What we have is an MOU (Memorandum of understanding,” he said.

Under the Chinese deal, the project was to cost Uganda $2.2 billion with 85 percent funding to be sourced by the contractor.

Officials at the Uganda standard gauge railway said they read between the lines when China’s ambassador to Uganda said that after the COVID-19 pandemic, China had become more cautious on financing big infrastructure projects in Africa.

Economist Madina Guloba argues that it’s likely China pulled out of the deal.

‘I think it’s possible they are being risk shy. We are not bankable. Then they are safer going out of it than try to look at other issues. We have had infrastructure things and they are not productive. So how best are you planning to make it even more productive,” said Guloba.

Samuel Mutabazi, the head of an NGO, Uganda Road Sector Support Initiative, said says there are other issues that still need to be addressed for the project to make economic sense.

“If the procurement system was open enough and you had competent international companies bidding, possibly we would have a cheaper cost but also, the SGR [standard gauge railway] would have been up and running by now. Secondly the relationship between the Kenya railways and Uganda railways also need to be clearly stipulated because as you know, Uganda railways cannot for instance operate in Kenya," he said.

Even though the Uganda standard gauge railway is meant to connect to Kenya via the Malaba border to connect transporters, Kenya has only built its section from Mombasa up to Naivasha. It’s still not clear when the third phase connecting Kenya to Uganda will commence.

Mutabazi says unless all the East African countries, especially Uganda draw up a strategic plan for the next couple of years, the railway project may not be beneficial.