About shs124bn of taxpayers’ money may end up being paid to a Kuwait based firm following a dispute with the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), Daily Pepper has learnt. Despite a window to solve this matter amicably, unpatriotic UNRA officials have remained unbothered at all and the firm has been left with no option but to run to court where odds are against UNRA and the Government of Uganda. Despite the intervention of President Museveni, UNRA bosses have decided to drag their feet on the matter.
The raging dispute is between UNRA and Abuljebain Engineering Consulting Office (AECO), the Kuwait-based firm contracted to supervise construction of two major road projects in the country—Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa-Kamonkoli road in eastern Uganda and Masindi Kisanja-Tangi-Paraa-Buliisa road, one of the so-called oil roads in the country’s mineral-rich Graben region.
AECO won the lucrative contracts to supervise engineering designs and build works for both road projects but has since fallen out with UNRA, the implementing agency, over alleged breach of contract and corruption tendencies.
In both cases, UNRA is faulted for its actions in their working relationship with AECO whose contract was either breached or denied access to do its supervision work independently as prescribed in the contracts.
According to various letters and documents seen by this newspaper, the dispute is bound to cost Ugandan taxpayers a colossal amount of money through compensation and dubious payment for alleged sub-standard work.
Also, this dispute between UNRA and AECO has frustrated another government project to construct Pallisa, Kumi and Iganga town roads. This is after the Islamic Development Bank, which funded the Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa Kamonkoli road with a loan of Shs 489 billion, rejected another loan request by the government to finance the Pallisa, Kumi and Iganga town roads. The government requested a loan of $35 million or Shs 124,417,930,000 to construct roads in the aforementioned towns in eastern
Uganda. However, in their April 18, 2021 letter to the minister of Finance-Matia Kasaija(and copied to UNRA director Allen Kagina), the Islamic Development Bank’s Regional Hub Manager Dr Issahaq Umar Iddrisu pegged the loan approval to first getting the review of the Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa-Kamonkoli road works. Iddrisu said the review must be done by the contracted external independent supervision consultant, who is AECO and their Ugandan partners, Professional Engineering Consultants (PEC), the local sub-contractors. Egyptian firm, Arab Contractors Ltd, are the main contractors for the 111.25-kilometre Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa Kamonkoli road.
It is understood that UNRA deployed its engineers to supervise the Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa Kamonkoli road work at the expense of AECO until March, 2021, six months before scheduled completion of the project. UNRA’s move to deploy its engineers was conflict of interest and contradicted the loan agreement signed with the Islamic Development Bank in which the agency indicated they hired an external independent supervision consultant to supervise the road design and construction works.
According to documents available, AECO signed the contract with UNRA on November 16, 2019 after being declared winners through a competitive bidding procurement process. In an earlier letter, written on November 7, 2019, UNRA wrote to AECO notifying them of their winning bid. But in a rather bizarre move, UNRA delayed for 16 months to sign the contract on its part while the construction works progressed without allowing AECO on the site. It is worth noting that the Solicitor General cleared the procurement process on October 21, 2019, so there was no reasonable ground for UNRA’s delay. On December 26, 2019, AECO director Wail Abuljbain wrote to UNRA protesting against the delay and vented his frustration on his firm’s engineers not allowed to supervise the ongoing road works. His demand that UNRA allow them to start work was ignored by the agency until mid-March, 2021.
On getting the final contract, which UNRA signed on March 15, 2021, AECO were shocked to learn the design review component had been deleted. They, however, opted to go ahead with the supervision.
And in one of their first checks, AECO engineers discovered substandard work on some sections of the road and discrepancies in payments of staff, which led to an overpayment of $2.5 million to the contractor (Arab Contractors).
The overpayment discovery is contained in two separate letters that AECO boss, Abuljebain, wrote on August 7, 2021 to Engineer Mohamed Tolba, who is Arab Contractors’ regional representative.
“The purpose of this letter is to inform you that said discrepancies will be reflected in your next certificate,” Abuljedain stated in his letter, also copied to the Islamic Development Bank and UNRA officials.
Furthermore, based on the above suspicious work and discrepancies, AECO refused to sign off a competition certificate for the
Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa-Kamonkoli road. The Kuwait-based firm demanded that UNRA should stay the contractor (Arab Contractors) on the site and allow AECO engineers to do the value-for-money tests on the entire 111.25-kilometre road.
Meanwhile, through their lawyers, OSH Advocates and Kampala Associated Advocates, AECO have filed a claim amounting to $5 million before the arbitration panel after UNRA terminated their contract on the Masindi Kisanja-Tangi-Paraa-Buliisa road. In November, 2018, UNRA awarded the supervising contract to AECO, with China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC), as the main contractor for the 159-kilometre road, which is nearing completion soon. In almost similar fashion, the working relationship between UNRA and AECO soared over the supervision and altered road designs. This culminated in UNRA terminating AECO’s contract on August 19, 2020. UNRA replaced AECO with PROME Consultants, a local firm, which had earlier been sub-contracted by the Kuwait firm as their local partners on the project. In the termination letter, UNRA stated that AECO failed to mobilize staff, make monthly reports and refused to approve the contractor (CCCC)’s submissions and instructions in time, among others. AECO dismissed all UNRA’s reasons as lies, and petitioned President
On getting the information through a petition from AECO directors, the president gave directives to UNRA to try and save the situation. On October 21, 2021, the AECO team led by Abuljebain met President Museveni in Kampala. After listening to the AECO delegation, the president directed UNRA director Kagina to resolve the issues, by allowing AECO engineers to check the
Tirinyi-Pallisa-Kumi/Pallisa-Kamonkoli road. On the contractual issues for the Shs770-billion Masindi-Buliisa oil road, the president advised UNRA should sort the matter amicably to ensure AECO does not file the $5-million dollar claim.
By the end of the week, however, UNRA seemed to ignore the president’s directive. UNRA officials continued to play a hide-seek game by instructing Arab contractors to vacate their equipment from Tirinyi-Kamokoli road site to thwart AECO’s technical check-ups on the entire road. And without any breakthrough on the other matter of the oil road, frustrated AECO officials went ahead and filed their claim to the arbitration panel on October 25 after five days of back-and-forth movement.
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