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Page last updated at 14:43 GMT, Thursday, 21 February 2008

Uganda hit by Kenyan turmoil

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Uganda

The impact of the political crisis in Kenya has disrupted vital supplies along one of the most important transport routes on the continent, with long-term consequences for neighbouring Uganda.

Walking into the World Food Programme's main warehouse in Kampala is akin to a small rodent absent-mindedly walking into the path of oncoming motorway traffic.

Men carrying sacks on their heads from the World Food Programme warehouse in Kampala
The WFP says its aid reached 87.8m people in 2006

The only difference in the warehouse is that the oncoming traffic is on two legs rather than four wheels.

A steady stream of men run past on either side. Those heading out carry 50 sacks of maize on their backs. Those coming back in are in a hurry to reload. It is like a cross between a beautifully choreographed modern dance and the pre-match practice of a well-drilled rugby team.

And all in bare feet.

With lightning speed, a mountain of food aid is moved into the back of waiting trucks: no forklifts, no mechanical trolleys, just a lot of very strong, very sweaty Ugandans who have clearly done this once or twice before.

Vital supplies

The Ugandan capital is a major trans-shipment hub for one of the world's biggest humanitarian aid operations.

To get a sense of the scale of the thing, it helps to look at the map in the WFP office.

Map showing Uganda and neighbouring countries

In the middle is a blob representing Kampala, out of which red lines point in all directions, like the spokes of a high-spec racing bike: north to southern Sudan, west to the Democratic Republic of Congo, south west to Rwanda and Burundi.

Seven million people, most of them refugees from East Africa's many conflicts, are dependent on the food transported along these routes. And much of that aid starts its journey in Mombasa on Kenya's eastern coast.

The road from Mombasa, across the border into neighbouring Uganda, is one of the most important supply routes on the continent.

But the post-election turbulence in Kenya disrupted that vital link.

Vehicles were burned or looted and drivers pulled from their cabs at checkpoints hastily erected by angry mobs. The vulnerability of the entire region was exposed.

A man walks away from a burning car after riots in Kisumu in Kenya (AP Photo: Darko Bandic)
Kenya has been struck by violence since the election in December

Too dependent on one route, which until December had been such a reliable conduit for goods to and from international markets, landlocked Uganda was hit hard.

Prices rose as supplies dwindled. Some small businesses went under, unable to sell goods that had not arrived, and unable to pay off the bank loans used to buy the goods in the first place.

The WFP has strategic food supplies to keep its operations going, but that is not sustainable in the long term. The supplies need to be replenished.

And, whereas before the Kenyan crisis about 35 trucks moved through its Kampala compound each day, now that number is down to about 10.

Different options

Things have improved along the Mombasa-Kampala road in recent weeks, since Kenya's rival political factions agreed to an internationally sponsored mediation effort.

But the damage already done beyond Kenya's borders has prompted a renewed search for possible alternatives.

A child on broken railway in Uganda
Coordinating the demands of different countries and securing the finance all takes time as well as political will

One idea is to move more cargo through Tanzania from the smaller port of Dar-es-Salaam, across Lake Victoria to Port Bell just outside Kampala.

But standing on the concrete of Port Bell's main - actually its only - loading jetty, it does not really seem like a viable option. Sleepy does not quite do Port Bell justice.

Two big ferry boats are moored together, their rusting hulls covered in the excrement of countless sea birds. The boats have not gone anywhere since 2005. They are not seaworthy.

There is one functioning ferry, a Tanzanian vessel that arrives every two days. This must liven up the existence of the herd of goats, which seems to have made Port Bell its home.

A small amount of cargo does move through here. In fact, when we visited a pile of maize sacks covered in torn tarpaulin, had been stacked up ready for collection. But it had clearly been there a while.

A heady smell of fermenting grain wafted on the breeze, at least the goats seemed to find it appetising.

One of the security guards obviously preferred fish. He was crouched down by the lake shore next to the jetty with a home made wooden rod and line in his hand. He smiled amiably as we clambered over rusting equipment.

Increasing the capacity of Port Bell is clearly going to take a lot of investment. And that is unlikely to happen quickly.

There are plans to upgrade much of the infrastructure of the east African region but it has not happened yet.

Coordinating the demands of different countries and securing the finance all takes time as well as political will.

Until or unless that investment is made millions of people throughout East Africa will continue to be dependent on the road from Mombasa.

And that means dependent too on a return to stability in Kenya.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 21 February, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Uganda
18 Dec 07 |  Country profiles
Uganda peace talks to resume
18 Feb 08 |  Africa

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