Get serious with road construction industry

It is a well-known fact that government has been losing billions of kwacha in the construction sector through poor quality work, ripping off government through overpricing, outright theft where contractors pocket the money for work not done or revising the original contract amount for reasons that do not make sense. It is equally true that many contractors have been awarded contracts because of corruption or not following proper procedures.

Minister of Transport and Public Works Jacob Hara has offered a ray of hope that government will be tough this time around with contractors who do poor work and hold them accountable for their work. Our cities and towns are littered with poorly constructed roads. Even ordinary people have voiced their concern over the poor quality of roads.  Roads develop potholes only a few months after construction while some of them have poor surface and show signs of wearing out as if they were constructed decades ago.

Hon Hara has unequivocally stated that contractors who do shoddy work will be blacklisted and barred from doing government work. Such punitive measures are extended to those who certify poor work for payment. Former president Peter Mutharika issued similar threats around 2017 after observing that many of the newly constructed roads were dilapidated only a few months after being constructed and called on the ACB to probe corruption in the sector. This turned out to be mere threats as contractors continued with shoddy work, ripping off billions in the process. And government was just ball watching!

One can only hope that this is not only talk show. Malawians need action. It should not be business usual as in the past. And to be fair with contractors, many local contractors lack the capacity to do a good job. While the wish is to promote Malawian contractors and give them priority to do the job, this should not be at the expense of quality. A deliberate policy should be made that where local contractors lack the required skills and knowledge they should team up either with seasoned local or foreign contractors so that they acquire the necessary skills.

Aside barring contractors and their accomplices for shoddy work, a number of equally important issues need to be looked into. The issue of pricing should not be ignored. Many road projects are expensive for nothing.  Contractors should not be left to charge the amount as they please just because it is bidding. The price of many road projects does not match with the quality. For example, a six-kilometre road can cost K8 billion but the quality of the road is poor.  A few months down the line the road wears out and full of potholes. There is need for government to cost the projects independently and contractors should work within the budget. They should either take it or leave it.

No contractor should be allowed to revise the cost of the project once it has taken off the ground. This is a ploy to loot government resources and share the spoils with corrupt civil servants and public officials.  In most cases, the amount of revision is so huge that it leaves one wondering whether it is a new project. The contractors even fail to offer convincing reasons for such a colossal amount. Already the amount is lost through overpricing and they want to loot more.

Deadlines should be strictly followed unless there are justifiable reasons for the delay such as lack of materials. Some projects have stalled partly because of casual approach to work. For example, it took almost six months for a contractor to rehabilitate a two-kilometre stretch of the road in Limbe!

Spot the potholes in the newly constructed roads

Road designers also need up their game. The design of many roads leaves a lot to be desired. For example, one can drive many kilometres without seeing a drainage or curvets. Under heavy rainfall, the water cuts and washes away the road or the road is underwater.

City councils should be allowed to maintain roads in cities and rural areas and not give all the work to contractors. Each city assembly or district should have construction equipment such as graders. When the rainy season is over councils can start maintaining rural roads like what used to happen during Kamuzu Banda days. It is very unfortunate and sad that many rural roads have not been maintained for many years and are in very poor state.  Naturally, city and district assemblies should have been rehabilitating rural roads including cutting grass.

The construction industry needs serious reform.  Minister Hara has a lot of work to do to bring sanity. He needs the support of all well-meaning compatriots to realize the desired change.

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