Serious cracks have emerged in government’s plan to introduce digital number plates for motor vehicles and motorcycles.
In 2018, President Museveni issued a directive to engage a Russian company called Joint Stock Company Global Security to execute a compulsory digital surveillance of all motor vehicles, motorcycles and other vessels in Uganda using an electronically activated device to be affixed to the motor vehicle to curb insecurity and criminality.
The project is codenamed Intelligent Transport Management System (ITMS). On July 23, 2021, the two parties signed a 10-year agreement for the provision of a digital monitoring and tracking system.
The Russian firm will implement the deal with the National Enterprise Corporation (NEC) as its partners. This, in effect, ended government’s longstanding partnership with local companies GM Tumpeco and Arnold Brooklyn & Co Ltd.
However, with the July 1 deadline fast approaching for the implementation of the deal worth billions of shillings, there is hardly anything on the ground to show both government and the Russian contractor are ready to roll out the arrangement.
The move was greatly questioned by parliament’s committee on Defence and Internal Affairs for overlooking Ugandan firms by failing to test their potential. Critics also claim that the contractor lacks the technical and financial capacity to execute the deal.
For instance, whereas government granted the contractor land in Bugolobi to be the headquarters, there is no development. However, the most troubling bit, according to sources close to the deal, is that the company has never demonstrated its capacity to local stakeholders how their trackers will help curb criminality.
The deal was supposed to be implemented in a phased way starting in March, 2023 with the registration of all government vehicles but even that has not started.
“The clock is ticking but we are all guessing how this is going to be implemented. They say they will place a chip on the number plate but experts say it can easily be tampered with by disconnecting it from the battery. They have never demonstrated how it works,” said a commissioner in the ministry of Works and Transport who preferred anonymity.
Even before the deal was signed, UTSCH, a renowned international number plate manufacturer that partners with GM Tumpeco, held a consultative meeting with top-level officials from the ministries of Works and Transport, and Security.
In the meeting, the UTSCH team warned that it may not be feasible to track number plates due to the dust and
poor security camera network in the country. Instead, according to sources, they offered to make car identifiers in form of stickers, which would be placed on the vehicle windscreen. However, it is understood the officials had already zeroed on the Russian company in spite of the risks involved.
In 2021, advocacy NGO Legal Brains Trust sued the Attorney General seeking a temporary injunction restraining government from implementing the deal. Through an affidavit by James Okori, LBT reasoned that parliament and the people were not consulted before it was launched and there are no clear safeguards for protecting the privacy and data of people and the technology may be used for unauthorized purposes.
However, Justice Boniface Wamala dismissed the suit early this year after noting that LBT did not establish a prima facie case that warrants the grant of an order.
LBT appealed the ruling in February on grounds that the trial judge breached the applicant’s right for speedy determination of the case when he delivered his ruling after 529 days without explanation and appropriate case management directives to ensure that the suit would also not suffer inordinate delay.
Susan Kataike, the spokesperson for the ministry of Works and Transport, admitted they were not ready to start the registration of government vehicles in March but intend to deliver on time.
“As things stand, we are very confident that come July 1, we will be able to issue the first number plates,” she said. She, however, declined to reveal the initial prices of number plates, stating that the government will next week issue the official rates.
“What you need to understand is that it is a new technology, a new system which will be integrated into the entire transport system. It is not that we threw out the previous contractors; it was a decision based on security and the president’s directive,” she said.
Meanwhile, doubts have also been raised on the future of the local firms that have been manufacturing the number plates, especially the fate of the workers and the machinery.
Efforts to reach out to both GM Tumpeco and Arnold Brooklyn & Co Ltd were futile but industry insiders intimated to us that about 500 people are set to lose their jobs while their expensive machinery may lie idle.
“This would be the perfect time to invoke the (Bubu) Buy Uganda Build Uganda spirit by incorporating the Ugandan firms in the deal,” said the commissioner.
“The ideal win-win situation would be to let the local firms continue to make the plates, hand them over to the contractor to put on the security features.”
It remains to be seen how government will implement the deal but according to Noah Baalessanvu, an official who was part of the team that conducted the due diligence on the contractor, everything is in place for the operations to start.
So, if all goes to plan, starting July 1, costs of new number plates will rise from the current Shs 135,000 to Shs 735,000.