Entebbe International Airport
Uganda's Entebbe International Airport is locaed on the shores of Lake Victoria. The United Nations uses Entebbe as its Sub-Sahara base, depot and staging area for their vehicles and heavy equipment that are part of peace keeping and other missions in the central African region. Few cities across the African Continent can rival the happy life of Entebbe -some have branded it the “The City that never sleeps". Entebbe is the place where being bored is never an option. On the shores of gorgeous Lake Victoria, Entebbe is an attractive, verdant town that served as the capital city during the early years of the British protectorate. Today it’s the relaxed pace of life and nearby natural attractions that give the city its charm rather than any notable colonial relics.
Entebbe International Airport lies astride the equator at latitude 00.020 North and longitude 320 East, for which reason it has often been described as the “Airport on the Equator”. Elevated at 3782 feet above sea level, the airport is part of a peninsular bordering Africa’s biggest fresh-water-lake, Victoria. Entebbe has a tropical climate all year round, ranging from between temperature of 17 0c and max of 27 0c in January and a min 16 0c, max 25 0c in July. The gateway to the “Pearl of Africa”, Entebbe is 40 Kilometers South West of Kampala City, Uganda’s Capital.
Uganda first witnessed a civil Aviation motorized aircraft in its space in the early 30s when “a flying boat” landed at Port bell, south east of Kampala on the shores of lake Victoria to deliver mail. The mail delivery service had earlier started in neighboring Kenya in 1929 by Wilson Air ways. The service facilitated communication between the colonial centers in the region. The excitement generated by faster transport led to the creation of Directorate of Civil Aviation (DCA) in 1949 to over sees Civil Aviation activities in East Africa. In 1947 Entebbe was identified as the most suitable location for the country’s airport. Entebbe was not only a bastion of the colonial structure in Uganda, it also provided easy navigation across the lake. Air Navigation services were at the time done through rudimentary technology. The airport at Entebbe was commissioned in 1951 with the splendor and presence of the Queen of England.
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 was hijacked by terrorists and flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Ugandan President Idi Amin's support for the hijackers marked one of the first times a leader of a nation had backed terrorist activities. Upon arrival, the terrorists immediately separated the Jewish and Israeli hostages from the rest of the captives. In the following agonizing days, Israeli passengers were singled out and held hostage. A week later on July 4, one hundred Israeli commandos raced 2,500 miles from Israel to Entebbe, landed in the middle of the night, and in a heart-stopping mission that lasted ninety minutes, killed all guerillas and freed 103 hostages. Everyone was accounted for besides one: Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the first aircraft’s Sayeret Matkal rescue unit, who had been shot and killed while helping hostages return to the aircraft. Over 40 Ugandan troops were killed by the Israelis during the rescue.
The 70-year-old airport, opened in 1951 by the British colonial masters, refurbished in the early 1970s and now under upgrading and expansion works financed by China, is Uganda's major gateway to the world. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, construction works started in May 2016 after Uganda acquired a 200-million-U.S. dollar loan from the Export-Import Bank of China (China EximBank). The project is scheduled to be implemented in two phases, said China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which was contracted to design, construct and manage the project. At the peak of the construction, there were over 900 local employees and 80 Chinese workers, who have a lot of skill sharing and exchanges.
The first phase, with three-quarters finished, involves construction of a new passenger terminal, a new cargo complex, and upgrade of two runways and their associated taxiways, rehabilitation and overlay of three aprons. "For the new cargo building, it is about 10,000 square-meters and when it is finished, it can handle 100,000 tons of cargo per year; for the new passenger terminal building, it is about 20,000 square-meters (and) can handle 3 million passengers per year," Li Qinpu, CCCC project manager told Xinhua in a 2021 interview. "When this airport is finished, it will become a modern airport in Uganda and East Africa. This airport will become a landmark," Li added.
The airport is connected to the 49.56 km-Entebbe-Kampala expressway, which links the capital Kampala. The construction of the four-lane dual carriageway was also financed by the China EximBank. Ayub Sooma, director for airports and aviation security at Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, told Xinhua that all the infrastructure development aims at fast-tracking the country's economic development. "This improvement will attract further more traffic at Entebbe International Airport and the government has deliberately brought in Uganda Airlines (national carrier). Uganda Airlines is able to bring in a lot of transit passengers through Entebbe. So this is a critical facility that is going to play a key role in our economy," Sooma said.
Shortly after COVID-19 hit the country in March 2020, government imposed a lockdown and closed the airport, suspending incoming and outgoing flights except those concerning humanitarian aid. Countries worldwide were also imposing lockdowns as they grappled to contain the pandemic, which have great impact on the manufacture and supply of materials for construction. The airport opened 01 October 2021, to regular commercial traffic. The Civil Aviation Authority published guidelines for arrivals and departures.
In November 2021 the Export-Import Bank of China, also known as Exim Bank, took over the Ugandan Entebbe International Airport and other assets in the country over the failure of the Ugandan government to repay a loan. Uganda in March 2021 sent a delegation to Beijing hoping to renegotiate the toxic clauses of the deal but the officials came back empty-handed. Ugandan officials were boxed into a corner after lenders in China rejected their request to re-negotiate ‘toxic clauses’ in the $200m (Shs713b) loan picked six years ago to expand Entebbe International Airport. Any proceedings against Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) assets by the lender would not be protected by sovereign immunity since Uganda government, in the 2015 deal, waived the immunity on airport assets.
The Chinese government dismissed as “illogical propaganda” reports that they are confiscating facilities from African states because of indebtedness. According to China’s Director-General for African Affairs Wu Peng, the money offered to African states for projects is not a debt trap as has been reported by people seeking to put China in a bad light. “Which of the Chinese projects in Africa have been confiscated in Africa? NONE! The hype surrounding the Chinese ‘debt trap’ in Africa have NO factual basis and is being pushed on malicious grounds”, Peng said. China has been accused of using bad debt policies in Africa, citing a lack of transparency in loan agreements and consequent pressure from China to debtors to forcibly support their geostrategic interests in case they fail to service their debts. China has also been accused of entering secret negotiations in which contracts on projects must be awarded to China-government-owned companies who charge far higher than the available market price.
Uganda negotiated a Shs1.1trillion with Chinese Exim Bank for the expansion and upgrading of Entebbe International Airport. While the loan was approved, many officials in government were not comfortable with the clauses of the loan repayment agreement, mostly those that gave China Bank so much power to determine budgets, inspect Civil Aviation Accounts and approve withdrawals from Civil Aviation accounts. UCAA will lose its rights of use and control over its revenues as a self-financing institution with limited funding. Such provisions would expose the organisation to risk of failure in service delivery and bankruptcy. Among the controversial provisions is a surrendering under the airport loan agreement of the approval of UCAA budget, master and strategic plans, which ordinarily are the mandates of the aviation regulator’s board, to Exim Bank in Beijing.
Some of the unfavorable provisions in the loan agreement that Uganda signed with the Export-Import (Exim) Bank of China on March 31, 2015, if not amended, expose Uganda’s sovereign assets to attachments and take-over upon arbitration awards in Beijing. Indeed, the state minister for Finance, Amos Lugoloobi confirmed that that loan was poorly negotiated but added there was no cause for alarm as the airport would not be attached. Civil Aviation officials called for the amendment of the debt repayment provisions, citing that the airport risked potential attachment by China.
Attorney General Kiwanuka Kiryowa, playing down the fears of the airport takeover, said there is no cause for alarm because no property of Uganda has been mortgaged. He added that the loan was a commercial contract with an obligation to both parties. “When you borrow money, your obligation is to pay. If you do not pay, the other party can take you to court, in which case this would be CIETAC,” he said. “Let everyone do their part. The airport makes money and will meet its obligations.” Finance minister Kasaija said in case of a loan default, the government would intervene. “In the unlikely event that UCAA were to fail to generate sufficient revenue to service the loan, the central government will step in,” he said.
In Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on November 29, 2021, he stated : "Uganda is China’s important cooperative partner in Africa. China always follows the principle of openness, transparency, equality and mutual benefit. China has provided financing support to cooperation projects to the best of its capability in light of Uganda’s needs and requests. Such financial support always goes through in-depth feasibility study and market-based assessment. All those loan agreements have been signed through consultation on voluntary basis between both sides. The so-called allegation that China’s financial institution will seize and take over Uganda’s project and assets is nothing but ill-intentioned speculation that has no factual grounds. In fact, not a single China-Africa cooperation project has been “taken over” or “confiscated” by China due to debt problems. I do hope Bloomberg can convey this point faithfully to its readership through its report. China is ready to continue infrastructure and other cooperation with African countries including Uganda based on mutual benefits."
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