People & Power

‘Corrupt ministers must resign’

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Ambassador De Visscher Uganda

Ambassador De Visscher. PHOTO BY ISAAC KASAMANI 

By Tabu Butagira

Posted  Sunday, January 9   2011 at  00:00

In Summary

Mr Vincent De Visscher is the outgoing Head of the European Union Delegation to Uganda. In an interview with Tabu Butagira on Christmas Eve, the envoy urged Ugandan ministers implicated in graft to take political responsibility and resign. The envoy, who was scheduled to leave Uganda on Friday (January 7), warns of the dangers of the country’s exploding population but is charmed by President Museveni whom he describes as a “very capable and visionary politician”. He, however, argues that the Ugandan leader is not walking the talk on fighting corruption as expected. Excerpts:-

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The EU gives Uganda substantial support yet corruption impinges on your development assistance. What has been your experience?
Corruption exists everywhere, not only in Uganda. It’s an evil that we have to combat. It is embezzlement by some people of public money that they put in their pocket to the detriment of others and it is important to fight it in order to have value for money. As manager of European Union public money, it was important to be fully transparent and to ensure the money from EU taxpayers will reaches their beneficiaries. Seventy percent of Uganda’s budget comes from local taxpayers and only 30 per cent is from development partners. So, corruption should be seen all together without seeing what comes from the European Union and what comes from Uganda government. What is important is to join forces with the civil society and with the people in government that also reject corruption.

Uganda already has elaborate laws and structures to fight graft. The shortfall is the implementation. Why should donors who have tools such as visa restrictions, travel bans or freezing of assets of devious bureaucrats be just lamenting?
This is one of the topics I discussed with the Prime Minister (Prof. Apolo Nsibambi) where it seems that so far, there is a difference of culture between Europe and Uganda. We discussed about the political responsibility of ministers versus corruption. By the Constitution of Uganda, the accounting officer - the one that deals with money and procedures - are the permanent secretaries of ministries. And attending session in Parliament on Chogm, there was a declaration by Minister of Agriculture [ Ms Hope Mwesigye] that a minister cannot be held politically accountable for possible mismanagement of procedures and embezzlement of money within their ministries. I explained to the Prime Minister that if it happened in Europe that within a ministry there is embezzlement of money or rigging of procedures, the minister will be politically liable or responsible – the [affected minister] would resign, which is not the case here so far. The dilemma for the EU is that when we are signing financial agreements, it is a legal document where Uganda government takes political responsibility of implementing a programme according to what has been agreed. So you can’t have on the one hand a minister that is not anymore politically responsible. With whom are we signing then? This question of [lack of] political responsibility will be one of the important debates we will have in the coming year. I was very pleased to hear the President declare a zero-tolerance to corruption, but in fact there is a gap between words and deeds.

Is that tended towards sanctioning punishment for those culpable or how EU will review its development assistance to Uganda?
To punish people is not the prime concern of the EU; it’s the responsibility of the government of Uganda. But of course we regret that there may be a sense of impunity developing in Uganda and we hope that the government very soon will tackle the problem. In cutting funding, the people that are going to suffer the most are the [ordinary citizens], not necessarily the one who is at the origin of corruption. We are interested [in] having reforms implemented and particularly for the government of Uganda to tackle the problem of corruption.

There is criticism that once Uganda in 2007 marched its troops to fight the al Shabaab in Somalia, development partners such as the EU and the US have tended to take eyes off political transgression of the ruling NRM. Is it true you are inclined to impress President Museveni?
Absolutely not! I think one has to dissociate two things: internal governance and what Uganda does abroad. I would like to applaud President Museveni for his and government’s engagement [in ensuring] the stability of this troubled region of Africa. President Museveni has a vision and supports the efforts of the international community towards restoring peace and stability. Together with Burundi, Uganda has sent peace-keeping forces to help AMISOM to restore peace in Somalia and we have joined forces together with the Americans to ensure peace will prevail again in Somalia. President Museveni has also intervened in the stability of Burundi which is very important and I appreciate. He has also restored excellent relations with Rwanda, which is very important for the stability of eastern (Democratic Republic of) Congo.

He has re-established diplomatic ties with DRC which is very important. On the stability again, President Museveni, and I witnessed this myself, succeeded to restore peace in northern Uganda. The efforts that his government has put in the Juba peace talks and particularly, I want to pay tribute to Dr Ruhakana Rugunda (Uganda’s Permanent Representive to the UN) and [International Affairs State Minister] Oryem-Okello for their dedication during the Juba Peace talks in which the EU participated. The Juba Peace talks are a milestone for the development of northern Uganda and the stability of the country. And the EU is very pleased to have contributed with different programmes to strengthen the return of Internally Displaced Persons back home. President Museveni has also been very instrumental for the stability of South Sudan and the peace accord (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) which might lead to today’s referendum for self-determination. So all together, the regional vision that President Museveni has must be applauded.

You talk about peace in northern Uganda but when looked at through regional lenses, the LRA rebels still continue to wreak havoc in DRC, CAR and parts of South Sudan. How can LRA problem be conclusively resolved?
The biggest achievement after the Juba Peace talks is that peace was offered to the LRA and they refused to sign – I mean [Joseph] Kony refused to sign. After the military Operation Lightning Thunder that was done for the first time associating three countries - Sudan, DRC and Uganda - the LRA forces have been weakened and Kony is on the run. I think that the LRA forces have been diminished tremendously. When we say the LRA has been flushed out, they have been flushed out and reduced. I’m confident that the efforts of the UPDF and SPLA will contain the remnants of the LRA and that northern Uganda will continue to live peacefully.

What is your impression of President Museveni?
I think that President Museveni is a very capable politician; that he has a vision for his country and if I look at the achievements [under him] over the last 24 years; the macro-economic stability of this country has been extremely impressive. My impression of the leadership is positive although we know that some problems remain. One of the biggest challenges for Uganda in the coming years will be to control its population. The population growth in Uganda is alarming and it raises the question of employing Ugandans in the future. So Uganda needs to diversify very quickly, create employment and invest in infrastructure and energy. Value addition is definitely the way to go.

Some say President Museveni has overstayed in power and the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 and 2006 that the elections in those years that he won were rigged. Does this bother you?
The length of tenure of a President has to relate to the Constitution [of a country]. The Ugandan Constitution was changed [in 2005] and the [two five-year] presidential term limit was scrapped.

Is this something that you support?
It is not that I have to support or not. It is Ugandans who give themselves the Constitution. If Ugandans want to change the Constitution and abolish the term limits, it is their decision. We should not interfere. Ugandans can also look at models we have developed in the West and decide, but it’s not up to the West or the EU to impose models. I believe as a democrat that if you don’t want any more your leader, there is one way to do it – you vote them out in an election. So if you want to change leaders, the way is not through violence. Of course we are for a transparent election and we would like, and we will observe, cases of possible rigging of election.

It’s confirmed Uganda has huge oil deposits. This is a finite resource. What would be your advice on how government can transparently run the industry, focusing on the post-oil harvest epoch?
Oil discovery in this country has been a blessing. Natural resources are de-facto limited and one has to be extremely careful that the exploitation of resources by one or two generations should benefit the country on a long term basis. So resources that will come out of the oil sector [should] be well invested for the long term development of this country. But in order to use it in the most adequate way, it needs accountability [and that the oil proceeds] will be well managed for the benefit of the entire country.

There have been reported UPDF atrocities in Karamoja, a region in which you have had great interest. Through your independent assessment, how has disarmament impacted on the life of the ordinary Karimojong?
When the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Plan was conceived, it was not only to do disarmament; it was to combine disarmament with development. There can’t be security without development and there can’t be development without security. The EU has paid a lot of interest in Karamoja because if you look at the poverty map in Uganda; Karamoja has the highest poverty indicators in the country. All the indicators are in red in terms of education; in terms of access to safe water; health etcetera. Obviously, the EU is interested to combat poverty, Karamoja is a prime target.

In 2008, we developed civil-military cooperation in Karamoja and we had a great success working with [former] commander Col. (Paul) Lokech. The number of reported cases of human rights abuses was on the low side. I am still convinced that it is important to go back to much more dialogue between the traditional leaders, the elected leaders and the population and particularly to pay attention to the young people. We should use development as an incentive to peace and to understand the problem of the different clans in Karamoja and you try to have agreements between the different clans so that they can again live in harmony, that requires listening and solutions that are not necessarily top-down. So I hope that that can be addressed in the coming year, it requires a regional approach involving Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

What is your assessment of human rights records of this government and media freedom?
In every country, human right is not a privilege; it’s a constant battle from an individual to respect other’s rights. We have human rights violations in other countries as is in Uganda. The mobilisation should be constant to uphold the human rights in this country; to ensure that the freedom of expression and human rights are safeguarded. Freedom of expression is important. While in Europe the level of education is much higher, people will not necessarily take newspaper accusations at face value. The problem in Uganda is that the level of education being much lower, people tend to believe what is written in the papers. This question of free media is extremely sensitive for the government because if one newspaper is drawing accusations, people tend to believe it is true. Journalists here have an extremely difficult task to inform the public with credible sources and to be very accurate on what they report so that they cannot be accused of misinformation.