The Danish Development Cooperation Minister, Mr Christian Friis Bach, was in the country last week to appraise projects financed by his government. But he seemed perturbed by unchecked theft of public resources, saying no government in Denmark would have survived a “fraction” of the OPM scandal where bureaucrats spirited away atleast Shs33b. The minister spoke toDaily Monitor’s Tabu Butagira and Frederic Musisi, and warned that time was running out for the Ugandan government to act on its promise on zero-tolerance to corruption.
What brings you to Kampala on this particular occasion?
I have come to affirm the strong partnership between Denmark and Uganda and to confirm that Denmark is still walking and working together with the people of Uganda to address issues of poverty, human rights and create a ‘green-growth’.
I’m also here to discuss some of the critical issues that have affected our partnership in recent times. If you are close friends like Uganda and Denmark, you must discuss when times are easy and we should discuss even more when times are difficult.
What are these ‘critical’ issues?
One critical issue is corruption; the Office of the Prime Minister’s (Shs60b fraud). It is a very serious issue and it has really drawn a lot of attention in the Danish press and Parliament. It is something we are very concerned about as the Danish government. No Danish government could have survived just a fraction of that case (embezzlement). I understand the complexities of the case here, and I have trust that steps are being taken to address this case.
You said no Danish government could have survived a fraction of this OPM fraud, do you sense any impunity in Uganda when it comes to dealing with corruption?
No, I have full confidence that steps will be taken to keep those who have been involved accountable. They have to be put to trial. These cases have to be pursued to the very end and whoever is involved in the fraud case be held accountable. We have clearly told government that we want a full investigation; that we want new mechanisms to be put in place so that such cases can be avoided in the future; and, that we would want to see our money ($2m) paid back.
We also said clearly that we don’t want to punish the people of Uganda, and that’s why our money, when refunded, will be used for the purpose it was originally intended for - directly supporting the people of northern Uganda.
You said you are demanding stronger action against those found culpable in the OPM cash theft. There is a public perception that Permanent Secretary Pius Bigirimana, the accounting officer, is being protected politically after he claimed to be a whistle-blower. Are you satisfied that actions you, as donors, demanded are being taken?
We have said clearly that all those involved must be held accountable, and I have strong expectation that not until this is handled, we are not going to resume our partnership and support to Uganda. I am actually a firm believer in budget support to governments, and in many other countries. So this (OPM scandal) was a sad case because it really undermined, politically, my ability to move forward on this agenda, and it has repercussions for Uganda and many other countries. Uganda is simply signaling that governments cannot handle money entrusted to them and this is going to make it difficult for us ministers in Europe to move forward with budget support, and I believe it will make it difficult for [the Ugandan] State to deliver services. So whoever is exactly accountable, whether the Permanent Secretary or line minister, must be fully investigated.
I think these investigations must be taken outside the OPM, and must be independent and strong to be able to bring whoever is involved to book.
It is individuals stealing yet donors, by suspending aid, punish innocent would-be beneficiaries. Wouldn’t it have been more logical to impose travel bans, Visa restrictions and freeze assets of implicated government officials?
We are not withdrawing money from Uganda. We shall have the same engagement as we had planned. I have said when I have been pushed by the (Danish) Parliament to withdraw aid from Uganda, I am not threatening to withdraw, but I am threatening to stay; to engage and make sure that we have progress to the benefit of the people. I understand very well the position among the people of Uganda that if our government doesn’t perform, why should [all citizens] get punished? To clear this, that’s why we are staying to engage and ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Just to clarify, would you support the opinion that donors sanction wayward bureaucrats individually through travel bans, visa restrictions and asset freeze?
I think the repercussions here are [already] extremely serious for the government. We are talking about $300 million (Shs779b) in aid which is now being suspended on a case that involves around $13 million (Shs33.8b). This is an extremely angry reaction from the international community, and I believe that issues like travel bans have to be limited to issues of a different nature than this one. Now that the government is investigating, the case will be cleared, the money paid and we move on from this one.
And if the government process doesn’t yield the results you expect?
Of course, aid will be suspended and it will take a long time for us to restore confidence between us as governments. My only concern is that I have been working closely with the Ugandan Ambassador to Denmark (Chargé de’ Affaires Danny Ssozi) to persuade Danish companies to come and invest in Uganda because Uganda is on the move; with lots of growth expectations, but such cases send a signal that this is not the right country to invest in. That is the biggest price Uganda can pay.
In our penal code, which was crafted by British colonial masters, homosexuality is a crime. Do you actually see Western governments as part of the problem in this?
Definitely, we have [been part of the problem], but you should not always listen to what we say. But when it comes to international human rights, it’s not about what we say; it is a question of core international human rights and principles, and if you obey them you build stronger, equal and wealthy societies. And that is what can bring about change in Uganda.
If the Ugandan Parliament passes the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, what will be the likely ramifications for the country’s bilateral relations with Denmark?
We again here threaten not to run away, but stay and engage because we believe in critical constructive dialogue between people. Of course, we would have to look at our development cooperation and say, if Uganda moves in the direction of cautioning human rights, how can we work together with the people of Uganda, to support human rights for everybody?
There is an allegation that Western individuals and governments are giving money through civil society organisations and individuals in Uganda to recruit people into the ‘gay movement’. Is this something that bothers you?
We should hold and fight for all those people that fight for human rights; we support the (Statutory) Uganda Human Rights Commission but also support civil society organisations.
Do you give money to either recruit or promote homosexuality in Uganda?
Our core value [is] to support and respect human rights, equal treatment and no discrimination to everybody’s sexual orientation regardless of who people love or what they believe in. That is how you build a strong society; that’s [our] experience. If you look at all countries that are moving to prosperity, it’s these core values that they have taken, and I think it’s also among African core values of openness and tolerance.
We just had a UN Conference in Copenhagen about Inequality and the core message there was equality in the society builds social cohesion, social capital, wealth, growth, diversity. I think that’s the key message to the people of Uganda.
Denmark supports strengthening of the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS), and one of the key law enforcement institutions is the Uganda Police Force, accused of gross human rights violations when especially dealing with opposition politicians. What would be your message to the Force?
We believe in engagements, not confrontations. Through JLOS, we learn from each other and [how] to promote basic human rights. I believe the way we would like to cooperate with the Uganda Police Force is to ensure they have known something about respecting human rights [and] use [the knowledge] in their work.