President Museveni is increasingly tapping election losers as ambassadors, turning an otherwise coveted Foreign Service into a dumping ground for political rejects. This, according to insiders and retired diplomats, raises questions about competence and ability of the new crop of ambassadors to pursue the country’s interests in a complex diplomatic world.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, says employing non-career diplomats as ambassadors is a widespread practice globally, because politicians are known to “express the interest or strategy of Uganda vis-à-vis the country they are posted to”.
Highly placed government sources have told the Sunday Monitor of heightened tensions and mutual mistrust brewing between seasoned diplomats, who, on the one hand, feel they are more qualified to be ambassadors and, on the other hand, a collection of bossy politicians installed as their supervisors.
Part of the reason for the misunderstanding is that smuggling in politicians as ambassadors blocks an opportunity for career growth within the traditional Foreign Service hierarchy, suffocating and frustrating career diplomats.
This power struggle has reportedly fractured work relations among staff at some missions abroad, promoted unprincipled rivalry and lowered morale.
A decision by Ms Joan Rwabyomere to allegedly seek UK citizenship while serving as Uganda’s envoy to London, showed our diplomats are never short on surprises.
Investigations by this newspaper show that only eight out of the current 34 Heads of Missions are career diplomats, alarming former envoys who argue that Foreign Service should remain professional for Uganda’s decent external image and effective representation. That would, in their view, necessitate an immediate reversal of the present trend.
Official records show that 14 of the ambassadors, including those appointed in August, and or posted a couple of years ago, were either unsuccessful flag bearers for the ruling NRM or aspirants that party executives persuaded to step down in favour of government big shots during campaigns for the February 2011 ballot.
And some of the newly drafted ambassadors, include accomplished academics or the President’s courtiers who are either approaching or have passed the threshold age of retirement from the civil service.
The NRM primaries to pick its flag bearers for the 2011 General Election were generally chaotic - rendering any outcome to contest, and in order to avoid internal schism, the party chairman, President Museveni, weighed in to personally placate losers who felt short-changed by promising them alternative consideration since his government has “many rooms”.
He absorbed some of the election losers as ministers and Resident District Commissioners, and drilled for them substantial openings too in Foreign Service.
For instance, former junior Health minister Richard Nduhura, who lost the Igara East seat, was picked as Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and is to be deputised by Mr Kintu Nyago, the deputy principal private secretary to the President. Both men have never had a trial run in Foreign Service and now have to represent Uganda at an overly bureaucratic institution known for its complex battles and where professional knowledge and vast diplomatic experience as well as networking are requisites for mobilisation and success.
Why call in Rugunda?
Questions have been asked as to why it was the Minister for ICT, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, who was sent to meet UN officials after Uganda was accused of providing military and political support to the M23 rebels fighting to topple President Joseph Kabila in DR Congo. Under normal circumstances, it would have been the Acting Permanent Representative to the UN, Amb. Adonia Ayebare, to justify his pay.
At home, Dr Nduhura was previously a subject of a police investigation for allegedly voting for himself twice – at Kitwe headquarters polling station in Kyeizooba Sub-county and again at Tank Hill in Bushenyi Town - during the poll for Igara East constituency. And most UN decisions are reached at by taking a vote.
Two former diplomats, who served in the Foreign Service for 27 and 30 years each, respectively, including under Milton Obote and Idi Amin governments, said things were better organised for envoys then than now and etiquette required them to be well-ordered in their physical presentation, polished in manners and intellectually sharp with irreproachable work, ethical and personal record.
In the latest reshuffle of the envoys, former Bududa District Woman MP Oliver Wonekha, who was defeated in 2011, was posted to Washington, D.C. and will engage with the most-powerful at the Department of State and Capitol Hill, in the US capital, to push Uganda’s agenda. She takes the post as a beginner diplomat with a basket of experience but as a legislator, coffee quality controller and secondary school teacher.
In contrast, re-elected President Obama tapped a man of 30 years’ experience as a career diplomat to represent his government’s interests in Uganda. Scott DeLisi was the US Ambassador to Nepal before taking charge at the US Kampala Mission in August.
The contrasts of the choices are stark, and so likely will their performance report card be. And whereas Kampala has assigned a retiring Makerere University lecturer, 60-year-old Human nutritionist Prof. Joyce Kakuramatsi Kikafunda to oversee our High Commission in London, the UK government dispatched vastly experienced diplomat Alison Blackburne, who was Her Majesty’s Consul General in Washington, D.C., to safeguard its interests. She has been in Foreign Service since 1987, rotating as Assistant Desk Officer for Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and East Africa Department and being UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN, and later at the EU.
The danger with first-time ambassadors, one colleague said on condition of anonymity, is that counterparts consider them inexperienced and not worthy discussing serious business with, although they will remain courteous in conversations owing to diplomatic decorum.
Whereas the appointment of ambassadors is a prerogative of the President, Mr Harold Acemah, who retired in 2007, when he was Uganda’s Deputy Head of Mission in Brussels, said such a mandate must be exercised, as it was done by past governments, following recruitment, promotion and assignment procedures similar to those in the Civil Service.
This means one should join on merit and rise through the ranks from a foreign service officer (3rd secretary), 2nd secretary, 1st secretary, counsellor, minister counsellor to become an ambassador; picking up along the way vast knowledge through deployment at different desks needed for negotiation and presentation skills.
“The tragedy of parachuting politicians as ambassadors is that we, as a country, get grossly misrepresented,” Mr Acemah said. “The embassies are Uganda’s windows abroad; if you send someone wanting, the damage that they do is enormous and irreparable.”
Kiwanuka Kagimu debacle
They might as well end up only flying Uganda’s flags on their official cars and residences and do nothing or little to achieve the country’s foreign interests. “If you don’t know the issues, what can you discuss?” Mr Acemah added.
There has been animated debate on social media, particularly among the elite, about the suitability - and in many ways the lack thereof - of Uganda’s new crop of ambassadors following an alleged under-par performance by Mr Kagimu Kiwanuka, Uganda’s outgoing envoy to Switzerland, during a recent presentation on the ‘Role of cultural diplomacy in favouring sustainable development’.
The respected Berlin-headquartered Institute for Cultural Diplomacy organised the event at which Mr Kiwanuka, delivered his higgledy-piggledy presentation, and after half an hour, left the audience confused and second- guessing what point he tried to make.
(The YouTube video of Kiwanuka’s rumblings on the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmZwammrZko&list=PLBBD5292893F3FDE1 has since been taken down).
“That was a disaster,” said Mr Paul Etyang, a former deputy secretary-general of the defunct Organisation of African Unity, referring to what he branded “far below-par” performance by Mr Kiwanuka. We were unable to reach Mr Kiwanuka, a son to former Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka.
Mr Etyang raised question about the rigour, if any, with which ambassadorial appointees are vetted, especially that some questionable characters appear to slip through Parliament and security agencies’ sieving net undetected.
“I think the appointing authority is very much influenced by people, who for one reason or another, are not elected to have them appointed to go overseas, the former deputy premier said, adding: “The danger is that we are now being inappropriately represented as a country. It is a very big liability in terms of defending our country’s interests overseas efficiently.”
So, how do today’s diplomats end high up there without a basic grounding in foreign service?
Upon nomination by the President, names of ambassadorial appointees (together with missions of deployment) are sent to Parliament and its Appointments Committee vets them for suitability, making recommendations to the President on any proposed changes.
This year, the committee chaired by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga declined to approve Mr Zake Kibedi, NRM deputy secretary-general Dorothy Hyuha and Ms Susan Adongo Odongo for posting to the Copenhagen, Dar es Salaam and Ottawa missions, respectively.
The committee held the view that Copenhagen was “too big” for 36-year-old Kibedi to manage, demanded that Ms Hyuha resigns as NRM executive officer before taking up the diplomatic employment and considered Ms Adongo’s responses during interview “dull”.
There is no indication that the trio has been cleared and appointments committee member Mathias Mpuuga says they never revisited their earlier decision. Meanwhile, deputy NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said Ms Hyuha hasn’t resigned as the deputy secretary general, “and in my view there is no good reason for someone to insist on being a deputy SG when she has been appointed ambassador.”
“How will she run the party from abroad?” he asked. Ms Hyuha declined to discuss the matter when contacted.
A State House official familiar with the selection process, but who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, told this newspaper that many of the individuals had been accommodated to maintain cohesion within the ruling party; some were pushed for by influential camps of NRM financers/executives, others picked for regional balance, while a few got placement in fulfillment of earlier promises the President had made to them for different reasons.
Officially, ambassadors’ work around the world is cut out: Represent the country politically and lobby for investment, trade and tourism (ITT). Differences in bilateral relations and the peculiar nature of partnership with a country may inform a President’s choice on who to deploy as an ambassador, according to a foreign diplomat accredited to Kampala.
State International Affairs Minister Henry Oryem-Okello said it would be prudent to incubate top diplomats through the traditional foreign service arrangements, but other considerations – among them religious affiliation, political astuteness and country-specific interests of Uganda - come to bear during decision-making.
“People best placed to handle diplomacy should be career diplomats who have been trained both in school and through experience because in that training, you get hands-on skills for handling bilateral and multi-lateral issues; experience is very important,” the minister said.
Comments from online about Kiwanuka
There is no excuse whatsoever for keeping that man there any longer than just enough time to pack his bags! Shame, shame, shame.
Betty Long Cap
Until Ugandans appreciate and understand statesmanship, they will continue to elevate men of low degree. A common mistake is to think like father, like son. Rarely does a statesman sire a statesman.
Betty, we do understand statesmanship fairly well, we are just not in a position to elevate men of high degree, the men of low degree are thrust on us with impunity as you are all well aware.
Kagimu was like some secondary school teacher regurgitating history notes that he’d crammed over the years and passing them on to students who were looking bored, going by their facial expression.
The problem arises from the govt’s tendency to replace career diplomats with hopeless political drop-outs as a reward for loyalty to M7. We should be ready to witness more embarrassing situations if the policy does not change.
Ugandans are represented by many of the type. I wish you had a chance to come to Japan and encounter with the present bunch whom we are told are parking their bags to give way for a new man.
I have encountered these fellows but the most memorable was some time in 2008 during the TICAD summit. The Tokyo embassy has been manned by two interesting characters.
The ambassador, Wasswa Birigwa, whose wife is an Ethiopian (I don’t want to sound ethnic), had hijacked some roles on behalf of Uganda but in a very disturbing way.
I was surprised at one event she was manning the Ugandan Stall/pavilion but with Ethiopian wares and dishes for display and sale! I later learnt some one was displaced.
Lost diplomatic bearing?
In the past, new foreign service officers had to undergo a three-month practical training at what is now the Uganda Management Institute (UMI) to learn basics of international relations, understand how various agencies and government ministries work and some techniques of office administration/staff management.
After this induction, the officers would spend one month touring Uganda to explore the country’s full potential; know its natural endowments, different tribes and cultures as well as history. This would make Foreign Service Officers appreciate the country they know well and be confident when representing and marketing it abroad.
Today, most diplomats are posted overseas to represent Uganda, half of which they have never visited, and run Foreign Service through trial-and-error approach. It’s understood the new ambassadorial appointees are rushed through a two-week training session for basic diplomatic induction so they get key tips before taking up their posts.
Foreign Affairs PS James Mugume said tension between career diplomats and political appointees at foreign missions is a constant the world over. “It all boils down to the quality of the individual (political appointee),” he said.
Uganda’s foreign policies, the PS noted, reflect the country’s domestic priorities such as promotion of investments in energy, agro-processing, human rights development, technology transfer and regional peace and security.