Uganda-Israel ties. In March of 1972, then president Idi Amin expelled Israelis from Uganda, having warmed up to the Palestinian leadership. Decades later, the relationship between the two countries has grown from strength to strength. Through Zoom, Derrick Kiyonga interviewed Israel’s ambassador to Uganda Joseph Oded who is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and below are the excerpts.
It’s now approximately six months since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Kampala. Has there been any improvement in relations between Uganda and Israel?
I think Israel has enjoyed a conducive relationship with Uganda for many years now. Though the prime minister was in Uganda recently, he has been to Uganda several times in the past. I think the prime minister enjoys a close relationship with President Museveni and this is reflected in the close ties between Uganda and Israel.
For years now the Israeli embassy in Nairobi takes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Seychelles. Why is this the case?
You know Israel had a strong presence in East Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. We had an embassy in Kampala and it was Uganda which severed its relations with Israel I think in the early 1970s. But in the 1990s most African countries renewed their relations with Israel and it was only fair for Israel to first open an embassy in Kenya because it was among the first African countries to improve its relationship with Israel by opening an Embassy in Israel. But objectively, Uganda’s relations with Israel has improved. We are in a different place and this is seen through the recent appointment of Ms Ishta Muganga [Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa’s daughter] as Israel’s honorary consul to Uganda.
Mr Netanyahu promised President Museveni that if Uganda opens an embassy in Jerusalem, only then will Israel respond by opening an embassy in Kampala. Why is opening an embassy in Kampala hinged on such conditions?
I was honoured to be in Entebbe during that press conference. What I recall was that the prime minister said he wishes Uganda opens an embassy in Jerusalem and also Israel opens its embassy in Kampala. It was just a wish but no conditions being set.
Would you be happy if Uganda opens its embassy in any other Israeli city, say Tel Aviv, rather than Jerusalem?
I would like to refer to the response President Museveni gave to the issue of opening an embassy in Israel. He said Uganda can open an embassy in parts of Jerusalem which aren’t contested. We would be happy with that.
Of recent, Israel has ramped up its interest in Africa. Why are you interested in Africa more than before?
We never lost interest in Uganda or Africa at large. It was African countries that severed relations with Israel in the 1970s. So it wasn’t lack of interest in Africa, the interest was always there. Israel has always been willing to work with African countries in a number of sectors be it agriculture, counter-terrorism, science and technology.
Agriculture in Israel is a highly developed industry driven by advanced technology yet Uganda, whose economy is largely agricultural, the sector is still at subsistence level. Are there any steps by Israel to see that Uganda’s agricultural sector transits into one that’s technologically driven?
It’s one of the key areas that Israel is working on with Uganda. Israel has been taking in agricultural graduates from Uganda to go and have hands-on training in Israel. Actually, of all students admitted from Africa, Uganda takes up the biggest quota.
The most important priority when it comes to agricultural students arriving in Israel is what happens when they go back to Uganda. So I’m working very hard with the Ugandan government and with other relevant Ugandan agencies to make sure that we are able to facilitate those youngsters… for those young graduates that came back to Uganda such that they can become agri-entrepreneurs and also to be competent in the field of agriculture in Uganda.
I think it’s meaningful to see what is that we can do to assist the people of Uganda transform their traditional fed agricultural system to more innovative and more productive agriculture. I think like I said this is very high on my agenda.
Israel is a military power. Your critics say that your interest in Africa isn’t limited to diplomacy. There is a belief that Israel wants to sell its very expensive arms to African states without caring about their democratic credentials. What’s your response to such concerns?
Israel was forced to develop very strong defence forces because of the challenges that existed from the establishment of Israel and unfortunately they exist to date. Thank God we are able to establish very strong and very effective defence forces. As to your specific question, we have a great interest in many fields in our cooperation between Israel and Uganda and between Israel and African countries.
Security is one of them. The reason for that is only one; we both understand there are challenges on the stability and security of different nations. This challenge mainly comes from extremism and terrorism.
And we definitely see it as an important component mutually. By the way, from Uganda’s side and from Israel’s side, we see as high priority in us cooperating in fighting terrorism and extremism. So this is the basis and only basis of the corporation we have on defence. As for the questioning from the critics, I would just add one thing in the Israeli system when it comes to export of defence component, there is a very strict supervising body that analyses questions that might undermine the ability for Israel to export defence components and, of course, one of them is the sensitivity towards democracy and human rights. So we are far from being indifferent towards that component.
So I want to reiterate what I earlier said the only basis for the defence cooperation between Israel and Uganda and between Israel and Africa is mutual understanding. Together we can overcome extremism and terrorism.
Can you particularise Israel’s defence collaboration with Uganda?
I don’t think that it will surprise you. The relevant agencies in both our countries are first and foremost exchanging views, and also when it comes to capabilities exchange what could be done between the two countries. It’s a combination of exchanging information and capabilities.
Will Israel’s interest in Africa go beyond the Netanyahu era?
Absolutely. Regardless of who becomes the leader of Israel, the importance, the strategic importance, the cultural bond, the shared values are something that will tie our countries regardless of who is the prime minister of Israel.
I have no doubt in my mind. Like I said, the relationship between Israel and Africa and between Israel and Uganda there’s a very strong consensus. It has nothing to do with the internal politics of Israel.
We are in the era of Covid-19 pandemic. We are yet to see Israel aiding struggling African countries with medical equipment such as testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) like other global powers have done…
First of all, you are wrong. But I want to be humble, this is a pandemic that is challenging to all nations. This is a pandemic we have to learn lots about in terms of how we could manage it, how we defeat it, how we could overcome it. When we come specifically to Uganda, we had very humble contributions when it comes to PPEs. We have not mentioned the fact that we recently appointed a new very capable honorary consul to Uganda, Ms Ishta Muganga.
She has been involved in some humble contributions Israel has done to different hospitals and the Ministry of Health… in Kampala... in Kiboga, mainly in PPEs, gowns, temperature guns and so on. This is a humble contribution. I’m saying humble because again I don’t want to be pretentious, I think there is a lot we do together.
So part of our cooperation under Covid-19 is first and foremost to exchange views and share experiences between professionals of both sides with your Ministry of Health. We want to learn from your experience on how to handle Covid-19, we also want to show you ours. We want to discuss with you what we call the exit strategy. How do you balance this very fine line between the necessities each country is taking in order to overcome the pandemic with the importance of going back to normal life as much is possible, opening the economy to allow people to go back to work, exchanging views is what we are doing with your health professionals.
Another component, which we are working on, is exchanging technology. The technologies that Israel develops for various reasons are very important and relevant because they enable people to go back to normal life as quickly as possible. We are happy to share the technologies we have on our side and also learn from the technologies Uganda has developed or adopted from other places.
Last but not least, is that I think mutual efforts in research because we all want to find ways to treat this coronavirus and, of course, find the vaccine. And I think all the joint efforts on this could allow us to reach mutual goals.
What is the one thing you would have done differently during this Covid-19 crisis?
We are doing our best to strike a fine line between closing up to fight the virus and its ability to distribute itself, and between the necessity to go back to normal. I think we all realise that this pandemic isn’t going to disappear just like that, we will have to find ways of living with the pandemic. The question is find a formula that strikes a balance.
I think it’s too early. We will face many articles, many researchers, many analyses. I think this is my main point, only by joint forces by the international community, only joint forces between friends will enable us to overcome this pandemic and to find the right strategies for living with it until we find a vaccine. We shall continue to cooperate with the Ministry of Health of Uganda and the relevant NGOs we have from our side. We have NGOs that are active in the field of medicine and health in Uganda such as Israeli Medicine on the Equator.
We have a very strong activity of Mashav, which is the Israeli Foreign Ministry Agency for International Development Cooperation - a lot of its courses are done in the field of health and medicine and public health. And, of course, we have to focus on Covid-19, now. We have academic institutions that could cooperate.
There is documented evidence of Black people being subjected to racial attacks in Israel. How do you reconcile such attitudes with Israel’s overtures to Africa?
There is no nation that I’m aware of that is totally immune from racism. I think those events are unacceptable. I think what’s important is that the government of Israel, the relevant Israeli agencies, the people of Israel are not willing to tolerate racism and we are fighting racism. Again, you can’t be immune totally from these types of incidents.
But I think when you look at the system, when you look at the norms, when looking at the attitude of government agencies, when you look at the systems when you look at the people of Israel, you will see zero tolerance towards racism.
I can give you positive examples. When you look at the Israeli society, it has been built by Jews that arrived from East African countries, mainly Ethiopia. We just recently established a new government in Israel, we have a minister who originated from East Africa. When you look at the diplomatic roles, you will see diplomats and ambassadors who come from Ethiopia and East Africa.
If you look at our music in the cultural field, just recently we had an internal competition [Eurovision primaries] and it was Eden Alene [an Israeli singer of Ethiopian-Jewish descent] who will represent Israel in the next Eurovision. In every field, you see well-absorbed Jews who arrived from this part of the world [East Africa]. I think this illustrates in the better manner the real attitude of Israeli towards Blacks and the strong objection towards racism.
So you don’t agree with the assertion that racism is institutionalised in Israel?
Categorically, I wouldn’t agree with that. As I said, I was honest and I said that I know of no nation without racist incidents. But the community and government aren’t tolerating these kinds of incidents.
In 2018, it was reported that Israel wanted to deport more than 20,000 African refugees to Rwanda or Uganda. What happened to those plans?
Israel faced in early 2010 the challenge of many illegal work seekers. I think this is the challenge many societies are facing and trying to find the most effective ways to meet that challenge. And I
think we have developed policies trying to meet that challenge.
One was to block in a more effective manner the ability of illegal worker seekers to penetrate and enter Israel. And I think we have done a tremendous job on that and have such low numbers that are able to penetrate Israel. And two, it was a combination of trying to either incorporate some of those illegal work seekers in Israel or find an acceptable solution such that they can be allocated to other countries.
They aren’t refugees?
They aren’t refugees. Israel is much committed to the international norms of dealing with refugees.
There’s a very accurate procedure of who is defined as a refugee and what you should be doing with refugees. We are signatory to the UN convention and protocols relating to the status of refugees and we are very much committed to the norms and regulations of these conventions.
The challenge Israel is facing isn’t refugees. Israel has very few refugees. The challenge Israel is facing is illegal work seekers.
So you wouldn’t categorise the other people who were deported to Rwanda or Uganda as refugees?
Again, I wouldn’t use the word deporting and I wouldn’t use the word refugees. As I said, we were talking about illegal work seekers. We tried to find agreeable solutions to meet the challenge, part of it was to incorporate them into Israel and part of it was finding for them other places to live.
What are the foremost tests you face as a diplomat in this part of the continent?
The tests are to find enough time to visit more and more beautiful places and to meet more and more impressing people and to have much more engagement at all levels. I feel more challenged in a positive manner serving in Africa, serving in East Africa and serving in Uganda.
I’m very much impressed with the amount of love and about the strength of friendship that I feel when I meet people in Uganda and East Africa.
And I’m very much impressed by the potential we are to meet yet. We have much more we can do to strengthen our bonds and to strengthen our relationships.
You cover five countries in this part of Africa. How do you manage?
We try to work hard. And I have a good team at the embassy and you as you can see we don’t allow Covid-19 to stop us from engaging. Unfortunately, we can’t arrive [in Uganda] physically but we are using the same technologies [Zoom] to make sure that we maintain the right kind of engagement.
And specifically with Uganda, we are now blessed we have the newly appointed honorary consul, Ms Ishta Muganga, her presence on the ground is a tremendous assistance to us. It enables us to engage in a better and effective manner.
What was the process of appointing her [Muganga]?
It’s a very visible and very transparent process. Like any other country, we appointed an honorary consul.
So it’s Israel which appointed her?
It’s a search that we do to find relevant candidates. On the merits, there are people who are successful at what they do in their country. People who have good ties with Israel, they have a good affinity towards Israel.
In their work, they are bold in what they do in their own countries. It’s a process that is mutually agreed with both governments. We suggest and we also get the consent of the government.
She is a daughter of Uganda’s Foreign minister and that has led to queries…
I don’t think she has to be blamed for that. I could tell you categorically that Ms Ishta Muganga stands on her own merits. That’s exactly why we have chosen her.
She has been successful in business in the tourism sector, she has done many impressive things in her personal biography. She is a very good friend of Israel and I think once you judge her, at least in the context of us appointing her on the merit, then she is suitable.
She has been working hard from the first week of her appointment and very active in ceremonies, contributing towards easing the relationship between Israel and Uganda in the health sector, helping out in tourism, facilitating easier access to visas to Israel.
I think she must be respected on her own merits.