Uganda headed for repeat of 2016 elections, says out-going US ambassador

Sunday January 26 2020

Out-going US ambassador to Uganda De

Out-going US ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac has warned that Uganda is likely to witness poorly organised polls as was the case in 2016. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

By Frederic Musisi

You said you’ll be following events in Uganda after you leave. Of what value will this be?
I am not sure I can answer that question at this point, but honestly after being a career diplomat after 39 years, and 40 years with the US government, I’m entering a new phase of my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what my status will be other than a private citizen, so I’m going to take some time off to reflect.

But in relation to what you have asked, in what capacity will I engage; will I take on a new job to actively do so in Uganda or elsewhere, or simply as a private citizen expressing an opinion? I don’t know the answer to that. But I will continue to monitor what is happening, through friends and colleagues, in Uganda or with colleagues in other countries to understand what is happening on the ground.

Looking back at the almost four years you have worked here, how would you characterise the role of the military in Uganda’s public life, for example, in Operation Wealth Creation or Naads?
Well, certainly I think we have seen an evolution over time, not just in the last four years, but I would say for the last 15 years for the role of the military in Ugandan society. Obviously we have some fundamental philosophical differences about the approaches Operation Wealth Creation takes; the way in which it seeks to theoretically create wealth for people.

Giveaways don’t lift people out of poverty; whether it is the military or civilians, I don’t know. We work extensively in the agricultural sector and have worked directly with the farmers to get them access to greater technology and new farming methods and to link them to markets, so we see what works. We would argue that Operation Wealth Creation is not necessarily the approach that you need to take.

You have been one of the most vocal US ambassadors we’ve had over a period of time, and have seen government speak directly in response to you. Do you think government was ever unfair to you?
In this business you have to have a thick skin. When you are in the public eye you know that not everyone is going to like you and everyone is not always going to say positively about you.

One thing I have learnt in my career, not just in my current capacity as ambassador, is to ensure that I be true to the foreign policy objectives and national interests of the US as my core job, and secondly to maintain those bilateral relations with countries like Uganda. More importantly is being candid and straightforward to our partners, otherwise it leaves room for misinterpretation.

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What have been some of your best/worst moments?
The incredible people that I met as I travelled across Uganda, in rural communities, in urban settings, in government offices, working with CSOs; I was always struck by the enthusiasm of the people—energised and hopeful.
Certainly the people have made me feel at home despite the criticism or when we disagreed over what I have to say. It is something you don’t find anywhere. I have good memories, nature in general; every time I went out of Kampala, every turn of the road takes you to a different scenery. There is a microcosm of the world inside Uganda.

What is it like being a woman in this space, not just in Uganda, but as a diplomat?
I came of age in the US at the heart of the women’s movement, and really observed what was going on to make me believe that as a woman I could do anything I wanted. But simply believing and doing are two very different things, and every woman would know is the case.
So I, like every other woman, joined a business that is very male dominated. We are making progress as women, to grow in numbers, but we are not making progress fast enough. Clearly, there is much more work to be done globally.

You mentioned something to do with young people, and have engaged government and there’s something they always avoid answering, which is succession. The President is in his 70s and there seems to be no plan to succeed him. Do we have a reason to worry?
If you look across history, governments and regimes that stay in power for a long time and do not plan for what comes next, it will often end badly. It’s separate of issue of when the transition has to come, when it should come. That is a conversation that Ugandans themselves have to have, but you know a transition will happen at some point because it must. None of us are immortal.

But the failure to think about it and plan, as if it is not really necessary to do so, can be difficult because it creates that frustration, concern among the population; to not really understand what is happening, particularly among the backdrop of a country like Uganda that has never had a peaceful transition since independence. So it is understandable that people are concerned, but also government has a role to play in not feeding that concern by simply hacking back that we can simply not discuss anything that disrupts the status quo because otherwise we won’t make progress towards our development goals.

With a year to go to the elections, how would you characterise the political landscape. For example, do you have confidence in the Electoral Commission?
Obviously the world will be watching what happens during the 2021 election, and everyone is pretty convinced that the campaigning has begun, though not officially. Given what occurred in 2016 in terms of challenges and difficulties in the process, and I’m not talking about the outcome, but the way in which the elections were conducted and the many reports of irregularities on the parts of the Electoral Commission; if that happens again in 2021, I think there is a lot of us concerned that that is where we are headed towards, and it will be yet another stain on Uganda’s image.

We know there is capacity to run elections, unlike many countries that don’t have capacity but have run a fair elections, we and other development partners are watching closely. Not just in Uganda, but in other countries where regimes have been in power for a very long time, manipulation of the process will likely happen.
It doesn’t necessarily have to happen because it is not an indicator of the popularity of any candidate, so people shouldn’t be afraid of a free and fair elections.

You said earlier that security forces should allow Ugandans to exercise their freedom of association and speech. But police/security says they are following the law. So where is the problem?
Obviously, it is the interpretation of the law. There are laws and guidelines and regulations, but it is about interpretation of the same and in the four years I have been here, I have noticed there is a lot of creative and selective interpretation of the law.
Citizens have an obligation to behave peacefully as violence is not in everyone’s interest wherever side it comes from, whether people destroying property or police beating people on streets.

Law enforcement [agencies] have an obligation to protect people’s rights [and] property, but they need to do it in a way that makes sense. If it is done as if there is no accountability, as if to say it is okay, then they say it won’t happen again and then it happens again, because there is no accountability.
We are also concerned that elements in the UPDF have taken central roles in police, and then excesses begin in a way when they are not police officers. Don’t put them in those situations because things will end badly.

In the four years you have been here, government has gravitated more towards China. Is it something that worries you?
First, China doesn’t provide development aid. So we remain the largest bilateral donor for Uganda as we documented every year for the last three years. Certainly we are concerned about China’s increasing role in Uganda because it is not in Uganda’s long term interest to have the economy dominated by one actor; one reason we are fighting to have US companies here.
I think we just have two different approaches; the US government is investing in people, or the soft side of development if you will, to create greater dividends for the people. It is easier to see a road or dam constructed by China, but US no longer uses that approach. We believe in the private sector. It is a conversation we continue to have with many people in government, especially on the playing field because we know some of our competitors don’t play by the rules.

In 2016, after the election chaos, former US ambassador to the UN in an address to the Security Council described President Museveni as a threat to Uganda’s future stability. You have described Uganda as a cornerstone of stability in the region, and being that we are yet to draw a distinction of Uganda without Museveni since he positioned himself as the sole guarantor of the current so-called stability, don’t you think that if he eventually leaves – especially if he leaves badly – it is likely to trigger a butterfly effect in the region?

It is really a tough neighbourhood first of all. I mean, you don’t have to look farther than eastern DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, and now what is happening in Burundi. It is a difficult region. It is in no one’s interest, and certainly not in the US’s interest to have Uganda as the next exporter of fragility.

So it is important that Uganda continues to remain a peaceful country. Now, we don’t have rose-coloured glasses to show that everything is perfect here. We know the history, we know Uganda, Rwanda’s activities previously in eastern Congo, and other things that have happened.
But ultimately, Uganda has remained a rather cohesive whole over the last years, and that is important because we cannot afford, given everything else that has gone on as far as helping Central African Republic, to be lost.

We’ll continue to do what we can do, that Uganda remains stable while we continue to have discussions that as it remains stable, it remains a country where other things can happen; that you can have economic growth and better protection for human rights.
All of these issues you cannot do without the other.

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