Irene Ikomu: The woman who changed US-Africa relations

Friday August 8 2014

Irene Ikomu

Irene Ikomu 

By Didas Kisembo &Fredric Musisi

In a single question to the US president who was on an African tour last year, a Ugandan woman, set the world’s super power re-think its strategy on the continent.

In June last year, during the town hall interactions between President Obama and African youth, Irene Ikomu was introduced by former NTV news anchor Ms Nancy Kacungira.
She asked President Obama about the viability of the US policy of pumping aid instead of promoting trade which would create jobs and employment opportunities.

She told him it was trade not aid that the continent needed.
A year later, President Obama admitted before African leaders at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington this week it was important that the US assists Africa to grow the continent’s trade potential.

“Last year in South Africa, I held a town hall interaction with young men and women from across the continent, including some who joined us by video from Uganda. And one young woman from Uganda spoke for many Africans when she told me: ‘We are looking to the world for equal business partners and commitments, and not aid. We want to do business and be the ones to own our markets’,” President Obama said while meeting the largest gathering of African leaders, the first of its kind by a US President.

“That is a sentiment we hear over and over again. When I was travelling throughout Africa last year, what I heard was the desire of Africans not just for aid, but for trade and development that actually helps nations grow and empowers Africans for the long term.”

Ikomu is a Kampala based lawyer, who has been involved in advocating for good governance and democracy in Uganda.
She manages Parliament Watch Uganda, an initiative that monitors on-going parliamentary processes and disseminates this information to the Ugandan public.


The 24-year-old, who hails from Eastern Uganda, has been behind diverse social change start-ups that have empowered young people in Uganda to become active citizens like the National Debate Council, Early Life Online Radio and the Green Light Movement.

She currently sits on the Usaid Uganda supported Democracy, Rights and Governance Advisory Board.
Irene has been recognised as an outstanding leader by the US Embassy and selected to serve as a Generation Change Fellow representing Uganda at the just concluded Young African Leaders Initiative summit in Washington, US.

The summit brought together 500 young people from all over Africa to meet with President Obama, and other top federal government officials.
During the summit, which opened at the end of July, President Obama announced new public-private partnerships to create a continuum of programmes, platforms, and support for young African leaders.
These new investments will include the development of four regional leadership centres in Africa, a vast array of online classes and resources, along with seed funding, mentoring, and networking opportunities.

The summit served as the lead-up event to the inaugural US-Africa Leaders’ Summit this week where Obama praised Ikomu’s call for more investments rather than aid in Africa as the direction future US–Africa relations should take.
Upon completion of the Washington Fellowship, she now plans on getting more young people engaged in the policy and legislative discussion, particularly targeting law students that will be future legislators and policy analysts.

President Obama during the Africa-US summit announced the US would commit an additional $300m in trade assistance – on top of the significant resources that have already been pledged to Africa with American companies also bringing in a staggering $14b in business investment deals
“And I don’t want to just sustain this momentum, I want to up it.

I want to up our game. So today I’m announcing a series of steps to take our trade with Africa to the next level,” added the US president who also noted that an additional $26b would be channeled towards powering the continent by boosting countries’ individual energy sectors.
Ikomu’s vital question to Obama on behalf of youth all over Africa therefore set in motion events leading up to the new beginnings.

Irene Ikomu of Parliamentary Watch Uganda.
Age. 24
Education. She attended Nabisunsa Girls School for her secondary education between 2003 and 2008, before graduating with a Bachelor of Laws from Makerere University in 2013. .
Work experience. Currently she works with Parliamentary Watch Uganda and sits on the Usaid Uganda supported Democracy, Rights and Governance Advisory Board.

Obama to African leaders: Good governance is key to economic growth
US President Obama on Wednesday closed the US-Africa summit with a call for African leaders to embrace good governance, which he said is the foundation to economic growth. Mr Obama, said the gathering, the largest to be hosted with African leaders, provided a “chance to truly listen and try to come together around pragmatic steps”. “Some African nations are making impressive progress.

But we see troubling restrictions on universal rights,” he was quoted in a statement released by the White House press secretary. The summit, which opened on Monday, was attended by 50 heads of African states but those of Eritrea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Central Africa Republic were excluded.

Invitations were also sent out to some of Africa’s longest serving leaders including Mr Nguema Obiang, who has ruled oil-rich Equatorial Guinea for 34 years, Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola [34 years] Paul Biya of Cameroon [32 years] and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni [28 years], with whom the US has repetitively expressed discontent over several issues like human rights.