Outgoing EU envoy Attilio Pacifici. PHOTO/FILE


It is time to talk transition and future of Uganda, says outgoing EU diplomat

What you need to know:

  • Italian diplomat Attilio Pacifici checks out early next week after five years as head of the European Union (EU) delegation to Uganda.
  • The EU is Uganda’s second largest bilateral partner with aid commitment of €uros578m (about Shs2.1 trillion) during the last 2014-2020 Development Fund funnelled to, among other sectors, infrastructure, good governance and agriculture.
  • Ambassador Pacifici told Sunday Monitor’s Frederic Musisi that Uganda is teeming with immense opportunities to transform into a modern society, only if the leadership gets its priorities right.

It is safe to say you’re the longest serving EU ambassador. How do you summarise the five years?

I hope I will keep the record [laughs]. I can summarise my time basically on how I saw the situation, but the five years were such a short time and I didn’t even realise. When I first arrived here, we organised a visit to one of the most difficult areas — Karamoja in 2017 — with other European Union ambassadors, then when we started preparing for the 2021 elections, something happened globally (the Covid-19 pandemic) which affected our lives for two years and we couldn’t do what we would have liked to do. So these years have flown, but there are a lot of things that happened; I remember we had a lot of discussions—before and after the elections, then during the Covid-19 crisis, and then the time was gone and here we are.

What were the highlights?
A lot of things have happened. We have seen how little we understand about the great opportunities but also the challenges that Uganda faces. Only recently, which I found interesting, was the dissemination of information of discovery of huge mineral deposits which would turn Uganda upside down. Those are the opportunities and the kinds of things that will make the future of this country absolutely bright, but at the same time Uganda cannot play anymore on the domestic turf only; this world is no longer a small village, and it is longer about landlocked country. What happens in Taiwan, Ukraine, Europe, or the USA influences our lives deeply.

There was an inter-ministerial conference just a few days ago about migration, climate change and environment, where a lot of important statements were made. A minister from one of the countries indicated he was not happy with the way the communique read; he said, ‘All these difficulties we are facing were caused by only 20 countries, but we the developing countries in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America are paying for the consequences’.

Of course, there are droughts, floods and other terrible consequences in Europe and US and China, but in a way that is where the problem comes from and so they have the highest responsibility to address those issues. In my thought, I was like you are absolutely right and I hope tomorrow, not one day soon but tomorrow, the South Americans and other countries contributing very little to these changes will come to tell us; ‘I know you Europeans have big plans, but I would like tomorrow to see those big plans being implemented: You Americans, what are you doing about it because I understand you are not willing to do anything: You Chinese, you don’t even think about it and it is unacceptable.

You all come and lecture me about a lot of things but now am lecturing you about this; you are the source of these problems and so please sort it out.’

You saw people died around the Mt Elgon area; they died because of a combination of terrible factors contributing to climate change; the deforestation, the pressure on land, including people living where they are not supposed to be living. When you put all these things together, it is not surprising. But is it only the responsibility of Uganda, or is it the responsibility of the Europeans, Americans and Chinese? It is our joint responsibility. So this is the kind of challenge and role I have seen Uganda may be preparing itself to play, but not playing it yet. Having a voice which is not just about blaming others but also taking action to address those issue makes me feel proud about it.

That is where you need young people; to participate in decision making process, because they can think farther. So you give them chance to participate in conversation of how Uganda should shape within the next 20 years. The time is flying very fast and there is a very small window during which changes have to take place, why? Because others move so fast.

You sound overly optimistic, and rightly so as an outsider. But do you see or think we have what it takes to make it, because as you know leadership is key in advancement and in your five years you know how leadership preoccupies with mundane things?

First, what is the objective of the State? It is to serve its citizens; to give opportunities, such as education and others, and to value them. For me education is critical. These 20 years should be used to implement a vision for the change of the country, but also to prepare people to be able to manage these challenges. Look at South Korea or even Europe after World War II; the first key investment was top education for everybody. Because you know that in 20 years’ time it will be a different terrain; not the fields, nor the farms or things like that: so that vision should be put at the centre. Human capital development; the human being should be at the centre; there are a lot of demands to change immediately. Uganda is a country of revolution; that is how the current government came about. So people think that is the only way? I’m not sure.

You need a revolution when the situation cannot be changed and there is no other way. Every country in Europe went through that and elsewhere but now, to me, the issue is to plan the future, to plan the transition, to use what Uganda has—the human resources it has in large numbers, investment in them through education to prepare for these 20 years. Is there anyone that can rule and run this country better than the current government? I don’t know. This is not something I should respond to. Many people expect the European Union or the American ambassadors to come with the answer and to tell, that this is what we should do; is that what you expect the representative of another country to be able and to have a right to do? You know, we get blamed whether we do it or don’t; what we say or don’t.

So it is really a wrong assumption that we should be the one bringing the solutions; engaging government, engaging Opposition, telling them not to do this or that; that is for the Ugandans and the region to decide and get it done. From my side, my job is to tell you we have been and want to continue to be friends.

Well, part of the reason and which I think answers you – the EU and US – its common knowledge, are as thick as thieves with the regime; you all look out for what’s best for you. In the immediate aftermath of the untidy 2021 poll the EU parliament passed a resolution to sanction human right abusers and that didn’t happen perhaps because you didn’t want to be seen as overreaching to a regime that, among others, runs your security errands and other things?

Quite honestly, the truth is the reality. What do you actually see in concrete terms that Europe is getting out of Uganda? Specifically, are we getting oil? Are we getting minerals? Are we getting land? Are we getting business? I can tell you that I see other countries getting a lot out of Uganda, but what is Europe getting out of Uganda? What exactly is Europe getting out of Uganda that can justify this thinking that we are here to pursue our interests? What are we getting in concrete terms? If you ask me about Kenya, I will say, okay there are a lot of European investments so that is perhaps why Europe is so charmed by Kenya and vice versa. Here I don’t see that and there is a problem there.

I don’t have the answer, but I don’t see the reasoning behind the statements that if we do what you do—and it’s the kind of common thinking—that if you do something good then there must be something for us.

So, what are your interests here?
That is what I’m saying. We have been here supporting and cooperating for 75 years  but without seeing any clear specific obvious interests that the EU has, besides the principles and values that we share but do not necessarily attribute to these values the same priority. So in practice it is not the kind of the mature partnership that we should have. That is the problem we have. True, there is development cooperation, but is this the kind of partnership that we should be having? We have to move forward and we have not. That’s the difficulty I have seen in the five years. We are living in the past; in the kind of development cooperation that was started many years ago, to accompany the changes and improvements of Uganda then, but it’s time to move into something else.

Who then needs to initiate the conversation?
That is a joint responsibility we have. You cannot believe that EU should start. And I would be arrogant to think that Uganda should start. I say we should start together. We should identify those areas where it would make sense and establish where it would make mutual sense to cooperate. For instance, if we have identified global challenges; we mentioned earlier, energy as something where Uganda has a time window of 20 years to change from fossil resources to something greener, Europe is the leading region in the world to embrace that revolution and put it at the centre of our development cooperation but again it should be about trade, investments or even military cooperation. I don’t think we should remain in those dead-old fashioned areas of cooperation.

You might want to know that Europe produces a lot of military equipment, of course not exported that easily because we have a number of limitations—to ensure that they are of benefit for our partners and allies, not enemies. In scientific research; Europe is sending satellites into space that is another area of cooperation; Uganda has identified Russia for this kind of cooperation, but my message is, time has come to move forward from old ways of cooperation. Open up to more trade; we don’t have enough: there is an economic partnership agreement agreed upon in 2004 but we have not signed it yet, why? Kenya did and it was ratified in parliament. Rwanda did. Tanzania did have issues but seems like they have overcomes those issues. Uganda never had a problem, but never really signed.

In 2013, our Parliament passed the anti-gay law and the EU went gaga, but that response didn’t match the mess—many people killed and maimed—during the last polls inasmuch as you spoke out. Don’t you think the regime, and the President for that matter, thinks it is better that way because then expectations on both sides are few?

So what you are saying is the President thinks we are demanding too much of him? If I understand you well, you think it’s perhaps better to keep Europe not as a core partner because if we did that then they would bother me with issues concerning human rights, democracy, and so on, so we better keep our partnership with somebody who doesn’t require such; it is possible! We don’t exclude that possibility, but then again, it is very difficult for a president to decide what the private sector should do. That is the kind of conversation we need to have. 

The President can say I could do much more in terms of relations with countries, but when it comes to what the private sector can or cannot do, that would be limiting the growth of the economy. Either way, I don’t control the private sector; it is the environment that does. If the environment is conducive for investors; it is something that you either have or don’t—and you can chose not to make it happen by not pursuing cases of corruption, undermining institutions, so many things you can do—but you are shooting yourself in the foot. 

Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja (left) and Ambassador Attilio Pacifici, the head of of European Union (EU) Delegation in Uganda, during the EU Day celebrations at the ambassador’s residence in Kololo, Kampala, on May 9, 2022. PHOTO/ MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

To think that if you open up to the EU to be more powerful then they will lecture you more, it doesn’t help the country. The kind of conversations we have on values and principles are totally different from the values of the private sector which is about creating jobs for the young people. The jobs are not created by the President or the ministers; they are created by the private sector.

They are the people in charge. One politician famously said “the fish rots from the head” and whilst you might disagree, I maintain that our leadership is like a clogged pipe—short on fresh ideas/ imagination—and for that we are a stunted country

I see what you mean and I can respond in this way. First of all, this is the kind of debate you must have as a country, within the elite, the media, the Opposition, the ruling party; this is the kind of debate you need to have. Recently, someone told me in reference to Karamoja that the reason why it remains underdeveloped is because local authorities think it could undermine their leadership if that changed.

It never occurred to me that way—from this angle—but this is an interesting conversation that may apply not just to Karamoja but to Italy, France, Spain or the USA; sometimes it is true that leaders don’t want to have changes because those changes could undermine their authority. That is why it is important to have these discussions to analyse and come up with clear assessments and solutions. It is part of the internal political process and nation building.

You mentioned several times Uganda getting its choice of development partner right. As you know the Chinese are here digging in deep. What then stops EU, even Europeans/American investors, jumping in the mud to do what your Asian contemporaries are doing?

I hear you. There was an interesting article in The Observer newspaper (on Wednesday) about “what China is getting out of Uganda”. What I see in China is a system that is well organised in which you have the private sector supported by the state, so it’s less private, to be able to intervene with excellent technical solutions; they are very smart and their technology in a few years has caught up with European and American technology and there is no doubt about what they have to offer. 

The difference in comparison to us is that they are able to bring together their offers alongside financial instruments, make them available to partners as a package, and they are taking risks that Europeans are not willing or selectively taking. For instance, someone was asking why Europeans are so much in Chile or Argentina and not so much in Uganda and yet they are all resource countries.

I don’t know why, but maybe over the years, the kind of country to country- private sector to private sector relationships has matured between those countries and Europe. That hasn’t started here in Uganda and it is a pity.

Is it an issue of China being able to take risks, or is taking advantage of Africa as some Euro-centric scholars like wax lyrical?
I mean, obviously if they invest; if they do what they are doing there must be some advantages, of getting something back. Whether you have a Chinese or European contractor they do it because there will be a profit. The Chinese are, however, doing two things; they take profit on one side, and are also making the relationship which they didn’t have. The Africa-China relationships started 20 years ago and they are doing well, I admire them for their determination.

When it comes to competition—to choose from their or our area of speciality; for instance, if there is a road to build, there are many Chinese contractors so there is little chance for a European or American contractor to get this contract because the costs of the latter are higher and the risk they are willing to take are lower. But if you want the best of the best; how many roads, dams, airports, which are long-lasting—we have many constructed 100 years ago—they are built by Europeans.

I mean, how did China build some of its biggest infrastructure; they used European contractors as they learnt and now they are doing it by themselves at home and abroad. That is a lesson Uganda should pick; it is a process but you have to start somewhere, whether dealing with Chinese or European contractor.

What were some of your challenging moments?
One thing which is a missed opportunity for me is something we used to do in the past and now is among the forgotten things. Twinnings between Ugandan universities and European institutions.

This comes to mind because last week we bade farewell to 15 Ugandan students under our Erasmus programme but that is a small number because there is no ceiling on the take. Imagine 210 left Indonesia for the same programme. The idea of bringing together researchers and joint studies by both sides is something I regret not having pushed as part of our mutual cooperation.

The other challenge was during the election time, everything became challenging and complicated; it was like going on the rollercoaster. I suppose 2026 will be the same. It doesn’t have to be that way; the assumption that the EU that has been with you for 75 years are doing something. There is no support to the Opposition; no support for subversive activities, nothing of that kind we are doing and I doubt the American are doing either. It is as if to prepare a narrative that in case something goes wrong then the Europeans have fiddled with some issues, why this kind of terrible atmosphere in these hard moments?

Well, you could equally be paranoid if it was you in power for this long and your worst fear is being without the same power

I don’t know. But I can assure you there is not any kind of interference or support to the Opposition nor ruling party whatsoever. Everything else is assumption, speculation and I think there is some kind of discomfort when you use this kind of narrative; makes you think you are not confident enough in this process and that you are ready to blame anybody in case something goes wrong.

Any last word?
Uganda offers a number of interesting opportunities, some of them not fully developed in our areas of cooperation but there is so much to do. Whether I have been able to do that, obviously this job is always work in progress and my successor will pick things where I left.

View leader-ship...  
Is there anyone that can rule and run this country better than the current government? I don’t know. This is not something I should respond to. Many people expect the European Union or the American ambassadors to come with the answer and to tell, that this is what we should do; is that what you expect the representative of another country to be able and to have a right to do? You know, we get blamed whether we do it or don’t; what we say or don’t.