Govt pays Irish PR firm Shs2b to clean image dented by walk-to-work

Dr Besigye (in blue cap, trouser) flees from security operatives as his aides are roughed last year. Photo by Isaac Kasamani

What you need to know:

Image crisis. The firm is expected to improve govt’s public image after blunders committed by the police.

An Irish PR company, Glenevin Operational Risk and Security Consultancy, said to have been hired through the Office of the Prime Minister is reportedly going to be paid more than $1 million (Shs2.3 billion) to clean up the government’s image dented by police’s brutal crack-down on peaceful demonstrations.

The firm is currently working behind-the-scenes in an environment where the police force continues to face criticism for using excessive force to stop the opposition from exercising the constitutional right to freedom of expression, assembly and to hold demonstrations.

Some individuals believed to be associated with the firm have already been seen in the company of the commander of the police’s Field Force Unit, Christopher Kasalawo, at several Activists for Change (A4C) rallies guiding security officers.

The government remains tight-lipped on whether the company was sourced in line with public procurement regulations and from what vote its fees will be paid.

A4C singled out
A4C, a pressure group whose coordinated joint opposition civil action against poor regime policies, widespread corruption in government, inadequate public service delivery, and protests at failure of the NRM government to improve the economic fortunes of millions of Ugandans stuck in poverty, is said to have been singled out for attention by Glenevin.

The government initially struck back at A4C through Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura’s police units that broke up rallies by indiscriminately firing volleys of live ammunition, tear gas and water canon at unarmed civilians, resulting in the death of tens of people and injury of scores of others.

Several people were arrested although the courts have continued to dismiss charges preferred against opposition politicians who participated in the campaign.

Leading opposition figures were flogged, manhandled and either thrown into police cells or prevented from leaving their homes under archaic colonial laws.

However, the high-handedness of the security apparatus has caused government pressure as human rights activists and Western countries shocked by the ruthless suppression of freedom of expression and assembly, warned that it posed a threat to the country’s democratic progress and called for respect for human rights.

On Tuesday, government Media Centre’s Executive Director Fred Opolot issued a press release acknowledging the hiring of a public relations company he did not name.

“Our collaboration with this team will realign our provision of services to government and the media. It is greatly important that the management of Uganda’s international reputation becomes more streamlined and purposeful,” he said.

Available information shows that Glenevin provides a wide range of consultancy and management services it says enables individuals and organisations perform to their optimum within cost-effective and efficient security structures.

It is not clear whether government followed the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act that, among others, requires competitive bidding for contracts of this magnitude and cost.
Mr Opolot declined to comment when pressed, saying he will avail details later.

Firm causing ripples
Mr Pius Bigirimaana, the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, on Wednesday said he is not aware of the Irish PR firm although sources say his ministry had something to do with their entry into the country.

A government publicist, who has been dealing with the firm but did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, told Saturday Monitor that whereas the firm was welcomed by spokespersons, its methods are now being quietly criticised.

“The PR and Security firm gave orders through the Uganda Media Centre that any government officials intending to make a statement about the opposition or any sensitive matter must have his or her statement sanctioned by the Media Centre,” the publicist said.

To cool the rising political temperatures, Glenevin also advised government to allow the opposition room to express their grievances at public rallies, the publicist said. It is said this partly explains the easing back on brutal tactics previously used to quell opposition rallies at the height of the walk-to-work campaign against the rising cost of living.

Opposition scoffs
But A4C coordinator Mathias Mpuuga has described the PR project as a waste of taxpayers’ money. He said no amount of whitewashing can improve the image of a brutal regime Ugandans have come to take their government for following the manner in which it has dealt with public protests.

“Will this PR feed the starving population? Will it bring medicine in hospitals? This is another huge hole where our funds are going to be sunk for the corrupt to benefit,” he said.

Mr Robert Lugoloobi, a human rights activist, related the hiring of a foreign PR firm to paint a good image of the country to a person who spends all his little money on drinking in a futile bid to forget his problems.

When he wakes up, he finds the same problems. So, you can’t paint a picture that Uganda is well when there are potholes all over. We should first address the root causes of the problem,” he said.

2004: The Uganda government spent another $1 million (about Shs2.2 billion) over six months to, ostensibly to promote the country as a top tourist destination on CNN under the tagline, “Uganda: A Gift of Nature”.
2005: For hundreds of thousands of dollars, government engaged international lobbyists such as the former British Minister for Overseas Development, Ms Linda Chalker, and former US Secretary for African Affairs during the Bill Clinton government, Ms Rosa Whitaker.
2006: The government hired a British public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, at Shs1.6 billion to improve the country’s image in the international media. Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa brokered the deal.