Invest in youth to give Uganda a prosperous future - US envoy

Friday September 24 2021

The US ambassador to Uganda, Ms Natalie Brown, during the interview at her residence in Kololo, Kampala, on Wednesday. PHOTO/RACHEL MABALA

By Frederic Musisi

You started your tour of duty to Uganda at one of the worst times—a raging pandemic, and high-octane presidential election campaigns. What rang in your mind?
It was an exciting time to start a new assignment.  Certainly, with the pandemic and the measures in place to keep people safe before we had the vaccines, I remember my colleagues were working from home.

We reduced 70 percent of staff in the office; so, that created challenges in terms of coordination and getting to know the staff. But I will say [that] working virtually in these challenges created new opportunities. And, so, it’s a mixed pack when you think about what we have all learnt over the past18 months during this pandemic.

There was the transition between a Republican-led administration under Trump to the Biden-Democrats led administration during your tenure here. We all know the two leaders and parties espouse separate [ideologies], even when the United States foreign policy and interests rarely change.

Well, as you know I have spent most of my professional life as a diplomat, as a [Department of] State employee, and I have seen many transitions, from Democratic to Republican [and] back to Democratic administrations. One thing, well, certainly there may be different priorities, and each administration has one thing that is usually consistent is: our approach to issues in Africa.

You see that with the continuity of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) programme [initiated by republican President George W. Bush]. There’s the [US] President’s Malaria Initiative [also launched by Bush in 2005].  We

have the Power Africa [under Barack Obama administration] and there are a number of programmes and activities that may have started in one administration that have continued because we recognise the importance of them to supporting Ugandan citizens and others on the African continent.  So, I think from that standpoint, there is some consistency.


But, certainly, each administration also brings its [own] priorities. One of the things that [incumbent] President (Joe) Biden has highlighted, in addition to addressing the pandemic, which is just paramount because it’s going to be so difficult to make any progress on any other issue until we have some safety measures and can stem the spread of this virus and keep people healthy, is democracy, human rights, and tackling corruption. 

As President Joe Biden set off on Monday for the United Nations General Assembly, which is underway, there were some protests outside the UN headquarters in New York, over vaccine apartheid. The People’s Vaccine Alliance put it aptly on Monday that “A year ago, the barrier to beating this cruel disease was science. Today it is inequality.” How can your government push the market driven corporations to change their tactics to make the jabs more available?

President Biden has emphasised the importance [of] getting a shot into everyone’s arm and emphasised that domestically in the US as well as internationally. He’s committed to providing vaccine donations to countries that need them. We have donated so far more than two million jabs to Uganda and other countries are receiving as well. The President has reemphasised the US commitment to making sure that countries that need the vaccines get them. But it’s complicated; meaningful logistics appointments around the world, ensuring the proper storage and handling.

Here in Kampala, it’s a little bit easy to get the vaccines, but to people in other parts of the country with dirt roads, and without consistent electricity, that makes it a little bit more complicated. [Washington has donated to Uganda about 2.2 million doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, both of which have up to -80 degrees Celsius storage temperature, presenting problems of cold chain maintenance upcountry – Editor]. But we call upon on all of our other partners who are able to assist to do this. It’s not something we can do alone.

Fair enough. Let’s move to Uganda’s January elections. We all saw the nasty things that happened. What were your take-aways?
The US believes strongly in government by the people, for the people. As a democracy, I hope, that’s a value that we share with the Ugandan people. Unfortunately, there were some actions that we saw around, where, you know, excessive use of force, or individuals who supported candidates from Opposition parties with their efforts, repressed.

It was also extremely difficult during the pandemic with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place and efforts to make sure that Covid-19 was not spread among people. But, some of the measures that we saw were quite concerning. With regards to the individuals who lost their life in November [2020 protest], we’d love to see a full accounting of what happened and the plans to make sure that you don’t have this kind of loss of life going forward. [President Museveni in televised addresses said soldiers, including members of the elite Special Forces, shot dead 54 citizens while suppressing the riots that he blamed on ‘terrorists’ as ‘foreign agents’ – Editor].

One of the strongest accusations against Washington is that it largely kept silent about these extrajudicial killings.  Of course, President Museveni, who was a candidate for re-election on the ruling party ticket, accused the West of plotting regime change. He made similar allegation sin past elections. Why do you think he thinks so?

So, the United States doesn’t support [any] individual, any individual political party or politician. What we are interested in is a political process that is free, fair, and transparent for people who want to be involved; where the candidates have an opportunity to share their messages with the people and where the electorate has the opportunity to go to the polls without intimidation. [In other words], both are conscious at the ballot box.

So, you know, that’s how we approach elections, not just in Uganda, but in any country, and certainly our own. And, that’s what we hope to see for future elections in this country.

In December 2020, the US Department of State eventually came out strongly on the mess in Uganda’s elections and sanctioned top security commanders. Is that the last we see of US sanctions against Uganda officials?
As I said, the conduct of elections is something that the US takes very seriously and subsequent to the balloting that took place in January, we did impose some visa restrictions on individuals that we believe undermined the conduct of elections, undermined the process and were working against democracy.

We continue to look at the overall political environment, the political space for civil society actors to carry out their important initiatives and their contributions to society, and we will assess and make determinations based on what transpires.

And your government still gives Uganda nearly $1 billion (Shs3.5t) each year, about half for Health sector?
The US investments in Uganda, I mean, all together and this includes our investment in Health, Education, Agriculture, and so many other fields, it’s close to a billion dollars each year. That also includes what we provide to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) for their activities [in Uganda]. We don’t give this to the Ugandan government, but it’s an investment to the Ugandan people and Ugandan institutions to contribute to society and the people to create conditions that help every child, woman, and men live healthier.

Certainly, when it comes to health, you know there have been some groundbreaking research on HIV/Aids. In Uganda, we’re close to pandemic control, meaning that 95 percent of people know their status, 95 percent of those people are on treatment, and 95 percent have suppressed viral load.

Talking of malaria, since the US President’s Malaria Initiative started here in 2006, the number of children under five who suffer from malaria has decreased by 77 percent, and mortality too has decreased by 53 percent.  So, it’s this investment that we make that we think can create an impact on people’s lives.

Your recent US embassy in Uganda report to the Ugandan people details that you spend some $439m on HIV/Aids interventions. But as Uganda Aids Commission told Parliament last week, 80 percent of related interventions are donor-funded and this could explain the erosion of the gains made to stem the scourge. Shouldn’t you be pressing Uganda government to do more?

Again, as you know the US investment in Uganda is significant, and really our ultimate goal — of our financial systems, of our investment in this country --- is to work ourselves out of this job; for Ugandan institutions, and for government to take this over incrementally every year.

Globally, we see some reductions in the budget and the goal is for the [recipient country’s] government to take on this part and its part of our ongoing conversation, not just in HIV/Aids.  It’s kind of across the board for the government to have more ownership of all these activities.

Part of your investment is in security cooperation working closely with the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). So, there’s a perception that President Museveni’s government is an American proxy, handing conflict hotspots such as Somalia, Burundi and South Sudan on behalf of Washington, making the Ugandan leader a security doyen and consultant in Great Lakes Region.  

Well, you have to look at the geography; I mean, Uganda is situated in a fragile and often complex part of the African continent. South Sudan faced warnings [and cyclical violence] for years, sending refugees to [Uganda]. Then the insecurity in eastern (Democratic Republic of] Congo is a challenge. And, I think, what happens in these countries really can have an impact on Uganda and its citizens. This is one area where there have been, historically, cooperation between the United States and Uganda. Right now, you know, Uganda is the largest troop-contributing country to Amisom (African Union Peace-keeping Mission) in Somalia, and the focus of our relationship there is supporting the troop-contributing countries there and making sure they have the training and the equipment [that they need to get the job done].

Talking of Somalia and the threat of violent extremism, in the wake of America’s hasty troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last month, keen observers ring a bell that Uganda’s time in the Horn of African country is up. Don’t you think so?
You know, war is difficult. And, you know, the situation in Afghanistan and the speed at which it deteriorated was surprising to a lot of people. We’re talking about two different countries here, two different situations, and, I think, it’s very difficult to try and make any comparison.  But once there’s conflict, anytime the countries that are involved have to look at what’s going on to try and draw lessons from those experiences, and to make changes to make sure that it’s not repeated.

Staying on security, Reuters news agency, quoting the US Ambassador to the DR Congo, Michael A. Hammer, reported last month that US Special Forces were deployed again in Congo to “conduct an assessment of a future Congolese counter-terrorism team”. Then DR Congo President Félix Tshisekedi indicated that US troops would be venturing in to flush out the Uganda rebel outfit, the Allied Democratic Forces or ADF. President Museveni has hinted that Uganda is in talks with Kinshasa for UPDF to deploy in eastern Congo to confront the ADF rebels. Does the US support this?

Well, as we were just discussing, this region is fragile with security threats and, certainly, eastern DR Congo is one area of concern with the presence of ISIS/ Islamic State.  In March of this year, US Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken imposed sanctions on ISIS in DR Congo and the goal was to limit the resources available to the group and its leaders for terror activities.

With regards to US cooperation, there is a Special Forces Group from Africa Command [based in Germany] that was recently in DR Congo and that was related to counter-terrorism discussions and assessments with the government of DR C.ongo
With regard to Uganda’s relationship with DR Congo, we’ve already read things in the media; we certainly hope that any response especially military response to the threat; that, it’s close coordination with President Tshisekedi and MONUSCO (UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DR Congo).
So, what will be US’s role; is it intelligence and reconnaissance, or including putting boots on the ground. And how does Uganda come in?
Responding to the threat there, we share concerns and we’re interested in consulting with the countries that are affected, but the conversations between the two presidents (Museveni and Tshisekedi) of the two countries, I am not privy to them and I am not going to speculate about the path forward. 
I [would] just like to emphasise the importance of open communication and close coordination on how the nations in the region respond to the threat of ISIS in DR Congo.

One year down the road, sure you’ve acclimatised yourself well with the Uganda and its system. What is your assessment of the state of affairs in the country?
[Laughs]. Well, I still feel very new to this country. It’s so diverse and I haven’t had a chance to forge all the partnerships [that I] am looking forward to do so. You know, Uganda is a very,  very young country and the opportunity that I’ve had to meet the young people, they are so dynamic, they’re energetic, they’re hopeful. And, I think, the focus, I hope of the government, and the other partners working here, would [be] on how do we support and help these young people to contribute to the society’s growth?

So, I think, investing in the youth, giving them opportunities, creating space for them to thrive [and] giving them access to credit they need [and important]. They need accountability and transparency, they need to be active in the political space, and they need the environment that really empowers them.

The US mission in Kampala’s 2020 report talks of investing in a “democratic system that welcomes all citizens to have a say in how they are governed [and] strengthens security and economic growth”. While you pride in all that, Uganda, like the experiences elsewhere in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea etc, show that longevity of a leader in power is counter-productive.  Don’t you think your efforts are counter-productive?

Again, all our investments in Uganda are really investing in the Ugandan people so [that] they can take the lead, be productive [and] to contribute to the growth and development of the society. It’s up to the Ugandan people to forge that path forward and, I think, what the US is doing is giving people the tools to make informed decision about the direction of the country.