How Uganda applies its foreign policy agenda

Trucks bound for Uganda wait for clearance at Malaba on April 29. Uganda and Kenya continue to spar over trade after the latter imposed non-tariff barriers to curtail exports from neighbouring countries. PHOTO /FILE

What you need to know:

  • In October, President Museveni named his ruling NRM party former director of finance and administration, Mr Hassan Galiwango, as the High Commissioner, replacing Ms Phoebe Otaala, who resigned on July 6 to contest in the party primaries as Tororo District Woman MP. 

For two months now, Uganda’s High Commission in Kenya has been in turmoil over who is in charge. 
Kenya, according to ministry of Trade, is Uganda’s top trading partner in Africa, and third in the rest of the world, hence of utmost importance, also by virtue of being our main gateway to the sea.

In October, President Museveni named his ruling NRM party former director of finance and administration, Mr Hassan Galiwango, as the High Commissioner, replacing Ms Phoebe Otaala, who resigned on July 6 to contest in the party primaries as Tororo District Woman MP. 

She lost in the September primaries while Mr Galiwango was vetted by Parliament to start the job.
On November 29, in a story aired on NTV, a sister station to this newspaper, Ms Otaala said she was still the substantive ambassador to Kenya and has never been recalled by her boss [the President].

“I didn’t resign. I just came to participate in my party elections because before I was appointed ambassador, I was an executive member at NEC level,” she said, adding that reports of her resignation had been created by “some people who wanted to confuse the public,” she said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepted Ms Otaala’s ‘resignation’ in an August 25 letter, a copy this newspaper has seen.
The ministry also recognises Mr Galiwango as the High Commissioner, a position claimed by Ms Otaala, an NRM cadre, having been first appointed in January 2017. Ms Otaala insisted that the former was vetted for another position.

“We have five other embassies hanging. They did not vet him for Nairobi. If they vetted him for Nairobi then that’s byoya bya nswa (a metaphorically statement to mean less than ideal).  I’m not even about to leave. We cannot be two ambassadors in the same area. He can go to China, Japan, Angola and Geneva, among others. He should not look at where I am. Nairobi etandise okumpomera [Nairobi is just getting sweeter for me],” she added.

Diplomatic sources intimated to Daily Monitor late last month that the accounting officer at the Nairobi Mission wrote to the permanent secretary, Mr Patrick Mugoya, seeking guidance as Ms Otaala too was demanding for her salary and related perks.
“You know some things involving the President are never straight forward. We can push the woman around only for him to a make U-turn later and send Galiwango somewhere else and maintain Phoebe there; it is us who will look like fools so we are being careful,” one official told this newspaper.

The High Commission’s website still has Ms Otaala flagged has the head of mission four months since she quit. Her recent diplomatic tour of duty, according to sources, “was to say the least a disaster”—marred by endless fights with subordinates she presumed undermined her but also with supervisors at the ministry in Kampala whom she routinely sidestepped to report to the President.

Messy affairs
Meanwhile, this—the turmoil—as Uganda and Kenya continue to disagree over trade after the latter imposed non-tariff barriers to curtail exports from neighbouring countries. Tanzania reciprocated swiftly which compelled Nairobi to fall back in line, while Uganda is cautious to act, according to people familiar with the matter.

The trade barriers, which contradict the regional East African Community (EAC) Common Market commitments, have cost Uganda in excess of $480 million (about Shs1.7 trillion), according to local manufacturers yet Kenyan exports into Uganda increased from $1.1 billion in 2017 to $1.2 billion in 2018 and 2019.

Earlier in the year, the ministries of Trade and Foreign Affairs unsuccessfully attempted to talk to Nairobi to address the matter. In the months that followed, President Museveni weighed in saying he would talk to his Kenyan counterpart but that was the last to be heard. Then Covid-19 struck.

Meanwhile, as Uganda continues to count losses from the closure of the border with Rwanda following disagreements between President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart, no candidate has spoken about the matter yet local manufacturers are counting losses and revenue projections have been affected.
Political manifestos too are largely silent on regional trade and related intricacies, and largely shallow on Uganda’s foreign policy.

According to the Ambassador James Mugume, the co-chairperson of Uganda Council on Foreign Relations (UCFR), a local policy think-tank, the manifestos or candidates “saying less on foreign policy is not really surprising.”
“We are a landlocked country so we are very inward looking,” Mr Mugume, who until 2016 served as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary, said. 

“So many things are happening around us; the trade wars: the crisis in Ethiopia: the standoff in DRC etc, which we take for granted and you don’t see them discussed much in the news, until they have translated into conflicts.”

The Uganda-Kenya trade war for instance, Ambassador Mugume said is a complex matter—layered at bilateral and multilateral levels under EAC and Northern Corridor Integration Projects—so how you handle it at one level has implications to another.

“You will see that sometimes everyone will wait to see what the President says,” he added. “It is even complicated for us as a landlocked country; it requires being both careful and patient, otherwise any action can be interpreted by the other side completely different leading to conflict or standoff,” he said.

Either way, the ambassador said foreign policy is something that is not largely appreciated locally.
“What is frequently discussed are the local aspects of it [local policy], for instance, the nepotism, cronyism, appointment of underserving individuals, among others, but broadly not the issues and Uganda’s standing on the world stage.”

President Museveni’s continued appointment of loyal cadres and election losers as ambassadors, turning an otherwise coveted foreign service into a gutter, has been an issue of concern and debate for years as it has fractured work relations among staff, promoted unprincipled rivalry and lowered morale at Uganda’s foreign missions abroad.

A December 2018 report of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee on the Auditor General’s findings for four financial years between 2013 and 2017, accused political appointees of intrigue, arrogance, and in some cases outright incompetence in executing their diplomatic duties. The report also cites problems of micro-management, and low morale among lower embassy staff.

While the ministry of Foreign Affairs often defends that the employment of non-career diplomats as ambassadors is a widespread practice globally, senior officials admit quietly that some of the President’s appointees are an ineffective cocktail.

This, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), highlights in its manifesto that: “Many of the senior NRM politicians who do not succeed in elections are usually appointed to head many of Uganda’s missions abroad and overnight take over the role of chief diplomats when they are not schooled in diplomacy and don’t understand the procedures and even which interests to pursue.”

What is Uganda’s policy?
On December 12, NBS ran a story of Uganda’s High Commissioner to Canada Joy Ruth Aceng canvassing for President Museveni in Rukungiri and slamming “being in the Opposition as meaningless.”
Ms Aceng, previously Woman MP for Kole District and a Uganda Peoples Congress stalwart who earlier in 2015 pledged support for President Museveni without officially crossing to the NRM, was named High Commissioner in 2017.

The website of the Canadian Mission as that of Kenya meanwhile do not carry any updated information about Uganda and it is clear they were last updated many months ago as is websites of several other missions routinely panned by needy Ugandans as “useless.” Part of the reason, according to insiders and some analysts, is a problem that is deeply ingrained.

“The implementation of Uganda’s Foreign Policy under NRM, leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of relying primarily on career diplomats as ambassadors and high commissioners, Uganda’s diplomatic service is manned predominantly by political appointees most of whom are frankly unfit and unsuitable to be heads of mission. It’s regrettable, indefensible and unacceptable!” Ambassador Harold Acemah, a former deputy head of Uganda’s diplomatic mission in Brussels, said.

Mr Acemah said Uganda’s foreign policy is guided and underpinned by some principles such as good neighbourliness, peaceful settlement of disputes and non-alignment, which “was evident in the past, especially in the 1960s, consistency and predictability. 

Under NRM regime, it generally has been inconsistent, unpredictable and belligerent.”
“The prospects for a new broom at State House to make significant and positive changes in the direction of Uganda’s Foreign Policy are quite good,” he added.

Uganda’s missions abroad serve three main purposes; economic/commercial, consular services and political cooperation. Some serve only one, two or all the three, owing to their mission charters, location, size, and budgets.
Uganda has 36 foreign missions abroad with several headed by political appointees or with the group installed as employees as a result of systemic cronyism and nepotism in public service.

Diplomatic sources intimated to this newspaper already say there is a long list of names from the ongoing political jockeying that have been forwarded with instructions for posting across all ranks.
Officially, ambassadors represent their countries politically and lobby for investments, trade and tourism. But differences in bilateral relations and the peculiar nature of partnership with a country may inform the President’s choice on who to deploy as an ambassador.

The right system
Whereas the appointment of ambassadors is the prerogative of the President, there have been calls to revert to an old-tested system of past governments that followed procedures of recruitment, promotion and assignment similar to those in the civil service.

This means one would join the diplomatic service on merit and rise through the ranks from a Foreign Service officer (3rd secretary), 2nd secretary, 1st secretary, counsellor, minister counsellor to ambassador. This system, diplomatic sources say, would allow one pick up along the way with vast knowledge through deployment at different desks needed for negotiation and presentation skills.

But the frequent smuggling in of politicians, loyal cadres, and relatives of the powerful in the diplomatic service, has clogged the system, with career officers at same ranks like minister counsellor going for years without promotion.

In the broader terms of foreign policy as a strategy of safeguarding national interests and achieve goals within its international relations environments, Uganda’s position over the last three decades under NRM gained some traction on the world stage, thanks in part to the country’s benevolent treatment of refugees and military adventures in Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic.

President Museveni has repeatedly articulated Uganda’s abiding interest under his direction to pursue a pan-Africanist agenda by helping brothers in need, strengthening regional economic blocs and standing against adverse foreign influences to insure the continent’s future.

This, the President and his acolytes, proudly claim that military intervention over the years helped stop pogrom in Rwanda, established a more stable and progressive government in the DR Congo, stanched a likely genocide in South Sudan and is now holding Somalia together. In all stances, the executive acted on its own accord and sought no approval.

In 2013, the UPDF entered South Sudan to extract Ugandans and foreign nationals trapped in violence triggered by a political fall-out between President Salva Kiir and his sacked vice Riek Machar, but some South Sudanese accused the Ugandan army of propping up Kiir’s government.

In 2007, President Museveni deployed the UPDF to pacify Somalia which bought the government favour from the United States and European Union. Soon President Museveni was being heralded as an expert on regional security, even where things do not go well.

The 1997-2003 military adventure in DR Congo, then Zaire, without parliamentary approval as required by local legislation, resulted in the International Court of Justice finding Uganda guilty of plunder. Kinshasa wants $10 billion in reparations while Uganda, Attorney General William Byaruhanga told the parliamentary legal committee in January is offering $150m, but a final determination is pending.

In 2009, the President deployed the UPDF to Central African Republic to bolster efforts against the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army, and in 2017, without parliamentary approval, dispatched a contingent to oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa on capacity building mission for President Teodoro Obiang Nguema ranked as the longest serving non-traditional leader in the world, who has ruled the country with an iron-fisted hand.

What presidential aspirants say about Uganda’s foreign policy

Yoweri Museveni. 
“Our missions abroad will scale up commercial diplomacy to market Uganda’s products, tourism and our investment potential. They will be looking at what the countries where they are based import from other markets and advise if Uganda can competitively export those products by liaising with the private sector in Uganda. The missions will also identify investors to come and invest in areas where we have already carried out feasibility studies showing the profitability of the ventures to be invested in.

Robert Kyagulanyi-NUP. 
Pursue commercial diplomacy to promote her national interests. We shall negotiate with EAC, European Union and other partners to ensure greater access for Ugandan goods in those markets.

Patrick Amuriat.

Develop a robust and patriotic foreign service policy centred on national interest, away from President’s interests and draw a wide-ranging strategic plan to guide the operations of all the missions abroad. Undertake market research led by Foreign Affairs career diplomats on export opportunities abroad for Ugandan products. Increase budget allocation for foreign affairs’ programmes and the development budget for the missions abroad. Develop a legal framework to guide foreign service operations and staff appointments.” 

Henry Tumukunde
Envisage a thoughtful, firm and fair foreign policy showcasing Ugandan’s hospitality; prioritising the interests of her people, enterprises and natural resources; and defending her dignity, values and culture, driven by the desire to position Uganda as a global leader in peace, security and equitable development.

DP Nobert Mao.  

Accelerate greater integration within the East African Community on the basis of equity. Intensify our efforts towards integration of economies and harmonisation of our laws and practise, among the EAC and the full implementation of the provisions of all common instruments for a common customs union. Aggressively market Ugandan companies and products in the lucrative markets within the EAC, Comesa, SADC and other member countries of the African Union, through a Buy Ugandan Campaign, welcome and co-operate with traditional and new development partners who are committed to assist Uganda within the framework of the government’s set of priorities outlined in this manifesto.