By Joan Akello
Ambassador Nathan Irumba, 71, is the Chief Executive Director of Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI). He talked to Joan Akello about his life and diplomacy.
Any three things we don’t know about you?
In O’level, I was the only Munyoro at Ntare School, wanted to be a lawyer, represented Uganda in UN Security Council with Ambassador Olara Otunnu and was in Singapore with President Milton Obote (R.I.P) when he was overthrown in 1985.
Do we have career diplomats nowadays?
We had a team of good career officers but Foreign Service has become too politicised. I think at head of mission level there’s only one career diplomat. With change of government, career ambassadors are recalled and new ones appointed to reward supporters but even the junior posts are affected. We’ve seen qualified people not supported because of politics.
What should a diplomat do when governments change?
Be polite and support any government in or out because you’re a public servant who looks out for national interests but most regard national interests as being synonymous with government interests. In multilateral diplomacy work with like-minded groups, read situations and see how your country can benefit. There is no such thing as free lunch, know what that person wants from you. But it’s also there that people will usually tell you what they would not in a formal meeting.
What is your greatest regret?
I didn’t complete my law course because I was asked to represent Uganda in the Security Council in 1981 and could not wait for another 20 years for that chance and later on served at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
What is perfect happiness?
Being and remaining yourself.
When and where were you happiest?
In 1958 when I was admitted to secondary school because only ten of us in a class of 60 passed exams. It was difficult to pass PLE in P6 and Junior secondary and senior entry exams.
What is your greatest fear?
Insecurity, we shouldn’t relapse into wars.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Not decisive and it frustrates many people but I look at all sides.
What is your greatest extravagance?
In the US, I used to and still spend a lot on bed sheets, they are so good.
What is your current state of mind?
Serene. Don’t take life seriously but do your best but don’t break your back. If you think you can carry the country’s problems on your back, your back will be broken.
On what occasion do you lie?
Sometimes silence is considered a lie so I had to exercise the right of reply whenever Uganda was attacked at the UN. But diplomats are not paid to lie for government.
What do you most like in a man?
Intelligent, objective, and supportive of a friend, not fair weather friends.
What do you most like in a woman?
A friend. Don’t marry for love because it wears off; marry because you like somebody who knows your strengths and weaknesses.
Who is your greatest love?
Which talent do you admire?
One having the courage of his convictions but don’t be foolhardy in danger.
What are your greatest achievements?
Having served for a long time in multilateral diplomacy at a time where Africa was marginalized. Africa might be poor but it doesn’t have poverty of ideas so I was among 14 African diplomats who made the African voice matter and participate. At SEATINI, we are slowly demystifying the idea of trade negotiations, challenging the dominant neo-liberal paradigm and pushing for globalization with a human face.
What is the lowest depth of misery?
When you are reduced to begging. I don’t like governments that reduce their people into beggars by carrying sacks of money. People paid tax with pride but this aid dependency syndrome has reduced us into beggars where people in the village look up to those in town while government looks to donors for support for salaries.
Who are your favorite writers?
Peter Duncan especially The effective Board where a manager’s role is to manage tantrums and look for what everybody is good at, Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents, Chinua Achebe’s Ant hills of the Savannah on African leadership, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, life has never changed.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, King Kabalega who saw the dangers of colonialism and, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth prime minister for working meticulously to move it from a third world to an almost first world without compromising his idea of nationalism.
What do you most dislike?
Debts. In the 1960s we saw a Uganda where growth spread in villages and on the right trajectory for takeoff but from 1971, things went wrong. There has been a breakdown of institutions. Even Makerere University which is a centre of learning is for strikes. I studied with many of these people in NRM and shared with them a book about IMF being a debt trap and they said they were different, but they signed and we got ensnared into debt. Uganda is not a China that can shut off and open when it wants; so we have to manage our debt and rethink market fundamentalism.
How do you want to be remembered?
One who did his best to make both his family and country better off.
What is your motto?
Do your best.