By Peter Nyanzi
Amb. Roberto Ridolfi, the outgoing European Union Head of Delegation to Uganda, headed for his new role as the Director for Sustainable Growth and Development at the EU headquarters in Brussels. He spoke to Peter Nyanzi in an exclusive interview about his stay in Uganda and its politics.
What would you say have been your main achievements over the last three years?
I witnessed the elections in 2011 and we pursued a political dialogue with the government that I think has brought us to a very high level of partnership. The testimony of this was the presence of the H.E Museveni at my residence on Europe Day on May 9. I remember the President said it was the first time he was going out at night in the last 27 years. That is how we see each other – frank, honest partners – sometimes not agreeing on things but always open and striving to find a point of agreement and advancing our relations.
Uganda is a strong partner and we are pleased to see that we can play a role outside its borders especially in Somalia and the mediation effort in the Great Lakes Region. Also, at the African Union, the role of Uganda is fundamental as is the leadership of President Museveni as one of the outstanding leaders on the continent who can exert a very positive influence. We are preparing the AU-EU Summit in Brussels in April 2014 at which we want to concentrate on strategies for sustainable growth. Uganda is doing well on the progress against poverty though there are still a few health and education indicators that have to be fixed. But we believe in the government’s strategy to produce growth that can finance social services especially to the vulnerable members of the population, which is an obligation of the government. We believe it’s much better to work with the government than doing projects. I don’t like projects. That’s why we agreed to have this dialogue with the government on budget support instead of projects by donors. I actually don’t like the word ‘donors;’ we are partners. Even when Uganda becomes a rich country, we will remain partners. We will still be talking economic development and growth. That’s what we want the EU-AU Summit to address. We shall not leave the mainstream business relationships to other players on the planet. Why do many people want to migrate to the EU? Without good governance the aid will come to nothing. For instance, even if I come and say that I want to build for you a road on a soft loan, you would still have to worry because it will still be a burden for the children of Uganda. We believe that deals with our partners must be done in light of value for money therefore open, transparent procurement processes. Therefore, now we are trying to blend loans with grants to make them more affordable but still for the benefit of the taxpayers to ensure transparency in the procurement process, which is the only guarantee to ensure value for money. So, in these areas our dialogue with the government has been positive.
And how positive are you about Uganda’s democratic credentials?
Nobody is perfect; not even the European countries are perfect when it comes to democracy. Democracy is a complex setup of rules, laws, political and social dynamics that are very difficult to muster. Yes, we are happy in a sense that there is progress. In this sense, we supported the election observation in 2011 and there were recommendations we made. We have got news that some of these recommendations will be pursued to ensure a better process for Uganda – economic, political and social and human relations. The ties are so strong. I’m leaving in this country a part of my heart, my happiness and my wishes and I will certainly have occasions to come back.
So, are you sad or happy that you are leaving?
Mixed; happy because life is always changing and I was promoted to a very important position in Brussels and I’m feeling honoured for the bigger responsibilities but I’m also sad because I’m leaving. I found very nice partners and I can never thank enough the people of Uganda with whom I have interacted over the last three years.
Would you say Ugandans are sad that you are leaving or they are happy?
I don’t know! I don’t think they would bother too much either (laughter).
What about the government?
The government has expressed good words and I appreciate it. I’m grateful for the access granted to me in all sectors. I’m grateful for the frank manner in which we have interacted, which is of course very essential.
Is it in your nature to be frank or you think airing your views is part of your responsibility?
Well, the two things must coincide. I must try to be frank but I must also respect my role as a diplomat and my mandate as a representative of a political entity towards another political entity. You see the problem in diplomacy starts when the distance between what you think and what you say is very big. In my case, I hope the distance has been small enough to allow me to be as frank as possible but still remain in the respectful role that we have, and obtained results.
You have been in a situation whereby the opposition sometimes thought you were too lenient to the government while the government thought you were a little too hard on it. How did you manage to reconcile those positions?
It was extremely interesting because both sides recognise that we were giving enough attention to the different issues. When it comes to the respect for human rights and the rule of law, we have no friends and no enemies. We are the EU and it is in our DNA to behave in such a way. The politicians can manipulate that to say, ‘oh you are against us’ or ‘EU are against you’ but it does not matter too much really. What matters is that we are following very strongly the principles on which the EU was founded and on which our partnership with Uganda is founded. So, sometimes I’ve been a good friend of the opposition for certain newspapers and a friend of the government for others. The reality is that I have been keeping a very consistent position and expressing it in a very consistent manner to the government and to the opposition. And I think a country like Uganda should not limit the narrative of the complexity of this beautiful place to the dynamic of government versus opposition. It’s much more complex than the dynamic in Kampala – well it’s important, but it does not reflect the dynamic we see in the countryside. The society and business sector are dynamic and have to come into the picture of consideration. We do see the great potential of Uganda as a land-linked country, distributing through the infrastructure a number of services in the region, and profiting through free trade because of its central location, endowed and blessed by God with beautiful weather and resilient to climate change. Therefore, the modernisation of the country is an objective that I consider to be fundamental to the wellbeing of this beautiful country.
What do you consider to be the most important development challenge that Uganda is facing?
The population growth rate is a huge challenge and therefore the rising unemployment. We see the GDP going up but at the same the unemployment rate is also going up. Modern societies have a tendency of rising population without raising employment rates. These must be rebalanced.
What can be done to address the situation?
We have to look into empowering young people with vocational training and skills. Ugandans must not go only to Makerere University; they must acquire skills that are useful to business, to agriculture to agribusiness. These skills can be immediately transferred into the labour market, which thankfully, is quite flexible in Uganda. Secondly, infrastructure development will trigger employment. We hope that the contractors are not bringing the workers from their own country.
How relevant will your new position be to Uganda?
Oh, very relevant! I’m going to be the director for Sustainable Growth and Development – in charge of rural development, agriculture, environment and climate change, financial engineering, infrastructure, energy and private sector. I will be responsible for the relationship between the EU and the whole world on these issues. But a very important match is Uganda which has infrastructure, agriculture and energy as pillars of its development path. So you will see me again in Uganda.
What tips are you going to give to your successor if he/she is to succeed in Uganda?
Try to understand Uganda – its recent history, the dynamics today – and never getting tired of listening to everybody and Uganda’s friends. That understanding will shape your position with Uganda and make it more successful. Also, the difference between what I say about Uganda and what I think of Uganda is very small. That makes me a very special diplomat; I don’t fear Wikileaks (laughter).