Stephanie Rivoal, the outgoing French Ambassador spoke to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about her highs and lows of her two-and-half year stay in Uganda.
Uganda was your very first post in your diplomatic career. How have you found your stay here?
It is my belief that modern diplomacy touches three angles and, obviously, politics is number one. A diplomat has to maintain bilateral relations between his or her home country and the country where you are posted. It has been very interesting to get close to the people in positions of power in this country and to push through our messages. The second aspect is the relationship with the private sector; you want to get to know the business opportunities that are present in Uganda and see how French companies can benefit.The third aspect is the relationship with civil society— where you connect with the people directly without going through authorities or official bodies. Thanks to communication tools like; social media networks, television and radio, I endeavoured to talk directly to Uganda’s women, the youth, and everyone else. I am getting out of Uganda having learnt so much.
At the start of your diplomatic engagement, you noted that you were particularly attracted to Uganda because of its geo-politics, business prospects and humanitarian challenges. Do you still maintain you made the right choice in coming here?
I am 100 percent sure that I made the right choice because Uganda is one country from where you can observe many activities in the region thanks to its strategic location. Since I have been here, so many things have happened in the region; from Uganda’s involvement in the peacemaking process in South Sudan, the elections in Congo, the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda which of course is a big topic at the moment, the Burundi situation that is linked with Rwanda to the relationship with Kenya and Tanzania; especially when it comes to the business relations. In terms of business, Kenya is more mature and Tanzania offers a lot of opportunities but it is a bit bureaucratic and tough to work there while Uganda has positioned itself as an outsider wanting to attract foreign investments. But for that to happen Uganda needs to be more attractive and we have had many discussions with the authorities on how to realise that. On the humanitarian front, Uganda remains the number one African country in terms of receiving refugees. The open door policy in Uganda has been something instructive to watch. In spite of some corruption issues, we hope that this globally acclaimed policy can still continue.
Give us some highlights of your stay in Uganda?
The increase in development projects and the strengthening of the defence relationship between the two governments were very important but I think the Women for Women Awards initiative we held in June, 2018, together with other female ambassadors here is something I am particularly proud of. I launched this initiative to put women into the spotlight. I think, at the beginning, the benefits are not obvious because it is not a cheque but I believe the ladies who received the awards in the long run will change the place of women in the private sector in Uganda thanks to the network they have created. I am also extremely proud of the Kampala Geopolitics conference that we did last year. That was some huge amount of work and to do it within Makerere, a university which has a reputation on the continent; to be able to bring here researchers from France and Germany and, of course, local thinkers and researchers was great. The Kampala Geopolitics conference was about freedom of expression, debate and also positioning African students mentally in a place where they need to care and have an opinion on everything in the world. I want the things that I initiated here to have an impact when Iam gone. It is not about me here; it is about France in Uganda looking ahead.
How would you describe the current relations between France and Uganda?
When I first arrived here, I really had no idea how good France’s relations with Uganda were. I thought we were way behind the UK or the U.S. but in fact, I discovered that we already had a very strong relationship with Uganda in terms of development and military cooperation, the collaboration with universities, and Alliance Française. I would describe the relations as excellent. But like I said at the beginning, the relationship between two countries goes beyond the relationship between the two governments.
One of your key performance indicators was to increase the presence of French business in Uganda. How have you fared?
Out of ten, I would say I scored seven. I did three presentations in France to French businesses and for the first time ever, we attracted many delegations here. MEDEF, the largest syndicate of the private sector in France came here for the first time in 2017. Now we are waiting for concrete projects. We have been very active to make sure that the technology of Airbus is selected for the new Uganda Airlines. Of course the oil project is a big one; it was there before I came but I believe it is taking too much time because Ugandans are not benefiting from this oil yet the needs are huge in terms of education, health and jobs for the youth. We have so many French companies waiting to come here to support the project because they are in the oil industry. Many are also positioning themselves for infrastructure, transport and energy. We already have about 40 French companies here— from the super large ones like Bolloré, Total, and Lafarge, to mid-sized ones up to the small ones.