By Bob Roberts Katende
The former UN secretary for children affairs Olara Otunnu returned to the country recently after 23 years in exile. He toured various parts of the country and got diverse impressions about Uganda’s development. The Independent’s Bob Roberts Katende and Joe Powell had an interview with him about his judgement on Uganda’s economic performance.
After visiting Jinja you said you were shocked by the condition of the town. How did you find the rest of the country?
I always knew the NRM regime is a fraud. The president has taken Ugandans for a ride, the international community for a ride. Of course they have promised one thing and exactly done the other. For the international community they have continued to weave a narrative that has no bearing on the reality on the ground. The standard of living for Ugandans has plummeted all this time. Uganda has been among the top recipients of donor money.
But when you walk around the country searching for evidence of what this money has done you cannot find. I cannot understand what the donors tell their taxpayers what their money has been paid.
How has the international community been duped?
I cannot explain that. You have to ask them. I find it incomprehensible because they have been here all these years, they have their embassies, their NGOs, their intelligence network, and they have got everything. Money is infused into Uganda to help ordinary Ugandans improve their lives but their lives have not improved. They are in the opposite direction.
I mentioned Jinja that was the hub of industrial development in Uganda. Most of what we consume was manufactured there and now it is a ghost city. Unemployment is high and the only industry I saw was making charcoal and chapatti by the roadside. In fact it is so dramatic if you compare Jinja to Arua. Arua would have been the farthest dark water but today to give you a sense of how the country has regressed, Arua is more alive, thriving commercially in terms of trade, in terms of everything than Jinja. It is inconceivable. Then comes education. It has collapsed. All they are saying is there is Universal Primary Education. You woke up one morning for purely demagogic reasons to impress the donors. He says we are going UPE. UPE with no new investments, no new classrooms, no teachers or planning, and you say any child can go to school. They register, the school is overwhelmed, and the teachers are demoralised. When I was going to school in this country, the school was a great leveller. A child of a minister, the most successful businessman, doctor, peasant, everybody’s child mixed together in school. There was equity of opportunity. Today ask the big wigs in Kampala where their children go to school. They are all in these new private schools. In my days people crisscrossed the country because there were good schools everywhere. This is no more. Then the medical services. I went to Mulago Hospital to see a patient, I cried. Mulago was truly the pride of East, Central and Southern Africa. It is completely ruined. Around the country the hospitals I saw were built in the early 60s. No new extensions or equipments. Whether in the agricultural, medical or education sectors where are services delivered by the NRM? The whole country knows the NRM government has become the poster boy for corruption. In the past there might have been a little corruption here and there. They covered their heads in shame. Not anymore. Thanks to Museveni, now you can say you see what I have done, look at my mansion on this hill, look at my bank account. I have done what Museveni said. If you have not collected the rain that Museveni brought, that is your problem.
I went to see Boniface Byanyima €”a historic figure in this country, a strong Democratic Party person and he said to me: €œThis is a regime of thieves. He said Milton Obote and I never saw eye to eye. I never crossed to UPC when most DP members did. He said when you look around the country and abroad, you cannot find a single mansion by Milton Obote and you will not find a fat bank account by him. This is the man I opposed all my time- the two times he was in government. When you look around Obote was a nationalist.€ This is Byanyima speaking. Whatever developments that took place in the country, they were all over the country. When you look at what is happening now, all you see is galloping corruption, nepotism, the plundering of resources. Look at the inequality! It is good to talk about all these growth rates in the country. That means nothing until you see how it is distributed throughout the country. Certainly in the hills of Kampala there is evidence of serious fortunes by world standards. Most of them are incidentally ministers, or commanders in the army. You have that group on one side and on the other you have the weathering masses. Not necessary peasants. The middle class has been wiped out. When I was here, a professor, doctor were middle class people. They did not worry about school fees, education or a car. They were given. They have all been wiped out. How do you explain this situation? How pathetic? Uganda is a diverse country. But we have never had a government in Uganda’s history probably in Idi Amin’s time that deliberately and systematically worked so hard to divide the Ugandan people with one ethnic group against another, one region against another, one religion against another, one sub-group against another. As a result there are very few countries in Africa where society is so fragmented, where people first refer to themselves as I am a Munyankore, then I am a Muhima. Museveni has often cited security. In Obote II, thanks to Museveni, there was security throughout the country except Luwero, where all the mayhem and bloodshed were taking place. We said then Uganda is not at peace. Luwero is one county in the country but very important. Museveni comes to power, things stop in Luwero. Then two regions in the country go on fire. Not for one month, or two but 15 to 20 years. And you have got the temerity to tell me Uganda is at peace? Unless the argument is that the north and east are not part of this country.
How do you go about building national unity?
I have said that it is very imperative for the Ugandan people to reunite, to reject Museveni’s divide and rule politics. Related to a project of reunification is a project of reconciliation.
A truth and reconciliation commission like what happened in South Africa?
There are various ways to do that. We can have an independent commission for Luwero. It can be a mixed one to dig up the facts of all that happened and to hold those responsible to account. With Buganda specifically, it is the most important single component in Uganda. You cannot do much and accomplish any enterprise in Uganda if Buganda is sulking or Buganda is uncooperative or at worst if Buganda is blocking. Therefore Uganda needs Buganda. And Buganda has significant aspirations like federo, land, the position of the Kabaka.
So it was a mistake in 1966 for Obote to invade the Lubiri?
Let’s follow the argument. Both for the sake of Buganda and the rest of Uganda, we have to address this alienation and come up with reconciliation. In the case of UPC and Buganda one begins with what happened in 1966, the impact and the bad blood that followed. I have not only said this in Kampala, I have made this proposal in Mbale, Lira, Arua, Gulu, Kitgum, Mbarara and Bushenyi.
Do you think UPC needs to apologise to Buganda?
UPC needs to reach out to Buganda and engage with Buganda on all sides and together they work a way forward. We need to recognise that something went terribly wrong.
You said the NRM has been a colossal fraud, do see any individuals that you can work with?
I have a lot of friends in NRM Eriya Kategeya, Otafiire, Amama Mbabazi, Khiddu Makubuya, Ruhakana Rugunda. It is a long list of who is who of the NRM regime. These are not just personal friends but people whom I have worked with very closely at various levels of Uganda’s political struggles. Mbabazi and Otafiire were among the most militant campaigners when I was campaigning for guild presidency at Makerere University. We had a common vision at the time: Uganda that is united. We wanted to fight any notion of corruption like a plague. I am sad Museveni has corrupted my friends but they are still my friends and I remain hopeful that they can come and we work together. I don’t want to believe they abandoned these values for which we stood together. I refuse to believe that. Certainly we need every patriotic Ugandan on board to turn the direction of this country. Not one group has the monopoly over that. I do not want to believe that everyone in NRM is bad, or that every apple there is rotten.
Did you meet with Besigye personally?
Why is that important? He was actually out of Kampala when I arrived. I did meet with him. I met with the interparty cooperation members. It is important for parties to engage in the discussions they are doing and I hope they will result in a compact agreement for a common platform.
Will you offer yourself for the UPC presidency?
I don’t know when the Delegates Conference is going to be. So when a time table is put forward I will come clear at that stage.
The Electoral Commission was reappointed. Do you think it can deliver free and fair elections?
That is a big joke. There are now in the world, a set of standards and norms that govern free and fair elections. Whether the election is in India, South Africa, Ghana ,they have become the universal norm for free and fair elections. What Ugandans are demanding is not unique, it is not a special favour to Uganda they are demanding the same thing as the people of Ghana or India demanded and got. Donors insist on these standards elsewhere except Uganda. What Museveni has done is a non-starter. It will not stand. It is not negotiable.
What do you think people should do?
I have just told you it will not stand. Mark my word. Ugandans will not accept what Museveni has just done. The group he has just appointed will not preside over the next election in 2011.
Anything you could say you discussed with Besigye?
I have known Kizza Besigye. We meet all the time. When he returned from Busoga, he called me and we arranged to meet. We share so many views and I have a lot of respect and admiration for his vision, courage and the direction he has given his party. We discussed as we always do like how one can achieve free and fair elections, interparty cooperation, my impression when I was visiting the country and what he saw when he visited Busoga.