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You must balance retiring too early and too late

By Onghwens Kisangala

Last week a conference of women activists from The Greater Horn of Africa took place at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala to discuss the plight of women in conflict. Participating countries were Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. The conference was sponsored by Club de Madrid, an international club of retired Presidents and Prime Ministers, Isis WICCE, a Ugandan women’s pressure group, and Siha ISSA, an institute for security studies in South Africa. Dr Prof. Valdis Birkavs, former Prime Minister of Latvia, chaired the conference. The Independent’s Onghwens Kisangala talked to him about democratic governance and women’s causes.

Who is Valdis Birkavs and what are you here to do?

I am a political leader from Latvia. I have been involved in top politics for many years. I was an organiser against Russian domination and became deputy prime minister before we got independence. I was elected to parliament five times; elected the first Prime Minister as Head of State when we got independence in 1993.

I did the best I could for my country; I negotiated the Russian troops withdrawal; reformed the administrative structure, and prepared to join the European Union. I left politics in 2002 when my party lost elections. I was then invited to join Club de Madrid which is a club of more than 70 former Heads of State. Now I am in the Greater Horn of Africa, meeting with women leaders in the region to find a way for them to engage with the political leadership for equal participation.

You have been to several countries in the Greater Horn of Africa. How different is Latvia from the rest of African countries in economy and democracy?

There are differences and similarities. We were a free country before World War II. We got occupied by the Soviet Union after the war. We had experienced democratic governance before. So when we started to agitate for independence and got it after 50 years, we went back to our normal life in democratic freedoms. It was quite very natural for my country; even if it was not easy, we did not have many hurdles. There have not been attempts to reduce the democratic principles in our country to date. Now that is not the same with Africa.

What model can Africa use to get out of the political confusion?

There is need for the colonial countries to take responsibility to give care to their colonial states. You see after over 40 years of Portuguese domination of East Timor, the Timorese decided to accept the Portuguese language as their official language, not the English language. Yet Portugal feels responsible to help East Timor. That is very important. For us the Russians left us with a lot of infrastructure and high education standards. We had this Communist System where everything was coming from Moscow, free. Money was coming from Moscow. But in Africa, colonialists got Africans in tribes and left them in tribal divisions both politically, economically and socially.

You have been here for the last three days discussing the challenges that women face in conflict situations. What is at stake?

Women are suffering the consequence of every conflict in the world. Today’s (November 4) discussions were very important between the Members of Parliament and the women activists. My experience is that you should talk to people and share ideas.

In many cases today, African elections are a nightmare where the exercise is clouded by uncertainty and fear. What approach does one use to deal with this problem?

There is something that (may be) you will not appreciate. I have seen different regimes, and sometimes you find that it is very chaotic where there is democracy. We experience that from some countries that became independent from Soviet Union domination. I suppose there was a lot of mess in Russia as well. Nevertheless, there are countries which have preferred stability to democracy. In such situations, one leader has ruled for a very long time without chaos breaking up or questions being raised. That is stability without democracy.

When the political protagonists are fighting and playing all sorts of dirt against each other do you expect their supporters to tolerate one another?

I am not an expert in giving solutions to political problems, but what I know is that respect and tolerance are a very important element in developing a democracy. I have heard even our own parliamentarians, who often have tight clashes in the House, wonder how parliamentarians batter each other with arguments in the British parliament yet move out to have a cup of coffee together. That is what long lasting democracy gives to people.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni told the OAU in 1986 that the problem of Africa is leaders who overstay in power. Do you believe long stay in power can be a recipe for conflict?

It is not my duty to comment on the performances of your president or judge him. But if my opinion can help then I can say that the period one spends in power can matter or sometimes not. In some of the political philosophies, they say that when the leader is good don’t change him. But you know people will start to question what constitutes ‘good.’ So that is the point of contention. Therefore it is important that leaders realise the sentiments of the people they lead and be able to see the stakes and make appropriate judgments. I don’t know what Ugandans think about their leaders.

Given your experience as a Head of State, how does it feel handing over power and remaining relevant?

It is very challenging. It is not easy. You see when you are a Head of State, you have many plans and programmes that you feel you want to accomplish. You realise that people are still very poor; the economy is still weak; you have wars, and many other problems. You really want to deal with all those challenges yet each day that passes you feel you need more time. So it is really difficult. So if you will choose to leave power, it is also just a sacrifice. You don’t know what will happen when you leave power. That is why one has to have good judgment where his stay in power is leading. Nevertheless, there is a lot of work to do when one leaves power. For me I was invited to join Club de Madrid and I have a lot of work every day all around the world.Â

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