By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
After a two-year stint in Uganda as the US Embassy Public Affairs Officer, Joann Lockard left for Washington DC to study. The Independent’s Mubatsi Asinja Habati was among a group of journalists who spoke to her.
What do you think will be the challenges that the new government of President Museveni should address in the next five years and what would be your advice to him?
While the 2011 elections were better than those of 2006, they still had major flaws as the independence of the Electoral Commission was highly contested. We need a new and independent electoral commission by 2016. The challenges are fighting corruption, improved human rights record, improved commitment to freedom of the press, efficiency of the public service sector, agriculture production, and management of oil production.
For the time you have been in Uganda interacting with the local media, what is your assessment of the state of press freedom in the country?
Press freedom is a two-way traffic. You cannot have democracy and development without a free and independent media. Of late we have been concerned by the statements made by government officials about potential pending legislation that the 9th parliament may or may not pass. We are talking of press freedom including internet freedom which is crucial in controlling and developing society in the 21st century. We will be watching closely the steps that Ugandan parliament and government takes on press and internet freedom. We do have concerns as highlighted by Freedom House, where Uganda over the last 5 years is still rated partly free. There is opportunity for this government to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of the media.
What would you like to see the Uganda press change?
In order to have true press freedom you need to have responsible journalists. You have to have professional journalists who will not run a headline based on a rumour but rather are willing to go an extra mile to double check the claims presented to them. You still have this journey to walk. But this is not limited to Uganda alone but all over the world. You need more active media houses and journalists. Professional journalists in Uganda need to address their struggles with temptation for corruption.
You said the US will watch closely what Uganda government does. What are the options in case the government falls out of line?
Ugandans have the ultimate say in what happens in Uganda. American people are partners with you. We work side by side with the people of Uganda. We are friends; we offer advice, opinions and assistance, but ultimately it is up to the Ugandan people. If things don’t work the way you want, use your freedom of expression, your power at the ballot box to change it. We can’t change it for you. Each democracy is different and it reflects individual cultures and societies they represent. So I wouldn’t say your democracy should look like ours.
Your government is praising Uganda and Burundi involvement in Somalia arguing that it is a sign of Africans moving to solve their problems yet your government was opposed to African Union’s call for a ceasefire in Libya. Isn’t this a contradiction on the side of your government?
First of all Uganda is playing a leadership role in the African Union with a necessary peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The United States is supporting Uganda and Burundi because they were the first African countries that responded to a call by AU for a peace mission in Somalia. But all problems are never the same. The problem of Somalia is not the same as that of Libya. Each of these problems needs to be handled differently. The US is participating with the AU and listening to AU. But we have a fundamental difference in opinion when it comes to the initial situation in Libya and we are working towards harmonising the opinion. We need to look for a way to help Libya move beyond the last 30 years under Gaddafi.
What has become of the US’s commitment to hunt the LRA after passing of the Anti-LRA legislation in Congress in May last year?
The United States continues to support the UPDF in combating the LRA. The UPDF remains one of the best tools that we have in tracking out Joseph Kony and his commanders and the US government stands shoulder to shoulder with the UPDF in this operation. We are committed to working with the governments of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to finishing the LRA rebel group once and for all.
While other donor countries especially those from Europe have threatened to cut the amount aid to Uganda, your government appears silent. How have you advised the Uganda government in the fight on corruption?
We believe that Uganda government needs to come out stronger on fighting corruption. The US has worked together with Uganda to help create institutions to fight corruption. The institutions are there but now need to be used to the whole effectiveness with commitment on every level of government to rout out corruption so that all the taxes and donor money are used to help local people.
What is your take on the human rights abuses during the Walk-to-Work protests crackdown by state agents?
Ugandan citizens have the right to freedom of expression. We ask the Ugandan government to respect that.
What will you miss most about Uganda?
There are so many beautiful memories I have about this country. I will miss the hospitality of the diverse cultures of the people of Uganda and the beautiful national parks like Marchison seeing those lions and giraffes and the Nile. Those are experiences I will miss most because we don’t have many of these in our country. I would love to be back and see how Uganda would look like 15 years as a country with majority under the age of 18. Regrettably I did not travel enough to enjoy these experiences.