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Uganda starts economic diplomacy

Foreign mission heads to sign new trade charter as concern grows over appointment of political `failures’

Uganda is to introduce a new trade charter for its foreign missions, according to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sam Okuonzi.

Under the new programme, which is scheduled to start in the next financial year, each Ugandan embassy will have a charter for investment, trade, technology transfer, tourism scholarship. The new programme will not touch on the money already budgeted for Uganda’s missions which can only pay salaries and the committee has instead included a budget for the new programme.

Okuonzi says emphasis will be placed on trade and tourism. According to Okuonzi, only seven countries have been receiving priority treatment before. These are the U.S., Canada, UK, China, Germany, South Africa, and Japan however this is going to change soon.

The charter is being introduced at a time of growing concern that a flurry of political appointees in recent years has taken up positions as Ugandan ambassadors and are sometimes clueless about their job. There is fear that without the best grounding in règle de savoir-vivre, some of these might not be effective and might even taint Uganda’s standing in the international community if not checked.

For decades, being an ambassador has been something associated with prestige. It comes with the title ‘Your Excellency’, and other enviable perks like; a diplomatic passport, diplomatic immunity and the aura of one being the highest ranking official representing their county in foreign territory.

But in the current age, diplomacy is becoming quite complex. A diplomat has to be aware of the many conflicting interests among countries in a rapidly globalising world, and simple incidents can potentially escalate into strained relations between nations or even open hostility.

Career diplomats like Harold Acemah, who was deputy head of the Uganda mission in Brussels, have made no secret of their distaste for the elevation of political ‘failures’ into diplomacy. He once wrote in his weekly column in one of the dailies saying: “To accredit a failed politician with a dubious background as an ambassador and head of mission in a foreign country is a disgrace to the distinguished and noble profession of diplomacy”. He added that one requires years of training and on-the-job experience for one to be a distinguished diplomat.

List of some political appointees: Henry Mayega, Ambassador to China, Kintu Nyago, Deputy Representative of Uganda to the UN in New York, Matayo Kyaligonza in Burundi, Dorothy Hyuha to Tanzania.

Paul Omach, an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Makerere University, says it is unfortunate that one’s profession is hardly regarded when some ambassadors are being chosen. He says Uganda needs programs to train people exclusively for the Foreign Service. It can also organise exchange programmes where we send people to the Diplomatic Academy of London.

According to Omach, Uganda will be taken seriously if there are orientation programmes where courses are introduced and people study for months about statecraft and international affairs before being posted abroad.

“A diplomat needs to know the do and don’ts; he or she needs to espouse some values like honesty, civility. You should not disgrace the government or shout at the top of your voice. It is the lack of some of these basic skills that some people end up only trading in wine when they are ambassadors,” he says.

Omach says in the 1960s Uganda enjoyed the benefit of renowned scholars like Prof Ali Mazrui who taught diplomatic studies and helped shape the structure of Uganda and East Africa’s diplomatic services. He says it was a great blow when the Mazruis fled Uganda during the difficult reign of then-President Idi Amin Dada.

He says politicians are not necessarily the issue and what matters is how qualified an appointee is. He told The Independent: “We need to take the best out of the lot we have. Not all political appointees are bad; there are good ones, the problem is there are some who are sent yet there are only fit to serve at the level of Resident District Commissioners (RDCs).

“There is a tendency of selecting people based on connections, relatives of so and so or people who were in the bush war.”


Learning on the job

Arthur Gakwandi, who worked as a Deputy Ambassador to Switzerland from 2001-2004, knows too well the effect of being thrown into the deep-end of international diplomacy. The author of literature in English says the general training provided; which lasts not more than two weeks before one flies off, is at best superficial. He says it is not after one has served for two years that they get an idea how the Foreign Service operates.

“It can be a challenge when you are out there completely new with no understanding of how the international community works,” he says, “You need a wide variety of skills to fit in ably.”

For him, the biggest challenge is when diplomats have to participate in negotiations such as the World Trade Organisation, which have a long winding history.

“You need to be very knowledgeable because for years there have been deadlocks about these agreements. You need to be familiar the interests of many things, the interests of Uganda and what Uganda can achieve,” he says.

Gakwandi, also formerly Uganda’s Ambassador to the African Union in Addis Ababa in the 1990s, says as an ambassador, one has to deal with bodies like World Intellectual Property Organisation, human rights, labour laws and how they shape a country’s standing. He says the appointment should not just be made to fill up a position.

“At times you need to head a team of economists, lawyers, (and) other countries have highly technical stuff but since Uganda is a poor country, we tend to be thin on the ground,” he said.

Gakwandi says it is high time, training of diplomats is formalised.

One comment

  1. James jones bantu

    We need diasporas who have lived and worked in those countries not politician with no knowledge of the country there in. Training without faliarism of the country is a waste of state resource and time. I advice government to chose representatives from the diaspora community.

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