By Ronald Musoke
The Irish Ambassador to Uganda Donal Cronin talked to Ronald Musoke about the two countries’ cooperation over the last two decades
It has been two decades since Ireland established bilateral ties with Uganda. How would you describe the relationship between the two countries over the last 20 years?
The 20 years is the period in which the Irish Embassy has been here in Kampala but that has built on many decades of strong cooperation between our two countries going back to the 1800s when Irish missionaries first came to Uganda. The missionaries did great work in terms of establishing health clinics and education facilities. Then, right on to the 1960-70s, Irish NGOs started operating in Uganda. For example, Goal and Concern were amongst the first NGOs to support Karamoja during the 1970s famine. So when we opened the Embassy in 1994, there was already a strong bond between our two countries.
You mentioned the missionaries and their focus on education and health services in the country over the last century. But what other areas have been of interest to your government and why?
When the Irish government started to cooperate with Uganda in 1994, Uganda was still at a phase of recovery. So we worked hand in hand with the government, the private sector and civil society in terms of building up the institutions in Uganda. We focused a lot on education, health and HIV/AIDS. In the area of HIV/AIDS, we saw success in terms of getting HIV prevalevence down—remember it was as high as 18%. But also in the education sector, we have supported efforts to get up to seven million extra children to enroll in primary school. We also have worked a lot in the governance area—in particular, with the justice, law and order sector (JLOS) which is a fantastic model of how governments can work, internally, with communities and with other actors to ensure that the whole chain of justice works effectively. Lately, we have had a very strong focus on social protection— the social assistance grants to the elderly.
How would you describe the current trade relations between the two countries?
Currently, trade between Ireland and Uganda is quite small [volume of trade is no more than € 4-5 millions per annum] and there is a huge amount of potential for expansion and that is one of our main aims here at the embassy—to try and encourage and facilitate trade by putting in place support structures. In late 2014, for the first time, Enterprise Ireland, which is the Irish government’s export promotion agency came to Uganda and met with the Ministry of Trade, the private sector and was very impressed by the amount of opportunities here. Enterprise Ireland is intending to establish an office in East Africa that will enable the Irish government forge greater engagements across the region. There is already some good work to build on because there are already some Irish companies that have been investing here and have been setting up joint ventures. In mid-January [this year], there was one which was signed where an Irish investor is putting €250,000 into an ingredients business which will draw from the agriculture sector. Traidlinks too is working very hard to develop those links between Ireland and Uganda. It is working very hard in the oil region in terms of supporting local content by enabling farmers in the region to prepare themselves to benefit from the upcoming developments in relation to oil. Tullow Oil is Irish in origin although it is headquartered in the UK. Our role here is to straighten that path by working with the Ugandan authorities and the Uganda Export Promotion Board and the Uganda Investment Authority.
Do we have sectors in the economy that have particularly interested Irish investors to come here and do business?
Agribusiness is one huge area and tourism is another area which is very important for us in Ireland and it is also an area of growing potential here in Uganda. ICT is another fantastic sector. Ireland, as you may know, is the hub for IT in Europe. So these are all sectors with good potential for investment in Uganda. And we would like to share with Ugandans, the government and the private sector, our own experience as part of a mutually beneficial partnership between us. It should be a well-rounded partnership based on common respect, mutual interest and which is based also on sharing of ideals and aspirations in terms of development; in terms of ensuring that inequality and poverty are tackled and that human rights are protected and that gender inequality is addressed.
Now that you mention inequality, let me draw your attention to Karamoja which is one particular sub-region that you have chosen to focus on. Why have you done so and what would you say have been some of the recent achievements?
Karamoja has been an area of focus of our programmes because it is certainly the poorest sub-region in Uganda. Poverty levels there are three times the rest of the country. Secondly, over many years, there were issues of insecurity. When I first went to Karamoja in 2003, it was a different place and we worked very hard together with others [Denmark and the EU] alongside the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the government, civil society actors, traditional leaders and even the young warriors to come to a situation where the gun could be left behind. That fed into the disarmament programme. The current level of peace and stability which has returned shows you the amount of potential there is now for that region to develop. So we aim to stand with the Karimojong in terms of their development aspirations. Our major investments are in the areas of education where we have had a huge focus. We are just about to complete work on building and rehabilitating 21 primary schools [three per district in the sub region]. We have also built and rehabilitated 11 secondary schools, and three teacher training colleges. We have been supporting around 1,500 students through the education bursary programme and we are also supporting work in relation to the efforts by the local authorities to tackle HIV/AIDS; and social protection grants for the elderly people.
In the past you have actually said that Uganda will never develop unless Karamoja develops?
We do strongly believe that Uganda can’t develop until Karamoja is developed; that we can’t have large swathes of this country benefit from infrastructure, economic growth and income growth at the household level and better services if one large part of this country is being left behind. There may have been reasons as to why Karamoja had been left behind but those reasons are no more— security is now in place and there is free movement and the ability to work with people there in terms of addressing their needs. We should strive to ensure that the benefits of economic growth in Uganda—which is impressive by the way—are shared equitably. Karamoja and Northern Uganda should now be able to catch up and fulfil its true potential. We need to turn our energy to ensuring that Karamoja is now firmly in the mainstream; that Uganda’s development is Karamoja’s development and vice versa.
The OPM corruption scandal was probably one of the lowest moments of the Irish government’s cooperation with Uganda. Did this scandal eventually change the way you currently offer bilateral assistance to the people of Uganda?
The OPM fraud was a great disappointment to us and the fact that it also affected the people of Karamoja means that it was a double blow to our engagement here. But we have been very conscious in ensuring that we work strongly with the government and others to ensure that there is a proper follow-up to that [OPM scandal], and other corruption issues that come to light, including; crucially, prosecutions and administrative sanctions. We have worked with the Office of the Auditor General, JLOS, civil society and many others. Indeed, a group of MPs were in Ireland last year to study our legislation and regime around asset recovery and I am very glad to see that there are proposals in the Anti- Corruption Amendment Bill to have an asset recovery system put in place in Uganda. This will be one of the key factors in tackling corruption— that those who in the past have got away with it can be finger-pointed and brought to justice and that the assets that they have unfairly benefitted from can be taken away. It is true that since the OPM fraud, we have changed the modality through which we provide support to Uganda in the sense that we are not at this moment putting financial resources through the government financial system. We have put in place other mechanisms in which to channel that money. But that has not affected our partnership with the government.
The election fever is already heating up although we are months away from the 2016 general elections. As we move to that busy period, what is your take on the general democratic environment in Uganda?
One of the drawbacks of elections, in my view, is that the winner takes all and elections become a high stakes game and if not properly managed, then that can become disruptive. For example, the research that was published recently in relation to election campaign financing shows you the startling truth that for MPs, elections are very expensive. To get re-elected, you need to spend an awful lot of money. I do think that the time has come for us to think seriously about campaign finance controls; for us to collectively work and for Parliament to work towards trying to bring some degree of sensibility around how elections are financed and run. The other issues were brought clearly by the EU observation mission of both the 2006 and 2011 elections. Our hope, certainly at the level of the EU, is for the legislation governing the elections and the amendments that are being proposed to be brought forward quickly, and for those to be able to reflect some of the fantastic consultations that have taken place regionally and nationally.
What is your take on the debate that has raged on following the LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen’s recent surrender and imminent trial at The Hague?
First, it has been a very welcome development for Ongwen to be brought before the ICC to face charges that have been pressed against him. Uganda, the United States, and the Central African Republic need to be commended for their great degree of collaboration. Ongwen’s trial is about to begin and so we now need to let the process take its course. What is important is that he is facing justice and that the story will now be told. And that is important because Ongwen’s trial can also be, in my view, a useful stimulant to enable a process of dealing with the past in northern Uganda. We cannot simply move on and pretend that the long and bitter conflict never happened. There are still many legacies that we need to deal with; there are still many truths to be told and many injuries and wounds that need to be healed, some of which will never be healed. But what we need to have is a process of being able to talk about what happened; a process of reconciliation and a process of justice so that we are able to ensure that northern Uganda and the country in general is able to move on.
What areas of interest do we see Ireland focusing upon as we look forward to the next 20 years of cooperation between the two countries?
In my view, Uganda and Ireland’s relationship over the next 20 years is not a relationship which will be based solely or even largely on aid because our partnership is much more than that. One of our aspirations over the next 20 years is that we will be able to build even more connections between our two countries in terms of trade, tourism and education. We want to have more trade between our two countries and we want to have even stronger political ties and shared agendas and values. We see our programme of cooperation with Uganda still being very important in that we are committed to the long term, especially in the areas where we have been working. Currently, we are evaluating and reviewing our work over the last five years. By mid-2015, we will be in position to develop a new five year strategy for Uganda and that is scheduled to begin in 2016. It [strategy] will build on the strong areas of our work we have cooperated with Uganda on: HIV/AIDS, education, governance, human rights, and social protection support.