Washington, DC — In 1907, captivated by its natural beauty, Winston Churchill called Uganda the Pearl of Africa. For many years, the country's Makerere University, whose history as an educational institution dates from 1922, enjoyed international acclaim as - in the words of Ugandan poet Susan Kiguli - "a river of knowledge." But after years of brutal misrule that killed hundreds of thousands of people, beginning with a coup by Idi Amin in 1971, followed by the regime of Milton Obote, and after decades of internal and cross-border conflict and the devastation of HIV/Aids, Uganda's reputation lost its luster.
Now the government of Uganda is waging an offensive to reclaim the country's reputation as a stable, attractive place to visit and to do business. Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986 after leading a five-year guerrilla struggle against successive regimes, legitimized his presidency in the election of 1996 and won a second five-year term in 2001. The university, aided by a coalition of U.S. foundations and international loans, has rebuilt crumbling infrastructure, restocked its library and regained respect. Prevalence of HIV infection has plummeted. Tourism is experiencing double-digit growth. And officials predict an end to the 18-year war with Lord's Resistance Army rebels in the north, a cult-like organization led by Joseph Kony, whose pillage, rapes, mutilations and kidnapping of civilians, including tens of thousands of youngsters who have been forced to be child soldiers or sex slaves, has created widespread terror.
In an interview with AllAfrica's Tamela Hultman, Uganda's Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, differed with current critics who say Uganda risks a reversal of its substantial accomplishments. He said Uganda is on the right path and argued in favor of both the current transition to multi-party politics and a controversial proposed constitutional change to abolish presidential term limits. He acknowledged human rights abuses by security forces but said they are being combated aggressively. While forecasting that the war in the north would end soon, through a combination of negotiation and military measures, he said the challenge of reconciliation and reconstruction will require increased international and domestic support and that HIV must be tackled as a security threat as well as a health issue. Overall, the minister, who was a founding member of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) that today governs Uganda, said he is confident about the future of Uganda and the future of Africa as an emerging continent.
Tourism isn't your portfolio, but it is Uganda's top foreign exchange earner, and your government has said it wants to increase annual tourism revenues from less than US$200 million annually to more than US$360 million per year over the next decade. Is that effort on track?
There is a lot of improvement in the tourism sector. You know there has been general insecurity in the Great Lakes region, and people outside East Africa were not sure which areas were safe to visit. The situation in the region is cooling down, and this is encouraging tourists to come. In fact, I saw figures last week suggesting that tourism last year expanded not by 15 percent, as in the previous year, but at about 30 percent! We're now rapidly expanding hotel facilities so that we can accommodate the guests that come to Uganda, and we do believe that they will continue to come in larger numbers, because of the attractions. One of the leading ones is the general beauty and scenery of Uganda. But of course Uganda has about 50 percent of the world's population of mountain gorillas, and we house other rare species. The variety of birds is amazing. And there is the source of the Nile.
Is it safe to visit?
The security situation in most areas is perfect. There is a small area in northern Uganda - a situation that we are containing and we expect to be controlled in a short period.
How likely is that, though? Often in the past the conflict seemed to be ending, only to re-intensify.
On the 29th of December the Uganda government peace team, which I head, met with a delegation from the rebels somewhere in the bush. We had useful discussions, and we agreed that there was no need to continue with this carnage, this loss of life, that the conflict in northern Uganda has inflicted on the people. We agreed that we would exchange a cease-fire memorandum of understanding, which we have done, and there have been some discussions following that. We expect that fairly soon we will meet to sign the final document that will bring an end to the conflict.
But let me also add that the UPDF, the Ugandan Peoples' Defence Force, has done very well in containing this rebellion, weakening it. And as a result, we have only very small, scattered pockets of rebel groups still terrorizing the population and looking for food. We are looking to give them a way out, so that they can come home and be re-integrated into society.
Are Ugandan officials in direct contact with Kony?
The last real meeting between the Ugandan government and Kony was in 1994, when Madame Betty Bigombe, who is the current chief mediator, met him in the bush. However, there have been regular telephone contacts between Madame Bigombe and Kony in the pursuit of this peace process.
Repeating a pattern of the past, the LRA appears to have responded to the government's ceasefire initiatives with an upsurge in attacks on civilians. The UN is warning of famine as more people flee their homes and fields. There's again an increase in this tragic phenomenon of "night commuters," the children who trek from rural areas to towns every night to avoid being abducted.
Unfortunately, it is true that brutality and crimes against civilians have continued. We have through Madame Betty Bigombe communicated to the LRA leadership that these criminal activities do not help the peace process. To the contrary, they push us backwards. An appeal has been made to them that they should not kill or maim innocent civilians who are now becoming their target. They fear direct contact with the UPDF, the Uganda Peoples' Defense Forces, so they concentrate on attacking the population. Nevertheless, despite that, our push for a speedy resolution remains.
The United Nations has warned that the effects of the war have pushed northern Uganda into one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. How do you characterize the current situation?
I'm not equipped as the UN system may be to easily categorize as to which is the worst, which is the second, which is the third [worst] humanitarian situation. All I can say is that the situation in northern Uganda is bad. People are maimed, killed, lips and tongues cut - barbaric actions have been taken against our people. We're also concerned about our children, because, as you say, in these areas where they fear abduction by the rebels, they come and stay in urban areas. They become commuter children. So the situation is bad. Government is doing what it can, local communities are doing what they can. Some agencies like the World Food Programme and Unicef are doing what they can. We'd like to see them doing even more to support the efforts of Uganda and local communities to relieve the suffering of the people in northern Uganda.
In that context, your government has been criticized for, on the one hand, not being aggressive enough in protecting civilians from attack, for not guaranteeing their security, and, on the other hand, for continuing to pursue a military strategy, which some say threatens the peace talks. There are even calls for peace at any price. You've abandoned the unilateral ceasefire, but you're continuing to negotiate. How do you balance these seemingly contradictory goals?
Let me say that the aim has been to protect the population. That's why the UPDF has gone out of its way to see that the rebels are hunted down. It's true that we would have liked to have ceasefires. But our experience, as in the ceasefire of 1994, is that the period was used as a time of recruitment by the rebel forces. Last year when there was a ceasefire to enable us to talk with the rebel troops, we realized that the period was used by the rebels to [dig up] caches of arms and ammunition that had been buried in different parts of northern Uganda. So while we are pushing for peace, we know that they take advantage of the process to strengthen their position. Nevertheless, we're balancing the two - to continue to protect the population, while at the same time we're talking to end the conflict as quickly as possible. The two are going hand in hand. Every stage that we go through, we take some lessons from the past as we move to the next phase.
What makes you think that you are nearer to peace than before?
A number of factors explain why the situation is now getting better. First the efficiency and performance of the UPDF has really neutralized, weakened, the rebels. There is no doubt about that. Second, there is the unanimity within Uganda. In the past there were debates about how to handle the conflict; you would see that in the parliament. Now there is a wide consensus that the UPDF should be supported while we also pursue the effort to talk peace. Third, we have had good results of the amnesty that was declared a few years ago [Amnesty Act of 2000]. More and more people are surrendering and being integrated into the community. Finally, our Sudanese brothers in the north and the south have reached a peace agreement. As you know, Sudan has been the main support for the rebels, giving them food, arms, everything. Now that a peace agreement has been reached in southern Sudan, we expect there will be no significant incentive for the Sudanese government to give support to the rebels. It is the combination of these factors that indicates that we're moving towards peace.
What about recent reports, including one by the International Crisis Group, that the LRA leadership, including Kony, have retreated deeper into southern Sudan and may once again be obtaining arms through Sudanese channels?
We have received those reports, we are following them and we are talking with the Sudanese authorities. It's true that there may be some elements within the Sudanese army and administration who remain sympathetic to the rebels. It's a process. We can't expect that everything will be perfect, for there to be sudden and total severance of contact with rebels. We nevertheless will continue to build on the positive things. This Sudanese administration has agreed to let the UPDF go into Sudan against the rebels. That's a very positive thing. Sudan is generally willing to cooperate with Uganda.
And are the defense forces going into Sudan?
Yes, they are.
Are they having success?
Yes. Their work has been fruitful, has further weakened the rebels and is going to contribute to a reasonably speedy end to the conflict.
You also mentioned the amnesty program as an element in recent progress towards peace. The Refugee Law Project, based at Makerere University, is one of the observers that applauds the amnesty but says implementation falls short. It expresses concern that international initiatives, such as possible indictments of LRA members by the International Criminal Court, may stall the peace process. But it also says Uganda itself must do more to facilitate reconciliation and reintegration.
That's of course a very important point. One of the problem areas is reconciliation. The government is working with local communities - with local leadership of the Acholi people [the predominant ethnic group in northern Uganda] and have embarked on supporting mechanisms on the need for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for education and training, and for integration. The process is already taking place. People emerging from the bush are being equipped with skills to survive on their own. Many who have fought, or been forced to fight, have joined the defense forces. They come, and if they are fit and meet the qualifications, they are trained, equipped and commissioned. We are using a multi-pronged approach involving civil society, traditional and local communities, and we think there is some success.
How do you regard the appeal by a coalition of northern Ugandan non-governmental groups to re-institute the ceasefire in a more single-minded pursuit of negotiations?
The government takes into consideration such an appeal, among other factors. But really, our thrust now is to expeditiously end the war through neutralizing rebel action militarily - and also talking with the rebels so that the rebellion can come to an end.
Both international human rights organizations and Ugandan groups, including the official Human Rights Commission, have documented human rights abuses, torture and illegal actions, carried out largely by the security forces and primarily against opposition activists and suspected rebels. Every nation has to deal with these problems. How is your ministry and your government responding?
The Uganda Human Rights Commission was set up by this administration because of the realization that gross violations of human rights had taken place in Uganda before. The commission has been doing very commendable work. And, in fact, the government has been criticized for dealing harshly with human rights abusers in the security forces. A number of people have been executed for killing civilians, because we do not believe that anybody in the security forces should use his gun or use her gun to kill or molest anybody. And we have said, "If you as a security force member use your gun to kill any civilian, you will be tried and punished and that punishment may include death, if you're found clearly guilty."
So we have been criticized for being too harsh with our security forces, but this has been an attempt to respond to the past, where the gun was used by the security forces to terrorize the population. So in a nutshell, we are doing everything possible to insure that the concerns of the public and the abuse of human rights are dealt with expeditiously and firmly.
Only a few months ago I chaired a meeting between the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, led by its chairperson, and the heads of security and intelligence agencies, specifically designed to understand each others' positions, understand the problems and to see how best the institutions, while pursuing their mandate, can work together to insure that we can radically cut down and bring an end to the abuse of human rights by people in the security forces. The president, too, has dealt with this issue in his speeches to the army and other security agencies, repeating the necessity of treating the population humanely.
One of the major discussions in Uganda today is the issue of amending the constitution to abolish term limits, which would allow President Museveni to run for a third term in next year's election, roughly nine months from now. What's the rationale for taking that course?
The question of presidential term limits has been quite an internal debate in our country. Linked to the security issues we have been discussing, people are not sure, they need to be clear on leadership, because they see leadership as being the guarantor of their security. After the massive killing of Amin and Obote, they have equated leadership with protection of their security.
Let me point out that the pressure to abolish term limits has come basically from the population. The population has become concerned about what is happening in the process of transition to multiparty-ism. The insecurity of the Amin and Obote years and the religious and tribal clashes under previous multi-party periods has caused apprehension. People are now focusing on leadership, on what is going to happen.
In 1994, the constituent assembly had a big debate around term limits. One view said we have just emerged from dictatorship; let's limit the term to a maximum of two, so that no leader can abuse power. The other view said people are wise enough to decide when leaders should go and when they should remain. After a long debate, in a major democratic decision, it was decided to limit the term.
The constitution says parliament has authority to take a decision to leave the term open, but amending the constitution requires two-thirds of parliament - that's a big figure - two-thirds of all members. We, the administration, will accept whatever decision parliament takes. Personally, I believe that the people know what they want, know their interests.
At the same time, this must take place in the context of fully free and fair elections. On this we insist. Elections must be regular and must be increasingly free, fair and democratic. Our emphasis now is to insure that we have the machinery, that mechanism to guarantee that the population's genuine expression takes place in these elections.
Critics of the third term, including former members of government, argue that most Ugandans want term limits. You say the impetus for constitutional change arises from popular will. How has that preference been expressed?
Well, through meetings, through fora, for example, in consultations held by a constitutional commission. People have expressed it in many ways. Debate is going on in different areas, sometimes in demonstrations waving banana leaves. You know, there's a local expression that calls a dry banana leaf the same word as the word for term. So, you see this creativity, people demonstrating with banana leaves.
What does President Museveni say about his intention to run, should term limits be abolished?
Uncharacteristically - as you know, he normally expresses his views very easily! - on this matter, he has kept quiet. It would be purely speculative for me to say what he is thinking.
Uganda has seen a spate of demonstrations recently, both for and against term limits, as well as on other issues, including the proposed regulation of marriage to abolish polygamy. Many have taken place peacefully, but recently some have been broken up forcefully by police. You yourself argued that intervention was necessary and cited traders' complaints about the economic disruption of frequent protests. As the person responsible for internal affairs, how do you balance your role as chief of the security services with the ability of people to exercise their democratic rights?
We believe that the right of the people to express themselves must be preserved. We jealously protect that. There must be the freedom to express opinions on radio, on television, and, yes, through demonstrations. But our cities are rather small areas with limited facilities. You find that, if there are frequent demonstrations, they paralyze other activities, and the many people going about their normal business, going to offices, going to market, opening shops, they get disrupted. And in process, bad elements have taken advantage of demonstrations, and some innocent people have been injured and assaulted.
So, while demonstrations are permissible - and they will continue, there's no doubt about that - they should be reasonably regulated, so that we don't have several demonstrations in a day. You may regulate the routes, so that normal economic acts of other law-abiding citizens are not disrupted.
You are right that the balancing of the two may sometimes be questioned. But let me point out that there is no intention whatsoever to stifle the right of people to express their views. We are all in the process of learning. While people are free, how do you make sure that this freedom does not turn into anarchy? How do you balance it? However, we are guided by the principle that the right of people to express themselves is fundamental.
How do you see the challenge of HIV/Aids from your perspective as head of security?
I share the view that HIV/Aids is not only a health issue but also a security issue and an economic development issue that has made more difficult our fight against poverty. It is an issue that concerns all of us, especially in Africa. Within the military, we have made very good progress in reaching every soldier with training about HIV/Aids and how you can avoid it through responsible sexual behavior. Many of them are responding.
In fact, the danger that confronts Uganda now is complacency. The modest successes we have made in the fight against HIV/Aids, from 30 percent infection rate 20 years ago to the current 5 percent or so, should not lull us into thinking we have done enough. We are scaling up the campaign, not only in the general population, but specifically within the UPDF. I think we're making some headway. We take it seriously.
You said "his gun or her gun" a moment ago. What role are Ugandan women playing in the security forces and beyond?
There is eloquent evidence here [gesturing to Ugandan Ambassador to the United States Edith Ssempala] of the significant role women are playing in diplomacy. Women are active in the security forces as high ranking officers. One of our Assistant Inspector Generals in the police force is a woman who is in charge of the criminal investigation department. This role is going to increase.
Why do you say that?
I say this because we did realize from the beginning that humanity was losing a lot by not tapping the talents of the ladies in national security and in national development. We said we must go out to insure that women play their rightful role. We are much richer, much better off with women for the very vibrant contributions women are making through their active roles in parliament, in the diplomatic and security services, and in the government and the cabinet. Part of the advance that Uganda has made is that is has unleashed the enormous potential of women to play their role alongside their counterparts, the men.
You also mentioned earlier religious clashes in Uganda. Is there a political split between Muslims and other Ugandans today?
Happily, there is no monolithic tendency in Islam or any religion in Uganda. Look at Moses Kigongo [vice-chairman of the NRM]. The minister of energy, a lady by the way, is hadja [a Muslim woman who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca]; the minister of agriculture, also a lady, is hadja. People of all faiths are prominent in both the government and the opposition.
How would you summarize the message you came to convey?
Under the leadership of the National Resistance Movement, the president and his government are doing all that is possible to uplift the living conditions of people, to deepen the democratic process, to insure that the country moves forward and is transformed into a modern state from the stage of underdevelopment we have lived in for very many years. We are confident that we're on the right path, because the people are in charge through regular, free and fair elections. We are doing all we can to insure that the political process becomes more transparent, more open, more independent.
We are very confident about the future of Uganda and the future of Africa. We believe that Africa is an emerging continent, has had its period of turmoil. We clearly see that on the continent there is a new horizon, a new beginning.
We believe that the process of transformation in Africa will be facilitated, and accelerated with better terms of trade on the global scene. Africa has almost everything we need. We are beginning to add value to our traditional, exportable raw materials and when we add value, we get better prices for commodities and create more jobs. We are intensifying intra-African trade through the East African Community and other regional trading blocks, using proximity advantages with our neighbors. But to defeat poverty, we need bigger markets and fairer terms of trade. Overall, we are very confident.