2 July 2012

Uganda: I Am Ready to Fight for Social Justice


Bishop Zac Niringiye, the Assistant Bishop of Kampala Diocese, retired seven years before his official retirement age. Sunday Vision's Charles Etukuri sought out his views on his life in the church, involvement in politics and life after church.

Last Sunday you delivered your last sermon as the assistant Bishop of Kampala Diocese in which you warned that one should either be warm or cold. Was there any hidden political message?

There was nothing hidden in my message. Why are they saying it is hidden?

Some say you were sending out a veiled message that you were leaving pastoral work to venture into the world of politics?

I have been very consistent right from my engagement in Northern Uganda, only that the media is suddenly interested in what I am doing now. In the North, I actually led a campaign called Break The Silence, in which we decided that we would tell the world that what was happening (the LRA crisis) was a humanitarian crisis.

When I was at the Church Missionary Society, I facilitated a visit by the Church of Uganda Bishops to see the tragedy there. It was published in the New Vision. I then met your editors to point out that the way it was reported was fuelling the conflict. I have always had passion for justice. During my university days, we were the students who started the move that Gen. Idi Amin Dada steps down.

What drives you?

My faith in God. I have nothing to live for except God's purpose and will. God desires justice. Jesus came to bring justice to victory. God cares for human dignity and when any human being is trampled upon, He is aggrieved. That is what drives me. So one should not be lukewarm.

You are retiring from Church. Are you getting more involved in political work now?

I am a Bible teacher and my convictions are informed by scripture. In the passage I read last Sunday was a message from Jesus to the Christians who were neither hot nor cold. Jesus wished them to be either hot or cold. If you are hot, you bring hope for healing, if you are cold you would be a presence for refreshment. When it comes to the truth, you can't be in between. You must take side with the truth and if you fail we know where you stand.

You can't sit on the fence on issues of justice. I have never sat on the fence and I will not. The tragedy of this country is that we have too many people sitting on the fence, saying they are neutral. You can't be neutral about corruption.

But then there are claims that you are overstepping your mandate and going overboard in your criticism?

Overboard where? Corruption and everything in this country has gone overboard. We have a crisis in education, health care and household income. Look at the potholes in Kampala and what is the excuse? I also disagree with some of the religious leaders - we have been too silent for long.

What should we expect from you after June 30, which is your retirement date? Will you stand for political office?

That again is part of the problem of this country. When somebody says anything, instead of discussing the merits, the immediate question is: "What does he want?" What is he looking for? What job, office is he eyeing?

In fact there are claims that you are the perfect candidate for the Inter-party Cooperation (IPC) come 2016.

All that aside, the conversation should be about merits. What must we do as a country? And who will do it? Who will we place at different positions? Often what kills us as a country is that we quickly get locked up into who, what position. People want to portray me as fighting the President because they think I am desperate to become one. No, I am not desperate for any position and I have never been.

There have been calls that you were quitting too early. You should have stayed put and become ArchBishop?

When I say I have finished, I have finished. It is not positions, not personalities. Yes of course for people to deliver work they occupy some positions but a time comes when that debate must be. Please, I have told you what my desire and heart needs: that schools, agriculture and our children have a future. We need dignity for all and inequalities must be addressed.

Are you going to be there to work for these changes?


What position will you hold?

I don't know but I am going to engage in this process as a civil society leader.

The Government has warned religious leaders against getting political yet you are encouraging them.

Let us not even debate this and our President should not be the one telling us this. He is the very one who has involved the religious leaders in the political appointments and I am not complaining. I am merely saying religious leaders don't only have the right but the mandate to speak about the way society is being managed. Politics is about the management of society and how public resources are distributed.

Religious leaders ought to speak and when they are silent, you the media must mount a campaign against them. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is deeply political because it has everything to do with the wellbeing of the people. Oppressors are politicians and when we speak against oppressors, we are preaching the Gospel.

Ideally, what type of country would you desire Uganda to be?

I would love to see an education where our children start P1 and are able to go on to secondary level. We need a skilled youth population. We need institutions that build human capital. Currently, we have the contrary. I would like to see household with decent incomes and that can only come from agriculture. 75% of Ugandans live off the land.

But then that is what this Government is been advocating for?

Our President's point of getting households to earn sh20m a year is actually an excellent policy but how will that happen? The Government should invest in agriculture not NAADS. We need to increase productivity in the agricultural sector. I want to see our people gainfully employed. I long to see a health care system that works - right now we have a high infant mortality rate. The citizens manifesto that is going throughout the country describes the vision of Ugandans as happy people. It is what I long for.

There are claims that you are hiding under the Citizen's Manifesto to launch a political career and that you have donors that are funding you to destabilise the Government.

Let us talk about funding. Government is funded by the tax payers and they must hold Government accountable, and that is what we are doing. The Government is also being funded by international development partners and is there anything wrong with that?

What challenges have you faced so far?

We don't have enough people holding Government accountable. The question of accountability is huge, so we must build the demand side of accountability with Ugandans. Our leaders give us the impression that they are doing us a favour by leading us so you find Ugandans clapping for MPs. To hold the Government accountable is not opposition. Tax payers pay the President so they must ask for accountability.

In churches the members pay their Bishops and Reverends and they should hold them accountable. Sometimes I look at my fellow Bishops and a number of them are not accountable.

Some say the Church doesn't want somebody to talk about accountability. You threaten them with excommunication?

No. I am on record as saying that we must build better systems of accountability and must hold our Bishops, Reverends and pastors accountable. The tradition of the Church of Uganda is to be accountable and publish all the collections and expenditure.

Last month there was a warning sounded to the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) by the internal affairs ministry that some of them risked being deregistered. There were reports that you were receiving donor funds and were being subversive.

You go and research and see how much donor funding goes to the roads. Is that subversive? Check how much goes into the health system and if donors withdrew their funding would we have enough drugs. You can't say because we are receiving donor funding we are subversive. We will receive money provided it is contributing to the prosperity, development and the well being of the people.

Bishop, given your position and standing in society, must you really go across the country castigating the President? Can't you just lead a delegation to State House and talk to him face to face rather than rallying people against the Government?

You the media undermine the capacity of the President to know what is happening. He has heard this message loud and clear from all quarters but you see it all doesn't depend on the President. That is the crisis we face. When boda boda riders have a problem with Kampala Capital City Authority they run to the President. When teachers and traders have a problem, they must go to the President. Yet we have ministries and institutions that can handle these issues.

Why have we failed to respect the institutions?

We have had one person occupying the office of the Presidency for a very long time. 25 years is not a short time.

Are there instances where you think the President deserves a pat on the back?

Yes. He has led the country but there is a time when you finish. The country needs to solve the succession question now.

Talk about the term limits. The matter was openly discussed in the Seventh Parliament and voted by most of the MPS.

Let us not discuss that. Ugandans were there when it was happening. Do your research and tell this country how it happened. Let us not discuss the success of elections in this country. Let us just move forward. The different classes have together messed up things. We have played different roles in the mess as politicians, religious leaders, professionals and the President. This country is long ready and should have started talking about the process of national reconciliation.

Are we set as a country to start discussing post-Museveni era?

Definitely we need to. The country needs to start thinking about it and the President needs to be part of that conversation.

You have retired from pastoral work. What led you into this calling?

I recommitted my life to God at 18 years when I attended a Scripture Union conference, whose theme was God's Plan For My Life. That conference shaped what I am today. It was then that I realised the only way I would continue to live is if I lived in God's ways.

There are rumors that you are heading into politics.

Justice, advocacy, activism is what I am going to engage in. I have already been honest before. What I am doing is political activism. When you talk about health care, governance, term limits that is political activism. It is a way in which we shape behaviour of the people who manage public resources and space.

How are you going to do this?

On the platform of civil society.

You are going into activism. What if the leaders choose to ignore your message, what happens?

I think that the leaders are listening but what is important is that the population demands more and recognises that it has a responsibility to demand accountability of their leaders.

Citizens need to be responsible by paying their taxes. We must hear more voices asking from the youth, religious leaders. We need to sit together and discuss who should do what in order to deliver a better future for Uganda.

Bishop, talk about using the civil society to advocate for peoples right. Some people say the CSO lack moral authority to question the Government leaders given the secretive nature and internal undemocratic nature of your operations.

Nobody is perfect. We are not talking about perfection but accountability. The citizens have a right to hold those who lead them accountable. The question of moral responsibility is often raised as a way to delegitimise the debate.

What we need to do is let us consider the merits of what is being discussed. The very standards I ask from others must be asked about me. All of us leaders must do our best to be accountable. I have done my best and I will do my best. There are maybe fault lines but I am a human being.

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