UGANDA will tomorrow mark its Independence Golden Jubilee. It has been a long journey politically, economically and socially. The New Times' Felly Kimenyi interviewed the Ugandan High Commissioner to Rwanda Richard Kabonero, who is also the Dean of Diplomats accredited to Kigali. The interview touched a number of issues including the wave of revolutions that swept across Africa in the 80s and 90s, Uganda-Rwanda bilateral relations and the economic integration among others. Below are the excerpts.
The New Times (TNT): Briefly tell us about the mood back home, in the run up to the historical event:
Richard Kabonero (RK): As a country, on the 9th October 1962, Ugandans took the destiny of their country into their own hands; assuming the leadership of their country from the hands of the colonial powers.
50 years have been characterized by great achievements but also tremendous challenges. We had a promising start in the 1960s, challenges of violence and dictatorship in the 70s, a false start in the 80s and then we had our liberating story in the late 80s which ushered in a new era.
It is an exciting time for our people, neighbours in the region and for the entire continent. We look forward with optimism and we believe that we have made a turning point from our tragic start of dictatorships but the indomitable spirit of our people has led us through those challenges.
TNT: Tell us about the state of bilateral relations between Rwanda and Uganda:
RK: You know the old Chinese proverb: "may you live in interesting times." These are interesting times for us because there is not a time I think that our relations have been better than this, except maybe at the beginning of our liberation struggles.
On peace and security our ties are excellent. There are several meetings going on, from the joint permanent commission meetings which underpin our relationship in all sectors to the detailed security, where our intelligence chiefs are always meeting. We have now incorporated what we call proximity commanders, in other words, commanders in close proximity to each other geographically meet every month.
We are sharing a lot of intelligence on negative forces. At the economic level we are working hard to see that we get our broadband cable to Gatuna to be able to join Rwanda and also as Uganda have an alternative route through Tanzania, but Rwanda has also routes through Tanzania and Kenya.
We are both landlocked countries and therefore need access to the sea; we have sent out bids for construction of the Ntugamo-Mirama Hill Kagitumba road, we are starting procurement process in the setting up of one Stop Border Post at Kagitumba-Mirama hill.
We also have started search for a contractor for the feasibility study of the Kampala-Kigali oil pipeline- thee a lot of initiatives that we have embarked on that will enhance our economic cooperation.
TNT: What stands out most in these past 50 years for Uganda?
RK: The resilience of our people. We have faced serious economic, social and political challenges which our people have gone through.
When our flag was hoisted in 1962, there was tremendous optimism. No one could have predicted that eight years later we would have a government elected democratically and overthrown. We then went through a dark period.
In 1970 Uganda was on the threshold of taking off, just like the Asian Tigers, but we had a lot of setbacks and loss of time and brain drain. A lot of people who didn't die fled the country. Rebuilding has been very difficult but over the last 20-25 years, we have made great strides.
TNT: As Africans, can we all look back and proudly say that the independence our African forefathers fought for was lived up to, at least in most countries?
RK: Yes. I think they laid a firm foundation, although what they fought for might have been derailed by subsequent events. The liberation movements of the 60s were just a start because although they liberated us politically, we were still tied, we didn't have economic liberation. I believe that until the continent can wean itself off aid dependency, then we can truly say we are independent.
A number of countries have embarked on this path to be able to stand on their own; to have free movement of goods on trade: what we are trying to achieve in East Africa by having a single currency- these are some of the strategies that will help the continent be truly independent.
TNT: Tell us briefly about the spirit of the revolutions that swept across Africa in the early 80's, and in the 90s. Is this something that was called for?
RK: Yes. I believe so. Our people were tired of oppression and dictatorship- of not having their own choice of leaders, so they made a choice to take it upon themselves.
If you remember well, the liberation struggles, whether it was in Uganda by NRA now UPDF or RPF in Rwanda, those were homegrown liberation struggles; people decided to put an end to what was happening to them and that is why they have lasted and have been sustainable and have transformed these countries.
TNT: What are the challenges that Ugandans still face 50 years after independence?
RK: They are myriad, I think the fundamental challenges we face concern service delivery, which remains a challenge in many places and this is occasioned by corruption and lack of infrastructure. Because our people are entrepreneurs; they have an entrepreneurial spirit and can easily compete with the best in the world. But what we need to address as a country are the underlying causes of why they cannot progress and these are issues that every other country deals with from time to time like education, health, infrastructure and energy. If we can put in place these mechanisms, the rest our people will do but the fundamental issue is to do with service delivery.
TNT: How involved are the youth in Uganda's socio, economic and political life?
RK: Uganda as a country has a very young population; over 50 percent of our population is under 30 years. Therefore we have to address the problems of youth, mainly unemployment. The youth are politically astute these days and are involved in the evolution of our country.
In fact, the youngest Member of Parliament on the continent is a 19 -year- old Ugandan who has just been elected.
TNT: How do you see the future of EAC as an economic bloc?
RK: Uganda is totally committed to the integration process and our position is unequivocal. Personally I believe it will happen and during our lifetime, God willing. There are challenges and stages, protocols in customs union that are currently under negotiations, and eventually a political federation. I believe that EAC is the only way we can emancipate ourselves, economically.
The population of Uganda is 30 million, Rwanda is 11 million and as East Africa, its 130 million, thus presenting a good economic bloc, whether in terms of trade or in terms of peace and security.
EAC will have challenges and setbacks but as East Africans, we should set our eye on the final prize.
TNT: Shouldn't the region first embark on the already signed protocols before going forward with a political federation?
RK: Yes, but that doesn't mean that we cannot have a political federation at a go, just because we still have challenges in the monitory union protocol. You can work on them simultaneously. A number of people have said that we should first iron out the existing challenges in the existing protocols, we are doing that, but if that becomes your final goal, then you are falling short.
What we need to do as countries is to educate our people as well as sensitize the people assigned to implement these protocols. The challenges are not caused by the citizens but the officials and immigration officers, the police officer, the tax officer, who just comes up and sets up something without first negotiating it.
It also involves education; I have seen Ugandans caught smuggling goods that are not taxable just because they don't know. Therefore, our people must be well educated on the benefits of the integration process.
TNT: Rwanda and Kenya are in the process of having citizens using identity cards to enter either country, but the stumbling block remains Uganda, which stands between both countries. How involved is Uganda in this process?
RK: The issue of national identity cards is a requirement that partner states must have national IDs. The process had started in Uganda but met some challenges at the procurement stage. As a policy issue, we are totally committed to having these IDs so that it can help also on the protocol of free movement of persons.
TNT: what is Uganda's take on continental issues like the peer review mechanism under the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) which has seemingly ran out of steam?
RK: NEPAD as an initiative was very good; it was good for the continent, the peer review mechanism was good and Uganda submitted to be reviewed. We must do it anyway, with or without the initiative. You must govern justly, must empower women, which will also lead to achieving the MDGs which we signed to.
There are challenges with broader initiatives and I agree with you that there has been a slowdown in momentum but the ideals remain. Whether you achieve them under MDGs or under NEPAD or under EAC which has its own initiatives on governance, the beneficiaries are our people.
TNT: What can you say on the promotion of African home grown initiatives to the problems we face?
RK: We talk about this all the time and history has borne us out. If you look at security for example, the world had given up on countries like Somalia. People went in, African countries went in to keep peace and now, Somalia had its first democratically elected president.
The piracy problem which eighteen of the world's greatest navies had failed to solve is now going down. So everywhere, in Darfur, Ivory Coast, African solutions work. What we may lack is the resources, but not the will to solve our problems.
Even economically, our integration will work. On issues of justice and social welfare, such countries like Rwanda have indicated, for example through Rwanda's Gacaca courts, that home grown solutions too are the only answer to deep rooted problems.
TNT: Speaking about oil. Uganda is going to be an oil producing country. What steps are there to prevent Uganda from ensuring that it doesn't suffer the 'oil curse' syndrome as we have witnessed in other African oil producing countries?
RK: One of the most important mechanisms set up by government is the national oil and gas policy that was passed by parliament. This is a framework under which oil resources will be collected and spent transparently.
We have learnt from other countries' mistakes and challenges and we believe that we will not have the same mistakes.
TNT: After a quarter of century in office, critics have said that President Yoweri Museveni has overstayed in power. What do you have to say about this?
RK: What I can say is- has he stayed unconstitutionally? Elections have been regular; the president serves at the will of the Ugandan people. Therefore I don't know if these perceptions are informed by the law or a wish for change per say, but I believe that the Ugandans are the ones who decide. The most important thing is to have free and fair elections.
TNT: In your six years in Rwanda, what has been your most outstanding moment in your diplomatic career?
RK: There were various moments of real excitement and it would be a disservice to pick one. But to me, the main ones were the state visits (late last year).
As an ambassador, when your president visits, it's a highlight. When President Museveni made a visit to Rwanda to receive Rwanda's highest honor, likewise when President Kagame made a visit to Uganda, to me these were the most highlighting moments in my diplomatic mission in Rwanda.
TNT: What could have been the magic behind the change of mood between both countries after some challenges in bilateral relations?
RK: There was really no change. The challenges that existed were always discussed. Why people think there was a change is because the visits were public but behind the curtains, there are lots of things that go on that are never public. The question that always comes up is about whether the relationship was mended, but there was nothing to mend. You mend something that is broken, but there was nothing like a break in the relations. There were challenges yes, but our relationship is historic, deep and even cemented in blood.
Recently when President Kagame met the Uganda community in Rwanda, he said that our relationship is by blood- meaning culturally, but also underpinned by a shared bloody history because of the liberation struggle.
People who don't know this relationship always make mistakes by looking at challenges and exploiting them to fit their understanding, but our ties are strong. The medal ceremonies were historical. President Kagame contributed to Uganda's liberation struggle- he was one of the original 27 fighters. The medal that was given to the president (Museveni) by Rwanda is a historical fact. It is not that it was decided here when he came, but it is a recognition for his contribution to Rwanda's struggle.