In Part IV of the series, Jerome Kule Bitswande talks to GEORGE WILLIAM NAGGAGA, a career diplomat who rose through the ranks to represent Uganda at the UN and the OAU.
He candidly recalls encounters with Idi Amin and Margaret Thatcher before she became UK prime minister.
I was born on July 13, 1946 in Mbale. That may sound a bit surprising because I am a Muganda but the point is; my grandfather was an army officer who went to Mbale with Semei Kakungulu who had been assigned there by the colonial government.
Therefore, my dad was born and raised in Mbale where he later on decided to settle. So, we were also born and raised in Mbale and that is the very reason I can speak Lumasaba fluently, I also speak Lusoga and of course Luganda.
MBALE TO NAIROBI
I studied at Kachumbala primary school, from 1953 to 1958, in present day Bukedea. From there, I went to St Paul's College, Mbale from 1959 to 1960 and later St Peter's College, Tororo from 1961 to 1964 before I finalized my A-level at Makerere College School from 1965 to 1966.
I joined Nairobi University where I pursued a bachelor's degree in Commerce. Around July in 1970, I joined Uganda Development Corporation where I worked for only a year as a junior executive.
JOINING FOREIGN SERVICE
At the beginning of 1971, the ministry of Public Service advertised for vacancies in the Foreign Service. I applied and was shortlisted for the interviews which were conducted in March. We were about 150 candidates and there were only eight vacancies. So, in June, I was told I had been successful and I reported for work in July.
I remember we were taken all over the country to know and under- stand the country we were going to represent. Actually, at that time I was faced with a dilemma because that was the very moment I got a scholarship at Northeastern Illinois University to do a Master's in Business Administration.
However, when the permanent secretary, ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sam Baingana, wrote to me informing me that I had been appointed to work in New York, I decided to settle for my new job. By August 15, 1971, I was already in New York representing Uganda to the United Nations (UN).
My first boss there was Grace Ibingira. There, I was appointed as third secretary in charge of economic and budgetary affairs. So, I was assigned on the fifth committee of the United Nations which is in charge of administrative and budgetary affairs. It is a very important committee because you look at the world as a microcosm.
In 1974, I was promoted to second secretary. I enjoyed the work despite the challenges that came with it. I actually always say that we faced 'sweet' challenges. You should remember that during that time the world was experiencing the cold war between the Soviet Union and the US, but of course we adopted the principle of non-alignment.
That helped us to receive favours from both the West and East. But outside the busy schedule, I also had a light moment in New York, especially, when I got married in 1973. After getting my partner, I sought permission from my then permanent secretary, Paul Etyang, and informed him of my intentions to marry.
So, he did a background check of the person I wanted to marry, invited her for a coffee and two weeks later, Etyang wrote to me giving a go-ahead. I was lucky that my wife had been to the US because that is where she had studied.
So, we married and to date we remain so. In the event that the permanent secretary declined to approve of our marriage; maybe I would have lost the job because I would have gone ahead to marry and that would have meant a breach of regulations or part of the standing orders of the Foreign Service, or maybe I would have appealed.
I don't know if that practice is still in place, it might have been expunged from the standing orders but I think it was important and I would recommend it because it would help in ensuring that diplomats do not marry people of underserving character.
That very year, I also got another boost. My boss, Ibingira, was supposed to present a paper at the Columbia University Business School; so, he asked me to write a paper for him. When I took it to him, he made a few corrections and asked me to write a final copy which he later asked me to present on his behalf.
This is because the event coincided with the lunch he had scheduled with the US ambassador to the UN, George W Bush Sr. who later on became US president. After the presentation, Ibingira told me that the school professor had telephoned and told him that I did very good presentation. That was encouraging because at that time, I was still young, about 26 years.
AMIN IN NEW YORK
At one time in 1975, President Amin came to New York in his capacity not only as president of Uganda but also as chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). His first remarks at the assembly were in Luganda, and you should have seen how diplomats were fidgeting trying to establish which language Amin was using.
He said: "I will not talk to you in the language of Banyunyusi."
He then called our ambassador, Yunus Kinene, [he had replaced Ibingira] to read his speech. After that, Amin said: "Let me summarize what Ambassador Kinene has said."
Amin instead gave a completely different story from Kinene's. For us, it was real drama; you would see ambassadors looking confused. During his visit, he came with two planes and brought with him 80 Ugandan citizens from across the country, many of them were not educated; so, they didn't know how to speak English.
I think Amin wanted a microcosm of Uganda in New York to cheer him up. As Ugandan diplomats, we were charged with ensuring good accommodation for them in New York, it was tiring experience.
Some people would wonder how we survived working with Amin. His image had been painted badly, especially among the western powers. Surprisingly, during that time, Amin's bad image was not so much of an issue.
He later hosted a reception at Hilton hotel and it was well attended by diplomats; even the UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim was there. Amin had some good mannerisms; he could sometimes be extremely nice and polite, I think he was an enigma - so hard to predict. His visit was really fun and remarkable.
But bad as his image might have been; whenever we made our presentations, other diplomats noticed that we were working for Uganda and not just serving Amin. One of the things I remember during that visit was [Julius] Nyerere's boycott of OAU. In fact, the Tanzanian leader didn't even attend the UN general assembly.
But we decided to invite Tanzania's UN permanent representative, Ahmed Salim Ahmed, to Amin's reception. We did not mind about Amin's differences with Nyerere. The good news is that Ahmed told us Nyerere had instructed him to attend. Surprisingly, Amin was also very happy to meet them although we had not been sure what his reaction would be.
Having served in New York for about five years, I was transferred back to Kampala in 1976 and assigned to the economic and legal department in the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I worked there for three years. During this period, I think it was about 1978, I was promoted to first secretary.
TRANSFER TO ADDIS
In 1979, I was transferred as first secretary, economic affairs, at the Ugandan embassy in Addis Ababa. I was dealing mainly with the OAU and Economic Commission for Africa [ECA] since there were no bilateral relations between Uganda and Ethiopia.
That aside, working in Addis Ababa exposed me to the workings of OAU. We founded the Lagos plan of action for the economic and political integration of Africa in 1980. We wanted to set up an African equivalent of the European Union. We were looking at integrating Africa through regional communities like SADC, ECOWAS and EAC.
According to our optimistic projection in 1980, we thought we would achieve a politically-united Africa by 2000. Today, on reflection, I have come to believe that it is no longer feasible.
I know Muammar Gaddafi put in a lot of effort to see a politically-united Africa come into realization, unfortunately, he was not successful. Most of our leaders are comfortable in their small zones and are not willing to cede power to a bigger territory because that would mean loss of influence.
The other thing I did when I was in Addis was that I became a rapporteur for the African ministers of commerce and trade. It was a good, albeit challenging experience, which I did for only one year and I was recalled back to Kampala.
BACK TO KAMPALA
In 1983, I was transferred back to Kampala as deputy director, Africa and Middle East department, but still at rank of first secretary. Here, I was charged with OAU but from headquarters; I was receiving reports from our mission in Addis and I was giving instructions on how to vote.
So, by nature of this appointment, I travelled a lot across Africa and also within the Middle East countries. Of course, I was very much with OAU business; especially the discussions surrounding the Palestinian and Israel conflict. As OAU, we argued that there was need to create a Palestinian state.
TRANSFER TO LONDON
Shortly after the NRM came to power, I was transferred to London as deputy high commissioner. The beauty of being a career diplomat is that you are not affected a lot by any political changes. That transfer came in May 1986, barely four months after the NRM had ascended to power.
Having worked in the US before, I did not meet a lot of challenges work- ing in the UK. Shortly after my London transfer, I was also appointed as Uganda's representative to the International Coffee Organisation [ICO] and in 1987 I was voted as its board chairman.
I think I was the second Ugandan to be voted to that position, the first one having been Ambassador Swaibu Musoke. During my tenure as board chair, I facilitated the reinstatement of Uganda's coffee export quota which had been slashed by 500,000 bags during Amin's time.
As a whole, I enjoyed my time there. I lived in North London. My MP was Margaret Thatcher and when I met her and told her that she was my MP, she was very happy about it and we enjoyed the moment. I severally met Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family. I worked in London until 1990 when I returned to Uganda.
STARTING THE COFFEE DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
In 1990, I was requested by government to start the Uganda Coffee Development Authority [UCDA]. At that time, they were trying to liberalize the coffee industry, and since I had done some work about coffee in London; the ministry of cooperatives and marketing engaged my line ministry.
The permanent secretary then was Sam Ntegga, who asked me to be the lead consultant on the formation of the authority in 1992. Thereafter, I was asked to remain as board secretary, a position I held until May 2003, I can tell you what you see as UCDA is partly my creation.
At that time in the ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had been promoted to the rank of ambassador. You see, even when I was working in the coffee sector, I remained an employee of Foreign Service because I had only switched ministries on secondment of my ministry.
LAST POSTING TO GENEVA
In 2003, I wanted to retire but instead my permanent secretary wrote to me telling me that my secondment to another ministry had been terminated and I was supposed to report back to my line ministry. I briefly worked as acting director, regional cooperation directorate, until September in 2003.
In October, I was then posted to Geneva in Switzerland as ambassador and also deputy permanent representative to the UN and other international organisations.
So we did a lot of work representing Uganda and chasing any opportunities that Uganda could benefit from within these organisations. Well, this kind of work had been part of me; so, there was nothing really new. In 2006, I retired from the ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I rested the whole of 2007, stayed at home doing my personal stuff, while in 2008 I was appointed by the Kabaka as permanent secretary and head of civil service in Buganda kingdom. This is what I continue doing to date. Of course, here I work at the prerogative of the Kabaka; so, I don't know when I will retire.
CAREER VS POLITICAL DIPLOMATS
Career diplomats who have risen through the ranks do not have to be subjected to other interviews in order to be appointed ambassadors because growth in rank is indicative of the fact that the person is competent and is delivering good service.
But it is also important to note that the ambassador does not just represent the country; he also represents the government and the president to be particular; so, I believe the president should really have a say on who becomes ambassador.
The careerists can then be supplemented by a few political appointees that I normally refer to as outsiders. Of course, not that all political appointees can't give excellent service; I happened to work with ambassadors Ibingira and Dr Olara Otunnu in New York, although they were politically appointed, they were extremely good and brilliant people.
Unfortunately, we have so many today that are not worth their posts; somebody loses an election now and the following day they are on a plane to represent Uganda; so, they end up trusting in NRM cadreship and thus pay more allegiance to the regime than the country. Question is: what would be their fate if government changed?
SHAMEFUL FOR EMBASSIES TO RENT
It is unfortunate today that the stories you hear are about dilapidated Ugandan embassies abroad. During our time, yes we did rent, but there were deliberate efforts to build structures for our missions.
In New York, for example, ambassador Kironde did buy a plot of land upon which to build our offices. I think it was around 1975, we wanted some loan in New York but we did not have collateral; so, Amin asked: "Don't these people know that we have money?"
So, he provided money and sent the whole of it; and that is how Uganda House was constructed. By the time I left in 1976, it was already constructed. The remarkable thing is that the money was never diverted.
Ambassador Kironde also did buy the residence of the ambassador; it used to belong to a film actor, but as I speak now it is in a highly-prized area on Park Avenue so much so that our ambassadors no longer stay there because it is now expensive; we are now renting it, at I think, around $30,000 dollars per month. These you can imagine were bought by Idi Amin, Idi Amin!
In London, the official residence in Hampstead in North London was bought in 1969 by Ambassador Etyang; our offices on Trafalgar square were also ours.
So, you can see that during our time people were foresighted and they worked for the better of this country. Governments worked towards establishing permanent and good office and residential premises for the mission.
Look out for another engaging interview in this series next Friday