Kampala, Uganda — A video of U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, pitching to American investors why they should invest their dollars in Kenya triggered debate on why American ambassadors cannot do the same for Uganda.
Whitman, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard, wowed Kenyans and Ugandans alike with her marketing skills and passion for business.
"Kenya is a gateway to the East African market of almost 500 million consumers. Kenya is the regional logistics hub. Kenya is the leading regional financial hub," she started off. "Kenya with its Silicon Savanah and super smart engineers is the region's ICT hub," she quipped, drawing wild applause from her audience.
Whitman also raved about Mombasa port being the entry point for 80% of East Africa's regional trade and Jommo Kenyatta International Airport being the largest in the region with 40 passenger airlines.
Whitman, also formerly CEO at e-bay, was speaking from San Francisco, U.S. a city that hosts Silicon Valley; the home of major American tech firms like Apple, Facebook, and Google. Also in the audience was President William Ruto at the event dubbed US-Africa Business Roundtable.
Among some Ugandans, the attention turned to their home country. Several voices laid the issue squarely at the hands of government for not being proactive. "This is what government led "demand stimulation" looks like. The President of Kenya is here, the US ambassador to Kenya is here, and everybody who gets on stage is pitching the country. I love it." commented Hilda Kabushenga, CEO of the Africa Talent Company, who attended the event in San Francisco.
"Guys, who is leading the charge to market Uganda as a tech destination? How do we get involved? Because mehn, we are sleeping. President Ruto is here selling his country to all of SV, and I'm both inspired and a little depressed. We need to do more." said Kabushenga who has also worked with KPMG and McKinsey, global consulting firms.
At the same time, the Uganda delegation to the UN General Assembly in New York was taking flak for how large it was.
Uganda has a new American ambassador, William Popp. On Sept. 20, Popp presented his credentials to President Yoweri Museveni at State House alongside other diplomats from countries like Norway, Finland and Palestine.
He takes over from Ambassador Natalie Brown at a time of expanding U.S. sanctions on Ugandan military figures for human rights violations like torture, kidnaps and other heinous acts related to the 2021 presidential election.
Although there are a number of American firms doing business in Uganda, American envoys in Uganda have focused on democracy, governance, healthcare, education, capacity building efforts and other civic engagement activities. There has been notably little engagement between Uganda and U.S. on the business front in a country where millions are unemployed and looking to support their small businesses.
Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), the arm responsible for courting foreign investors, has little to show for its engagement with the U.S., still regarded as the world's largest economy.
"Yes we are in regular contact with embassies and organisations that represent foreign interests here and work with MOFA to coordinate such initiatives," said Angelo Izama, a board member at UIA, when contacted for a comment.
The Kenyan ambassador to Uganda George Owinow, told The Independent that it is up to Ugandan strategists to take it up from where the American envoy to Kenya left it.
"If you are a strategist, how is Uganda in relation to the statistics she was sharing?" he asked.
"What does it mean for Uganda and Kenya? How can we leverage that by developing specific and general strategies? What can Uganda do to support agriculture, use that data for the benefit of Uganda and Kenya?" Owinow further asked.
Since Whitman made her now famous pitch, Kenyan firms have certainly intensified strategies for American investment as the country has long marketed itself as a bastion for foreign businesses.
In a response to the American ambassador doing the same for Ugandan businesses, Ellen Masi, the Public Affairs Counselor at the US Embassy, told The Independent; "In his first days in country Ambassador Popp is meeting with American companies to discuss their experiences and support their investment goals in Uganda."
Masi added, "The United States recognises the vital role the private sector has in the Ugandan economy and will continue to encourage reforms that support a good regulatory framework, investment in human capital, and a clear commitment to the rule of law."
Difficult political environment
But as the strategists looked for ways of leveraging Uganda's business advantages, some analysts believe it is the political environment making it impossible for such a pitch by any diplomat.
Uganda is smarting from a decision by the World Bank to suspend loans to Uganda for enacting the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a law that some Ugandans were already facing prosecution. The World Bank is headquartered in Washington D.C. and its president is traditionally picked by the White House a demonstration of how far the U.S. controls the institution- whose principal role is fighting poverty worldwide.
According to number of pundits, it would be for hard an ambassador of a country like the U.S to market Uganda as a business and a tourism destination when it is passing laws targeting minorities like the LGBTQI community.
In June, reports indicated that the U.S. had imposed travel restrictions on some unnamed Ugandan officials after President Museveni assented to the new anti-gay law. As a result, government officials are involved in talks with diplomats on how to find common ground on a law that is described as one of the harshest in the world.
Tough road for Popp
Ambassador Popp has appeared affable and easy going in his public appearances but history shows he is likely to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors; Brown and Deborah Malac, of taking action as the political landscape in Uganda gets polarised.
At a press conference in December 2021, Brown offered Ugandan journalists a window into the diplomatic framework of US-Uganda relations. Responding to questions on increasing sanctions on Ugandan senior military officers, she said, "The U.S. uses sanctions as one of the tools available to us in response to corruption, terrorism, or in this case human rights violations."
She added "We are constantly, as a government, looking at individuals who violate the rights of citizens and it's an ongoing effort to examine some of their actions and there's a whole graph of approach that looks at everything."
Brown whose tour of duty saw former spy boss Maj. Gen Abel Kandiho hit with wide ranging sanctions described the sanctioning process as "rigorous." Brown is a career foreign service officer whose immediate posting before coming to Uganda was Eritrea. In September 2023, she took up a new role as a "Senior Diplomatic Advisor" for the Smithsonian Institution.
American ambassadors are critical players in the feedback loop of pressing sanctions against individuals and governments. Working with the supervisory U.S. State Department Bureau of Political Affairs and with the U.S. Treasury, American diplomats act as the eyes and the ears of their governments through the exercise of filing cables about particular individuals and events.
Malac, another predecessor of Popp, had an even tougher stance. She arrived in Uganda In February 2016 just after the presidential elections and immediately fired off with statements castigating the manner in which the election was conducted. She was particularly vocal about the detention of opposition candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye. Malac emerged as a sharp critic of the Ugandan government to what some considered a breach of diplomatic protocol.
Speaking at a conference not long after she arrived, she said "The social media shutdown, the detention of opposition figures, harassment of media (during and after elections) - all of these things combined with poor organisation of the election have weakened Uganda's democracy and tarnished Uganda's image as a strong democracy in a turbulent region."
Like Brown, Malac was a career diplomat who served in countries like Liberia, Ethiopia. She ruffled feathers in many of her postings. A few years before she was posted to Uganda, she worked as a Director in the Office of East African Affairs in Washington a signal that she had a fair understanding of the terrain before she landed in Kampala. Some attributed her take-no-prisoners approach to her earlier focus on Uganda.
It was under the time of Malac that former Police Chief Gen. Kale Kayihura was sanctioned by the U.S. for torture and arrests of opposition politicians. Kayihura's wife and children were not spared in what is by far the toughest sanctions package on any Ugandan individual.
The public will be watching Popp's moves and reactions at a time of political upheaval ahead of the 2026 election.