Interviews

British High Commissioner bows out

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Martin Shearman is the out-going British High Commissioner to Uganda. He shared his feelings about Uganda’s politics and economy. He also told Henry Mukasa his best and worst time in Uganda

How has been your tour of duty?
I have been here for four years, so it’s been a busy period. For example, we had elections in 2011, Kampala bombs in 2010 and the Buganda riots in 2009.

We have British citizens doing business here and involved in the oil industry. Bilaterally there’s been a lot of co-operation on regional security notably Somalia, where there has been a huge development programme. I like Uganda a lot.

I enjoyed travelling in the country and meeting people of various backgrounds. I am also pleased that during my stay here, the bilateral relations have been strong. There has also been a lot of discussion and dialogue. I look back with some sadness to leave because it was a fascinating place to be in.

You mention the September 2009 riots and the 2010 Kampala bombing as some of the great events. How did they change your perception of Uganda or the region?
I think the riots were a shock but they illustrated that there are difficult issues about how different parts of the country stick together. They also illustrated the challenges the Police face in trying to do a good job for stability.

It was clear that in September 2009 things got out of hand. But they also show the importance of having healthy and good politics where you talk about these issues. That is important for the country and the whole continent.

The Kampala bombings were a huge shock. I felt sympathetic for the people who suffered. Even London suffered bombs in 2005 and I know what impact it can have on people and the city. I was impressed by the way people returned to normal life.

Those attacks appeared to be linked to the role Uganda is playing in Somalia. And I can say we admire the huge contribution Uganda has made in providing forces to try to bring stability to Somalia. It is one issues where Uganda has shown leadership.

Do you think the passing of the proposed Public Order Management Bill will fix the challenges the Police faces in ensuring public order?
It is right to have legislation in that area. In the UK, we have legislation on management of public order. It is important to codify the duties of the Police and the responsibilities of the organisers of demonstrations in law. That means everyone knows what framework it is.

Sometime back, we (the UK) did some work with the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) and the Police which resulted into some guidelines on how demonstrations should be conducted and I think they were good and widely accepted.

The Police have a duty to ensure public order but they also have a responsibility to protect those freedoms in the Constitution. It is challenging to get the right balance.

What then is your comment on the interactions or should I say confrontations that the Police has had with the opposition?
It has not been very good, has it? It is unfortunate for Uganda that many of the images portrayed internationally were about the confrontation on the streets between the Police and demonstrators. I think Uganda needs to get itself out of that cycle.

It is encouraging that in terms of expressing different views in Parliament, it has not been selective. It is important for the politicians to use that to the full. It is also important that there is willingness and space to tolerate demonstrations on issues in public.

In the UK we have all kinds of demonstrations on all kinds of issues, some too critical of the Government, but we believe it’s important to uphold freedom of expression and assembly.

Are you satisfied with the way money given by the UK Government has been utilised?
Not all the money goes to the Government. It gets used in different ways and it has achieved tremendous results. The money has helped improve vaccination cover and the economy of northern Uganda to grow again. It has also boosted food security in Karamoja and helped them get away from relief food.

Development assistance is something we are committed to and the money we are putting in Uganda is actually increasing. The money that goes directly to the Government has helped government ensure macro-economic stability.

But undoubtedly it is challenging. Everybody from the President to the person down says there is a problem of corruption here. One of the things that is of concern to us is that the money we give to the Government as part of development assistance is well used and not subject to leakage.

Everyone has heard the President acknowledge there is corruption. But reading from the cases that have been prosecuted, do you see an attempt to serve justice or recover the money?
In cases of CHOGM, some of the money has been recovered but probably not as much as it should be. There were some (court) proceedings. My honest verdict, reinforced by many Ugandans from all sorts of background, would be that there isn’t yet in Uganda effective systems or systems that work well to tackle corruption. There seems to be a legal framework but there seems to be a problem. The common view is that there is corruption which is not being tackled effectively.

One of the other things is of course when you talk to people here, corruption seems to be a problem of someone else. If Ugandans want to tackle the problem there should be a feeling from everyone that it is their responsibility to tackle it.

Political will?
The Government of course talks very strongly about tackling corruption, having zero tolerance to corruption policy, yet at the same time the President talks about having serious problems with corruption. He identifies civil servants sometimes or sub-county chiefs. So the fact that corruption is still there suggests that the political will hasn’t yet been sufficient to tackle corruption.

The media in the UK has recently criticised your government for giving money to a president they say is undemocratic?
There was one story in the UK media, The Daily Telegraph, which took that line. We are not giving the President lots of money. We are running development programmes, the aim of which is to help Uganda make political, economic and social progress and try to lift people out of poverty.

It is something we are very proud of. We are increasing the money we are spending on development assistance here and we are convinced it will make a difference in the lives of the ordinary people.

It is domestically politically challenging because in the UK we are decreasing the money the Government is spending to have the budget balance yet we are increasing the money we are spending on development assistance. I hope we reach that stage when Uganda no longer needs assistance.

Ugandans have saluted the Ninth Parliament as a redeemer of the image of Parliament. Is that something agreeable to you?
Well, undoubtedly any observer would say it has been very active because there has been much debate within Parliament.

As an outsider, it appears to me that this Parliament is being more assertive in holding government to account and that is its job. So that is welcome. But it is important that MPs think about what they say.

What’s your assessment of the evolution of multiparty politics in the country?
It is developing. It still needs to develop further. The Movement also has some history but when you move around the country, the institutions of the state are still inter-mingled with it. So the Movement needs to learn to be a free-standing political party.

The opposition parties have more to do to strengthen their structures in the country and also strengthen their policy platforms. Seven years of multi-party, that’s what you should expect, work in progress.

Comment on the state of the media in execution of its work as one of the tenets of a democratic society?
Standing in Kampala, you cannot help but be impressed by the liveliness of the media, the print media, the radio and TV stations, lively debate and discussion.

Maybe life is more difficult in rural areas. The scope of investigative journalism needs to widen so that when there is a big story or issue, a paper like New Vision takes it over.

Uganda has done well to protect the freedoms of the media. Occasionally I hear politicians saying rude things about the media.

The most important protector of pluralistic politics is a free media. I think that’s part of having an open society, the media will not always say what you want.

Worst moment while in Uganda?
The Kampala riots and the Kampala bombings. The Kampala bombing was a dreadful thing to happen to those who suffered and lost their dear ones. The Kampala riots were also a worrying thing.

Best moments?
When I first came here in 2008, many people in northern Uganda were in IDP camps and I travelled to the north a lot. One of the positive things is the way normal life has returned to the north. The people there are now doing business.

Do you think the talk for the restoration of term limits in the Constitution is justified because in defence, the Government says there are no term limits in Britain?
It is unusual in Britain for prime ministers to make more than three terms. The British system tends to be self-limiting. Different things work in different systems in different countries. It is nice Ugandans are discussing this.

People who in 1995 put term limits in the Constitution had reasons to do so. I assume when they were lifted in 2005 there were reasons to do so. It’s right that if Ugandans think there is an issue there must be an open discussion about it.

Do you think Uganda needs any electoral reforms?
The EC observer missions were here for the 2011 elections. They made a series of recommendations for reforms that would help improve the electoral process in Uganda. I fully support them.

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