By Benon Herbert Oluka*
Despite securing national and regional backing for the African Union top job, Dr Specioza Wandira Kazibwe’s chances could be scuttled by Uganda’s failure to pay membership fees to continental organisations.
It was reported last week that Kampala had committed Shs 3.5bn to former vice-president Kazibwe’s campaign for the July election; but sources said Uganda’s ‘serial defaulter’ status could rock the boat.
“Our candidate stands very good chances of getting the job but our biggest problem is that we have accumulated unpaid membership fees to several organisations. Our opponents could use that against us,” said a source who declined to be named so as to discuss the matter freely.
Kazibwe launched her campaign for the job of All Commission chairman at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 10. She faces Botswana’s foreign affairs minister, Dr Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, and Equatorial Guinea foreign affairs minister Agapito Mba Mokuy. The winner will serve up to 2020.
Buoyed by the Shs 3.5bn cash kitty, Kazibwe last week began a continental charm offensive, with her first stop being the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Angola. Kazibwe reportedly met 12 heads of states and their delegations on the side lines of the event, which President Museveni also attended, to front her candidature.
Ironically, given how much the government is investing in her bid, one of the issues that could knock wind out of Kazibwe’s campaign’s sails is money matters.
SHS 38.4BN DEBT
Uganda is indebted to international organisations to the tune of Shs 38.4 billion, according to the most recent financial audit review of the ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Office of the Auditor General. The audit, dated December 15, 2015, shows that Shs 33.1bn is for annual subscriptions while Shs 5.3bn is for other outstanding obligations.
Tasked to explain why the government had not paid the debt, foreign affairs ministry officials told auditors the problem was insufficient budget allocations by the finance ministry. The auditor general warned at the time that Uganda’s failure to meet its international financial obligations could come back to haunt the country in the future.
“The practice may limit the country’s participation in activities organised by international organisations. It may also attract litigation and its associated penalties from other creditors,” he noted in the report.
In an interview on Friday, the foreign affairs permanent secretary, Ambassador James Mugume, conceded that the government has defaulted on payments to some organisations. But the African Union was not one of them.
“Regarding the AU, we are clear,” he said. “We have paid [membership] up to 2015 and, in the budget that is coming up, we are paying our membership for 2016.”
Mugume named one of the organisations that Uganda owes money as the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), but argued that it did not mean the country was not playing its role on the continent.
“There are [organisations] where we have not been paying like IGAD and others, but you know we have been playing such a big role to stabilise IGAD,” he said. “We had to stabilise South Sudan and do it by ourselves; so, this contribution they are talking about would not even have been enough to stabilise the situation in South Sudan.”
Mugume, a member of Kazibwe’s campaign team, also said that wherever they have so far gone to solicit support for the former vice president, nobody has raised the issue of the fees Uganda has not paid yet.
“Nobody has complained but everybody recognises our singular role in IGAD,” he said. “Whether it is Somalia or South Sudan, we have been playing our role.”
While the main audit does not indicate exactly which other organisations Uganda owes money, a separate report on the performance of our embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia sheds light on at least one other affected programme.
According to the second audit, dated December 7, 2015, the government failed to allocate Shs 683 million required to meet Uganda’s obligations as a member of the African Union Peace and Security Council. Uganda was voted onto the council in 2013 for a three-year term.
In the report, the auditor general says that due to failure to send that money, Uganda’s embassy risked failing “to meet its obligations of its mission charter, including its participation in the AU Peace and Security Council.”
Uganda’s embassy in Addis Ababa is a multipurpose station charged with the role of representing Uganda in Ethiopia and Djibouti. It is also accredited to the AU, UN-ECA, AfDB, and is a member of the Peace and Security Committee on South Sudan, in addition to its regular role of offering consular services to Ugandans in the Horn of Africa.
Yet, in the words of the Auditor General, the embassy – which is expected to perform a key role to ensure Kazibwe’s election to the AU top job – is always battling “expenditure pressures on the available funds.”
“According to the ambassador, this scope of work involves a lot of activities including travelling, all of which require substantial resources in form of funding and time,” says the Auditor General’s report.
In the 2014/15 financial year, the government released less money than the mission had budgeted for its activities, resulting in a shortage of Shs 171 million. The Auditor General says this led to failure to maintain the existing embassy building (which Uganda has been renting since 1972), the ambassador’s residence which is in a run-down area and even the three official cars attached to the mission.
Uganda also risks losing a plot of 9,086 square metres that the Ethiopian government allocated to the country for the construction of a new embassy. While Uganda’s neighbours on the land, Zimbabwe and Chad, have already developed and occupied their plots, Uganda has not developed its own since it was allocated in 2005.
With the Ethiopian government asking for the full payment of Shs 417 million for the plot before development can go on, Uganda’s failure to pay the money looks likely to cost the embassy the prime property.
“During inspection, I noted that half of the plot had been recently fenced off with iron sheets without the knowledge of the embassy, with a possibility that it had been reallocated to another developer,” says the report.
Mugume said Uganda would counter any efforts to de-campaign Kazibwe’s candidature using the unpaid bills by highlighting the country’s role as a peacekeeper in Africa.
“We have had our troops in Somalia and even when EU funding has reduced, we have maintained them. We have stabilised South Sudan until they have attained peace. So for anybody to suggest we are not playing our role is wrong,” he said.
The veteran diplomat said they are confident of Kazibwe’s chances of securing the AU job, especially since she received the endorsement of other East African countries at a time when the region is a front runner to take over the AU chair.
“West Africa had their chairperson in [Alpha Oumar] Konaré [from Mali]. Central Africa had [Jean] Ping from Gabon. Southern Africa had [Nkosazana Dlamini] Zuma. So, it is now the turn for East Africa and the Maghreb region [North Africa] but we have the support of the Maghreb so that means we have the momentum,” Mugume said.