By Ajong Mbapndah L
Uganda’s Ambassador to the USA Mull Katende says that his country prefers trade to aid as a vehicle for development. Ambassador Katende who recently presented his letters of credentials to President Donald Trump, down played concerns about the impact of the American first policy of the current US administration. It is normal to prioritize your domestic concerns over external affairs says Ambassador Katende.
On the impressions he had after meeting with President Trump, Ambassador Katende said he found a man willing to do business with Africa, and interested in having Africa do business with the USA. Ambassador Katende said this is an approach that could bode well for his country, where the emphasis is on trade and not aid. It is in keeping with this principle that Ambassador Katende has been aggressive in marketing the economic potentials of Uganda to potential investors. For the relatively short time he has been in Office, Ambassador Katende has had meetings with investors in a number of cities across the USA.
Relations between the USA and Uganda are very strong, said Ambassador Katende. Both countries collaborate closely on security issues, and the fight against terrorism. On the sidelines of the last UN General Assembly, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was part of a luncheon offered for a select group of African leaders by President Trump.
While the security cooperation may be strong, Ambassador Katende sees great potential for ever stronger economic ties between the two countries. There are lots of opportunities for investors, Ambassador Katende said, citing the oil, energy, infrastructure, and tourism sectors amongst others.
In Uganda, investors are doing business in a political stable and friendly country with a solid legal and institutional framework, Ambassador Mull Katende, said.
As the debate on age limits rages on , including recent images of MPs trading blows on the Assembly flow, a very unperturbed Ambassador sees this as Ugandans taking their freedoms for granted. There is a lot of democracy in the country, the seasoned Diplomat said. From the streets, to the newspapers, TV, Radio, and online ,Ugandans are able to make their voices heard, said Ambassador Katende as he expressed confidence that the outcome of that debate will ultimately reflect the will of majority Ugandans.
In Uganda, everything is guided by the constitution Ambassador Katende said. Ultimately everyone will have their say in the debate, people will cast their votes and the will of the maturity will prevail, but in Uganda, respect for the constitution is taken serious, he went on.
Brushing off criticisms from those who see in the whole age limit thing a design to hand a life presidency to Yoweri Museveni,Ambassador Katende says the President has just one vote.It is about the country and not just one individual ,he said.
On the legacy of President Museveni, he will always be one of the greats in Uganda and Africa ,said Ambassador Katende as he credits th current President with vast socio ,economic and political changes that are transforming Uganda.
Ambassador Mull Katende, good morning sir.
Ambassador Katende: Good Morning.
It’s been a few months now since you became Ambassador of Uganda to the United States. How is the adaptation process going for you?
Ambassador Katende: Well it is going very well, and I am glad to be the one chosen by my country to be in the United States at this time as Ambassador, and since I came, I have had a lot of interactions. I’ve introduced myself and I’m testing the environment. It is okay and I think we will do well.
Your previous assignment was in Addis Ababa and African Union.
Ambassador Katende: Yes.
How different is the present assignment compared to that in terms of challenges?
Ambassador Katende: Well, the two are different. In Addis Ababa I was Ambassador of Ethiopia, and Djibouti where we were promoting commercial economic diplomacy but also as members of the region organization called IGAD. We were promoting infrastructure development and how our region as a whole could link up to do business with each other.
I was also permanent representative to the African Union and that’s quite a plate full of jobs and here we are concentrating on mainly two things, the integration of Africa and peace and security in Africa and I was glad to have had responsibilities in these areas for a number of years on and on. I was chairperson of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union and we looked at conflicts in Africa and I’m sure we are doing well as Africa. The challenges are many but it’s a fact that Africa continues to act together. That’s the way forward.
We would also like to get an idea, an overview of recent economic, social, and political developments in Uganda.
Ambassador Katende: Well Uganda, first of all, is one of the most liberalized, countries in Africa. We are operating a liberalized economy; we are operating a democratic country, where there is respect for human rights and rule of law and in all of these, we are guided by our constitution. In economic terms, there is a lot of effort for infrastructure development in the country, and a lot has been done, these needs have been met with regard to our roads, with regard to power and electricity. The main thing is that Uganda should be industrialized and should move into the middle income bracket by 2020 and we are now on course to do that. We seek investments from those who are willing to invest in Uganda and one of my mandates here, is to look for investors. We want to export, we are looking for markets, we have a Regional Market East African community and a Commission and whoever invest in Uganda, would have invested in the region.
What is the state of relations between Uganda and the USA at this point?
Ambassador Katende: Well we have excellent relations with US. We have always had excellent relations with the US. We respect each other; we are collaborating with a number of areas, especially in the fight against terrorism and extreme violence characterizing some parts of Africa and the world. We have cooperative arrangements with the USA on the fight against al Shabab in Somalia,and we are very happy about that relationship.
In terms of trade, we trade with each other, but this can be better; and one of my responsibilities here is to make sure that we improve our volumes of trade and the main thing for Uganda is to promote economic and commercial diplomacy. I’m not here to wine and dine but to look for investors, to look for markets, to look for tourists and of course to continue working on Development Corporation with the United States. We are doing well as two countries.
Before we get back to investments, a question on the recent meeting you had with President Trump when you got here; you are one of the first African ambassadors known to have met with President Trump; any ideas on how he views Uganda and broadly speaking, the rest of Africa?
Ambassador Katende: It was great to have the opportunity to present my letters of credentials to president Trump and it was also an opportunity to have short interactions with him. I found him a very nice person, than what we see on TV. I don’t know about others but from the few exchanges we had, he is a person who is standing for his theme of America first, and for us in Africa, we understand this to be the logical thing. If you have your family, you must make sure that your family is okay before you talk about others.
So, it is very important that America strengthens itself in terms of its economy, strengthens itself in terms of its politics, in terms of its security before it can propagate those very same ideas to other people in the world. He’s peaceful with Africa. The way I interpret it is that we want to do business with you and do business with us. That fits very well for Uganda because we are one of the countries that have not much belief in aid. Aid has been going around for many centuries but it has not made Africa turn around. If countries relate in terms of what they sell, what they create, what they trade with each other, that is more meaningful and actually, it pays more.
We had a research conducted under the African Union and this research was spear headed by former President Mbeki on how much goes into Africa, how much goes out of Africa and this result established that over 50 billion, 50 billion goes out of Africa. Is it 50 billion, 500? The figures can be established but a lot of money goes out of Africa than what goes into Africa and there is need to see how to tap into that money for good purposes. Much of it is illicit trust fund of money from Africa, meaning that it is a lot of business who lose, that we should gain from.
These are some of the things we as Ambassadors who come to big great countries like USA are preoccupied with, we want to improve trade, so that it is more we sell to USA and they are also free to sell to our region. We are here to call on American companies to come and invest in Uganda and in Africa so that they can enjoy the wealth in the market of Africa, and we can also enjoy this lucrative market of America.
But president Trump is in a way right when he says, ‘let us deal with each other in a much more tangible way.’ We lost a lot of time as Africa did with Western countries dweling on issues of governance, democracy.These have been set, . We have constitutions, we are expecting that growing knowledge to go into all those exchanges. We are losing a lot of time instead of concentrating on business, we lost a lot of time explaining; ‘oh we have elections, oh you have elections.’ We have them, there is evidence, they are not free and so on. So fine, if there is anything that we are short, in which we are short, in terms of our governance, that can be discussed but it should not be a panic matter because Africa has come from very far. There was a time when we had coups, they were very common, now thingshave changed.
There was a time when we shunned elections. It was like a taboo to say election. Now, every country tries to have elections. Now, of what quality, that is something we can work on. As Africa, we are ready to engage with other countries who are now making it better and better. In any case, things as they unfold, inform us that there is no one perfect country, and that it is not just how we can do it right, but it is about learning from each other and one of my mandates here, is to look for good practices so that we can make our systems better in economics, politiics and in other fields.
With regards to investments that you talk about, you really would like to see more US companies come to Uganda?
Ambassador Katende: Yes.
What investment opportunities are there if they were to come to Uganda to invest in and what sectors should they be on the lookout for?
Ambassador Katende: Yes, there is a lot of potential for investment in Uganda.Our environment in terms of legislation, in terms of policy, is all conducive for foreign direct investment. The opportunities are very many. There are many opportunities in the oil sector. You know we discovered oil and very soon we shall be on the market and before then, there are so many things that come into this sector. We are now in the process of building a refinary and finally, then the process of building a pipeline and also add investment which are there for people to jump in. There are various auxiliary things that can be done. We have opportunities in agriculture and agricultural processing; there are so many things which investors can do in that area because when you look at our region, many countries import these agricultural processed products if they are from within a shorter distance. That makes sense and it makes business visible.
We have opportunities in the mining sector. As you know, Uganda has minerals. We have minerals and within that sector, there are specifics, there are specifics which an investor can go in. For example, if it is about wires, there are certain wires which are required for various tasks in the world through which some of the minerals we have, one kind of factor those wires. We have opportunities in manufacturing, and the opportunities are there in tourism, it’s an open area. Tourists can come, there is a lot of infrastructure, yes we are continuing to do the infrastructure.
We do have all of this information on our website and I would encourage all of the prospective American companies to come and take advantage of the environment we have and invest.
Since I came to USA, I have had interactions in Boston, I’ve had interactions in Miami, I’ve had interactions in Dallas, I will soon be going to Minnesota next week and later somewhere in the first week of November, I will be going to Seattle; and in all of these encounters, I am giving the message and identifying those who can do business with us. And of course we do have a sizable Diaspora here. We have a strong Ugandan Diaspora which is a great source of capital.
Figures I’m told, have now reached $1.8 billion from the Ugandan Diaspora all over the world. That is quite sizable. Unfortunately, these amounts go in bits to families, to passion or those little things. It’s not well consolidated and one of the things we are telling the Ugandan Diaspora is for them to embrace platforms where they can leverage their remittances to Uganda in a manner that has impact.
Politically speaking, the headlines were dominated by this story in Uganda about presidential evidence and the world was treated to these images of sense of chaos in the Ugandan Parliament. What was this all about?
Ambassador Katende: One of these things about Uganda is that we have a lot of freedom. Nobody should tell you that there is no freedom of expression in Uganda. Just go to the streets, go to the Internet, read the newspapers of Uganda. You will be surprised that people talk anything, do anything and sometimes we wonder whether we are too vastly related. People in Uganda are free to express themselves and the most important thing is that we are guided by a Constitution; and whenyou put a Constitution in place, that is done.
The constitution we have guarantees freedom. The Constitution we have, guarantees the way politics is run. Now, the issue you are talking about relating to age limit, actually that is not the only issue that people think should be reviewed, there are many other issues. We have issues on land, we think that the present issue on land needs to be reviewed because as of now, you know a country that’s in constitution, land belongs to the people. So if we were the government, you want to build the road, you have to negotiate with the owner of the land and the practice, Ugandans have taken this freedom too much. Where the market value of an acre is for example, US$100,000.00, once people know that its government, they put it at $3 million and that has brought a lot of unease to advancement of infrastructure and the government is, they are these proposals to review that legislation, see how the owner of the land and the prospective user of the land can fairly understand each other, but the project must be put to them. That’s why now, there were no age limit.
That constitution , has provisions on how it can be managed, on how it can be reviewed. That very article according to the same Constitution, is one of the articles that can be reviewed. So whatever you hear happening in Uganda is being done constitutionally. That is the most important thing, that whatever we do, it must be done constitutionally; and all views must be heard. It’s not high handed. For example, one of the parties is going through all of these slogans on what amendments to make and how to make them and how to popularize the issue towards the population. Everybody has a right, if you don’t want it reviewed that is your decision too. That is why it was surprising that when this matter came to Parliament, there was almost fist fighting. It was not necessary because the rational thing to do is; what is being done is it Constitutional, is it legal? Once you establish that it is legal, then if you are opposed to it, what can you do as a Member of Parliament. Then you go on the floor of Parliament; give your views. Everybody gives their views. If we had said, I don’t want that, then others say we want it; now if all of you want it your ways, and you have to force it, that’s not democracy. So that is what is happening, otherwise, the situation is not desperate at all, it is absolutely not. It is being sensitized on social media, on various platforms but here and there it’s not captured but the message to all the population is, keep calm. What is being done is constitutional and if you have a voice for or against, it will be heard and I think that is the best thing about democracy.
And what is your response to critics who think that the change is actually meant to prepare the way for a kind of life presidency for President Museveni?
Ambassador Katende: You see, that is a mistake. Whatever the Constitution says, it must be followed. It’s not about him or others, no. We have heard this, supposing if you said that then you will never have opportunity to make corrections of things you think should be corrected because whether will be there, and anybody will say, uh uh, you want to change this election policy so that it serves you, it makes no sense. I think the most important thing here to follow is; what does the Constitution say? What does the law say? – and what has happened? Is it according to the law?
President Museveni is not in the Constitution, no, he’s an outcome. That assumption is only political, and it’s okay. People can’t be just listening or its not, go and say it so that whoever will finally vote, gets your idea. Just go and tell them that, ‘oh president Museveni wants this constitution to change for his favor.’ Go, go and tell people. Eventually people will listen to our views and the majority of you take course.
Still on President Museveni, he has been in power for over two decades now. If you went through some of his legacy, what has he achieved for Uganda?
Ambassador Katende: A lot. First of all, as we have come from very far as a country, from very far; I grew up with those systems where you would sleep and you are not sure whether you’d wake up. I grew up in system where you go to work and your family is not sure whether you’ll come back home. You are not sure whether you’ll find your family safe or you will find your property safe. Now, we sleep.
There was a time when if you did not hear a bullet, you don’t hear a bullet in Kampala, you’d say, ‘what has happened?’ Yeah we had that time. I grew up in those years. Now people are free.
In fact, I went too for an inquiry within my bank this morning. My bank is Citibank and I believe it is the same with the other banks, I couldn’t get this thing online, I found out that the bank opens at 11, then I said; ‘what is this?’ – because for me, I was used finding my bank open at 8am in Kampala. I am used to going out knowing that after leaving work at five, I will go to my bank and go and transact business before 6. Some of the banks go up to 8. So, I was thinking, I said maybe here we are better. We have maybe got this freedom and we are taking it for granted.
Our economy, I will give you an example, as I was a student. Now a student wouldn’t expect spectacles in Kampala. So we use it to apply for foreign exchange, spectacles were costing $20 across Kenya. You apply and when your application is approved, you are the man at the top, $20; then you go to Kenya and when you go to Nairobi, you must come with bread, with jam and that was big news. You would go to the shelves or the shops in Uganda and perhaps not find anything manufactured in Uganda. Now all those things have been changed by Museveni. That is the truth. For those who have been following the country, the peace he has brought, the economic recovery he has brought, the infrastructure he has put in place and the assurances he has made to the people of Uganda, in our view, makes him one of the most outstanding presidents we have had.
Do you know that, now Uganda is the educational hub of the region? People send their children even in primary school to go and study in schools in Uganda because we liberalized education. Government found out that this public education need support, so we liberalized it and fortunately investors came in and invested and provided quality products. That is why you find students from Kenya, from Tanzania, from Burundi, from Rwanda, from Eritrea, from Ethiopia, from South Sudan. I think there is something people forget. If I say, ‘oh you have ruled for long, you have ruled for long, vote him out.’ As long as the Constitution says this, the choice is, vote him out. There are many countries in the, actually we’re trying to find out; is there is a country in the world that has an age limit on Heads of State? We haven’t found one. I don’t know if you know one.
Even if you find it, then it is something that is not considered something necessary by many countries, but technically speaking, the most important thing in governance, in this exercise of elections, is the wishes of the people. Fortunately, they are the people to say, you govern us or you don’t, be removed and we are seeing it. Do you know that the turnover of the Uganda Parliament, is about 70%? So that authority as to who governs you, is you the voter, and if there are any issues relating to the future of elections, then we can deal with that. How can we make our elections better? How can we make them more improved? Everything is always improving. I was surprised when I came here and I find stories about, ‘oh this year’s elections were rigged.’ I said, ‘America, rigged elections in America?’ It shows you that it is something, we have to learn from each other.
When you have been in power for such a long time as President Museveni has been, obviously people get a little bit apprehensive of what might happen tomorrow. What if he’s no longer there? I’m not wishing him anything bad, but when he eventually leaves power; are the institutions in the country strong enough to support the change?
Ambassador Katende: Yes, we have institutions. All of the parties have their structures, for the Constitution spells out how if change happens and what should happen. We have institutions, they are there and in any case, if people feel that the institutions are weak, they need to talk about it , that is not a crime, but I will assure you that we have strong institutions. If we went to our Parliament, then you’d know. I do know that they appear on YouTube, we have them. If you access on any of our TVs, you can always access them. There is a TV, if you can access and see the quality of a debate. It means that really these institutions do function. Sometimes the President can wish to do something parliament will resist. That is respect, there is constitutional respect for the law.
Ambassador Katende, thank you so much sir for granting this interview.
Ambassador Katende:Thank you very much and I wish you well. Thank you.