The outgoing United States Ambassador to Uganda, Scott DeLisi. PHOTO STEPHEN WANDERA
On February 21, 2013, you told the American Chamber of Commerce Investment Opportunities in Energy and Infrastructure summit in Kampala, that corruption in Uganda is “pervasive and is inextricably linked to the prevailing governance.” What is your view and what did Uganda government officials tell you in conversations about corruption?
Corruption still remains one of the greatest impediments to growth [and] the future of Uganda. We see the reports in the press on a regular basis about officials whether in government or business and even the average citizens who are always seeking something more in a way that is inappropriate.
The good news at least is we are always seeing reports in the press as well about people being prosecuted. That we are seeing more cases being prosecuted, [shows corruption is] being addressed.
What government officials told me is that they understand how destructive this is to the fabric of society, how hurtful it is to economic growth and that they are determined to address it. Words are easy to say, but it is actions that will count.
We ask leaders all the time to do more than just telling us privately.
Uganda goes to general elections in 2016. Are you satisfied with the preparations thus far?
I am a little amused by questions like that. It is not a question of whether I am satisfied or not. It is a question of whether Ugandans are satisfied; it is your polls, it is your government, it is your election.
What we commit ourselves to and are concerned about and talk to government about all the time is the importance of the electoral process.
I don’t care who wins, that is a choice of Ugandans to make. What we hope for Uganda is that the process will be open, free and fair, non-violent and transparent…. It allows me as an ambassador, or my successor, to more effectively speak with Washington about why we need to build a strong partnership with Uganda.
Are there issues of concern? Of course, there are but we have heard conversations with government leaders, political leaders about this and we will continue to be involved after I leave.
What are some of those issues of concern [you have alluded to]?
There have been times when we have seen police officials, on several occasions, who have not understood what the Public Order Management Act means. This is something the Inspector General of Police [Kale Kayihura] and others have acknowledged; misapplication of the law and denying a permit here and allowing it there. We need fair approaches to all these things.
There are times when there have been questions about an Opposition figure not being allowed to speak on a radio programme. These are the sort of things that can happen and we’ve all seen it happen. Whatever the motivation, whatever official at any level, these are some of the things that cause people to doubt the government, police or security’s commitment to a democratic process; which is why we need to respond promptly.
I applaud the fact that [Internal Affairs minister] Gen Aronda [Nyakairima] (died a day after the interview), for example, was in the press the other day speaking about these militia groups that people are very concerned about.
I have spoken with the General (Aronda), IGP Kayihura, Chief of Defence Forces (Gen Katumba Wamala), and have spoken with President Museveni about these things. Everyone assures us that we are not going to allow this, this is not the way we want our elections to happen, and that is a good thing. So there is concern about such groups, absolutely legitimate concerns.
One of the fundamental issues you raised was the integrity of the process leading to the 2016 election. As we now know, Parliament rejected the donor-supported Opposition proposals for electoral reforms. What is your view about it?
I am not an expert on everything that is in that electoral reform Bill. But again these are decisions that ultimately have to be made by the elected Parliament of Uganda and the choice of MPs is one that, as a foreign diplomat, I still have to respect.
We have to respect the democratic process made by these people who are elected by the people of Uganda. At the same time this question of electoral reforms is an on-going dialogue and sure it’s going to come back in the next Parliament and many people are going to revisit that.
One of the best things you got about the electoral reforms process was not whether or not the Parliament ultimately decided to accept a package like that, but in the months leading to this debate in Parliament, there were consultations across this country and in many districts across Uganda people of all parties came together at the local level and talked about these issues. Irrespective of the final decision by Parliament, the fact that those discussions took place is a good thing.
Some Opposition candidates, in this case Dr Kizza Besigye who is a flag bearer for FDC, say ‘no reforms, no vote’.Do you think a boycott would be justified?
I leave that to the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party and others to decide whether and what stand they want to take. Elections are not there for grandstanding to promote a party flag or individuals.
Elections provide an opportunity for a society or a nation to talk together about the issues that sometimes divide them or unite them. Elections are more than just winners and losers, it’s about societal values that they reflect. So I will leave it to the political parties to decide whether to boycott or to do anything that makes sense or does not.
Some youth calling themselves supporters of presidential aspirant and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, have twice staged unusual demonstrations at the gate of the US Mission in Kampala, claiming to be on an appointment with you. On one poster, they beseeched president Obama and Mr Mbabazi to save Uganda from dictatorship. Were they on appointment with you as they claimed?
I had no appointment with the youths [and] also that’s blackmail. I like the passion of that bunch of the youth; I am sure they were just passionate people committed to the former prime minister or whoever but I don’t know.
I hate to say this but we paid little attention to that. The only concern we had was from the standpoint of security, allowing people who are trying to access the embassy for the visa and other things. They can stand outside and wave to us whatever they want because that is the essence of democracy—the freedom of speech.
Did you consider or pass their key concern about dictatorship in Uganda to Washington?
No, I don’t consider that a message for Washington. People are entitled to say whatever they want and will say whatever they want. People will always have their issues but all this is debate. You hear the debate about President Museveni, the governance of the National Resistance Movement but I leave that to the people of Uganda.
But let’s be fair, as we say these things. To say that there is a dictatorship in Uganda is neither an accurate nor a fair statement. You can debate the issues you are concerned about, but to ask diplomatic missions to subscribe to what is political rhetoric as debating points, I am not going to get drawn into that.
The US provides $760m support annually to Uganda, more than half of it ($440m) allocated to the health sector. Part of this spending provides anti-retroviral drugs to some 800,000 Ugandans. On August 3, 2010, president Obama in a White House meeting, which I attended, Young African Leaders, said: “We’re never going to have enough money to simply treat people who are constantly getting infected. We’ve got to have a mechanism to stop the transmission rate.”
Would you agree the president’s prescription didn’t work, especially that Uganda’s HIV infection rates is rising again?
No, I don’t agree. I agree with my president that one of the key solutions is to control the infection rate. What I can tell you is we are making great strides to bring the level of infections down. Within certain demographics -- young girls between the age of 14 and 18 -- there are concerns that there is increase in the (infection) rates, [and] great concerns that we are going to see surges but we have to address that overall.
We want to put people on treatment and get many people on treatment and increase that number dramatically. If you look at the work we have done to prevent mother-to-child preventions, children being born with HIV today to HIV-positive mothers has dropped dramatically. If you look at the work around safe male circumcision, it shows that if we help men circumcise, the infection again drops. So all of these bio-medical interventions have been important in bringing down the levels of infections.
For the first time last year, we were putting more people on treatment than there were any new infections and that is progress. In fact, Uganda around the world is one of those models of how to approach this disease. The numbers did indicate a surge [in infections], but that was many years ago. I can bet when another research is conducted there will be a change.
I understand, and pardon if I am not correct, that the US is changing its focus in Uganda on treatment to target most-at-risk populations such as sex workers, lakeshore residents, truck drivers and same-sex partners. Would you comment on the rationale of this?
That is all quite true but we aren’t shifting. Those most-at-risk groups have always, and for long, been very much part of our equation. If you are talking about the infection rate you have to start with the biggest drivers of infections and those groups you mentioned are the biggest drivers of the epidemic. It is not a change of focus; it is simply a continuation.
You raised the issue of actions counting more than words [when it comes to leaders]. In September 2014, the Human Rights Watch released a report condemning unpunished killing of up to 40 civilians by Ugandan security forces, including the police, during the 2009 pro-Kabaka riots in and around Kampala. What discussions have you had with the government about this?
I got to admit that those killings pre-dated my time. It, however, doesn’t mean we don’t care. Justice is important but we have not focused more on that issue as we have more on the issue of government accountability [and the] importance of showing commitment to your citizens or protecting rights.
I was just talking to President Museveni the other day; there was an incident in Somalia where some UPDF could have shot some civilians and he gave us assurance [that] these were arrested, investigations conducted and tried. But one might say this is Somalia, what about here at home (in Uganda)? When I see government responding to such things like that in Somalia, it says a lot about values and accountability. Is there impunity, yes, but in general we hope that government will strive to do better just as my government strives to do better because we are not perfect.
You raise the issue of Somalia. On September 1, 2015, the al Shabaab attacked Janaale detachment, inflicting the worst fatality on Ugandan troops since their deployment in March 2007. This is a military operation to which the US provides logistical and intelligence support. On this particular occasion, was there an intelligence failure?
I don’t know if there was an intelligence failure. I don’t know the specifics, but for three years I have been monitoring Somalia and Uganda regarding the al-Shabaab, we know there are challenges posed by these extremist groups and it is the reality we live with. We have intelligence reports and have worked closely with your government to address these challenges but on whether there was an intelligence failure I don’t know. It is a tough world. In October 2011, the US deployed to Uganda about 100 Special Forces to “remove from the battlefield” -- kill or capture -- Joseph Kony.
What is preventing a sting operation to capture or kill him?
The goal (of deployment) was not for the US Special Forces to go and remove Kony. The goal was to empower the regional forces involved in the pursuit of Kony and accord them the support that they would need. The truth [is] the [additional] 150 Special Forces came in but it was temporary, the core number remains 100.
People ask what is the biggest impediment to getting Kony? Even with the full force of the US intelligence apparatus and the military, it took us a while to get [former al Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden. When you look at the environment in which Kony operates, the UPDF know how tough it is. The fact is for the last three years we have destabilised the Lord’s Resistance Army (rebel) force, they no longer have a strong command, fighters have been eliminated and many are coming out. The fact that Joseph Kony is still out there doesn’t mean we are not doing anything. I am very proud of the work we have done so far.
What will you miss most about Uganda, and what are your retirement plans?
After 34 years in service, [the Uganda posting] has been perhaps one of the most challenging jobs. It involved a lot of professional experiences and I’ll miss that intellectual stimulation. But what makes a posting in diplomatic service so rewarding isn’t the work because work is always similar but it’s the people who are the texture and fabric who make it both on business and professionally. Throughout the whole of it, the inherent friendship, decency and relationship of the Ugandan people, I think, it is what has at the end of the day made it and that is what I’ll miss the most.
I am going to have a busy retirement, I am leaving diplomatic service but I will be busy.