Winnie Byanyima: We need to act now

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You are in and out of the country so you have the benefit of both an insider and outsider. How would you describe Uganda today?
We are at a difficult time. It is a result essentially of the powerlessness of ordinary people. Their inability to demand and claim the scarce resources that government collects as revenue and borrows. If people had the power, they wouldn’t be starving, if government was committed to poor people, to fighting poverty and injustice, people should not be starving. Drought is inevitable but people should not be starving. The fact that people are starving is neglect, abandonment, and lack of accountability by our leaders. It is a shame on us. Why should Ugandans live like that? There is absolutely no reason, it is so shameful that parliamentarians, that people in government have not cut anywhere on non-essential services to help people who are starving. That is what a responsible government does. We fail as leaders, we are not accountable, and we are not sensitive, we don’t care for our people. This economy is now slowing. It is time to tighten our belts and look at how to diversify the sources of income of our people and direct people into the sectors that can revive growth.

Again, I don’t see a government with the energy, the legitimacy, the ability to kick start the economy and bring about the jobs and livelihoods of people. We are in difficult times; debt is rising, revenues are stagnating because we are taxing from the same small pool of people and the prices of commodities have come down. The prospects of oil are there but it has taken so long so we are in for tough times, our unemployment rate keeps rising, young people come out of schools with no prospects of jobs and family is abandoned, people who farm don’t get a good income so I am concerned about the economic prospects of the country. You want me to talk about the politics?

May be before you go to the politics, you paint a very grim picture of the economy. What do you think should be done to stop this?

We should be seeing government divert resources to help people that are suffering hunger. Two, economic stimulation, stimulating our economy in those sectors that can bring about more jobs that give opportunity to our people to earn incomes. The biggest one for us is, of course, agriculture, that is where like 90 per cent of our people earn a living from or live off so stimulating agriculture should be a top priority of our government but look at the list of things that our government is in.

Yes, it is in infrastructure, that is important for agriculture, roads are important for agriculture, markets are important and so on but agriculture itself , farming people to be able to access inputs, planting materials, technology, information to be able to have price support when prices come down. Government to be able to stock what is surplus so that their prices remain high and reduce them in periods of uncertainty. Government has its role to support agriculture but what I see is small holder farmers are on their own. Government is always ready to support private sector which it calls big business, there are always meetings of the big business looking at tax exemptions, looking at what they need for an enabling environment for business people, big business.

The smallholder farmer is very much on his own, I see something called Operation Wealth Creation but when I go on the ground, I find that the poorest people are not beneficiaries, Operation Wealth Creation seems to be hijacked by local elite, LCs, LDUs, people with positions in the government seem to be the ones who benefit from this programme. We do need to see serious investment in the small holder farmer, connecting them to the supply chains of big business. The third thing is for Uganda, the leadership, President Museveni to take a neutral stand, work with leaders in the region of IGAD [ Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)] to end the war in South Sudan that has a huge implication on our economy. Apart from the fact that it will stop the loss of lives in that neighbouring country, its impact on the economy is huge. So, ending that war is critical and President Museveni has an important role to play as a neutral broker, not someone who is partisan in that conflict.

You say you don’t see the energy in the leadership, why?

There are several factors here, one is that there is a lack of political legitimacy. Every election has been worse than the one before. We come out of elections with a group in power that is less and less legitimate, that is not cohesive and strong and one that is working on an agenda that it has not truly been empowered to deliver by an election. Corruption has been let to run away. We have high levels of corruption, my sense is that it has reached a point where the level of impunity is so so high that it is very much the order of the day. It starts from the top to the bottom.

There is logic in the system that if you are not corrupt, then you are a loser. We need some really drastic action to rest ourselves and that means tackling impunity, strengthening institutions especially the integrity system of government those institutions responsible for monitoring the use of resources and government power. I feel our institutions have been weakened to a point where well-meaning officials don’t make the right decisions because they don’t feel making the right decisions will make them remain secure in their jobs. There is need to reset the button on corruption, to strengthen the integrity system, the oversight mechanism such as parliament and courts, the ombudsman role so that they deliver the oversight. But we also need legitimacy of government.

How do we achieve that legitimacy?

We have free and fair elections.

But we are just out of an election and we have a government with us that was elected?

It (government) is not here for ever and ever, there is going to be another election. We have an opportunity to prepare for a better election that delivers a government that is truly legitimate, so we must work on that and we can’t start working on that the day before the election. Four years to the next election, I don’t see steps being taken to take us to a more qualitative election and that worries me. If we stand still, we might get into an even worse election and with a worse election you have an even more illegitimate government, a more challenged government that can’t drive a more positive agenda for the people but remains in reactive mode trying to survive in power while contesting with those that see the election not have been free and fair. We need to act now towards preparing for a free and fair election.

Prime Minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, has promised that government will have a constitution review that will address this issue of reforms including electoral reforms. Shouldn’t we be putting our hopes in this process to deliver? Is the promised constitution review in good faith?

We are at crossroads again where we have the age limit in the constitution that requires that whoever is going to contest should not be above 75 years old. That creates a situation where President Museveni is required not to contest an election. It is an important crossroad. Why? Because he has been our leader for more than 30 years now and he has shaped this country in many ways positively. He has turned the economy around; he worked to bring about some democratic changes that put us on a path of stable governance. Now it is time according to the constitution not to contest and for his party to find another leader.

This is an important moment but what I am hearing and what makes Prime Minister Rugunda’s suggestion of a constitution review rather suspect is that like before when there was a constitution review it is now being circulated particularly among the circles of NRM that there is a preparation in that constitution review of the lifting of the age limit both upper and lower and this is intended for President Museveni to run again. President Museveni hasn’t said anything himself so we cannot impute anything against him and we should not presume that he has asked for it but there are people asking for it and these people are within his political party. It will be very unfortunate for our country that we should change the constitution to remove the age limit so that an individual whether President Museveni or another can be able to contest again. This is an opportunity for us to have a smooth, democratic orderly change of power, of teams. We should allow it to happen. Uganda should have that chance. Those people proposing this are not doing so for the good of the country.

We should have a stable democracy, a constitutional democracy where we set the rules and we let the rules work. At the first instance of the term limit to work we lifted it now at the first instance for the age limit to work, we want to lift it. How can we lift it? It is bad for our country, for our economy because it creates uncertainty for the country. We can’t keep changing the rules every time they don’t suit a particular leader because it creates uncertainty, a lack of investment in our country not only by foreign investors but also local investors…

You are one of the framers of the constitution and you provided for how it can be changed. Isn’t that what is being followed?

I would say it is ridiculous. Every constitution, of course, can be changed. Just because you can change doesn’t make it right to change. You can never change a constitution and put there a provision that it must never change. It doesn’t work like that but you don’t change for the sake of it. You change a constitution, a provision out of a very very serious consideration by the population.

As a senior leader, you know President Museveni has the capacity to put an end to this debate and speculations. Have you reached out to him and raised your concerns and objections?

Well, I call upon him now. He really has the keys to this because he has a political party that is dominant in parliament. He is able always to convene his caucus and ask them to vote one way or another. The people proposing the lifting of the age limit are supporters and members of his political party. He can convene his party, he can tell the country that he sees it is time for him to retire and he has an option to retire and earn the respect that he deserves as really a morderniser, a revolutionary who took our country out of a difficult political contest, conflict and economic decline. Yes, he can do that, he can show the country that he is not interested in changing the constitution and his party will drop it. I call upon him to do that. I call upon other political leaders, like I said changing the constitution creates political uncertainty but equally there is need to assure President Museveni and his group in power of safety for themselves. I think there is a lot of uncertainty also for the futures of those who have been in power for a long time.

Speaking of transition, lately, there has been what has since been termed as talks about talks. Are you aware of these talks particularly between Dr Kizza Besigye and President Museveni?

I am aware of the process that was being mediated by the Swedish government very much around finding a way out of a highly contested election we had in 2016. I think that was an easy step in the right direction to look at why we have such contested elections, what went wrong and then propose reforms, plan forward how to manage this transition where we expect NRM to field a candidate who is not President Museveni and the opposition to field their candidates and to have an election that will lead to an acceptable outcome for the people of Uganda.

How far did that particular initiative go?

I am not at the center of this, I am at the periphery. I just heard that this process was going on and I welcomed it. I have also been involved in encouraging it, putting in place the first steps but let me say I am not actively involved in leading it. For that you need to ask Dr Besigye and President Museveni. It was a right step in the right direction but I think it is not the only step. We need to have a big reform that will need to a qualitative election and that needs to involve everybody.

Well, there are groups that opine that having a dialogue with Mr Museveni and his group will calm some people angry with the status quo pending another election ritual.

People are cynical and I understand the cynicism but if you are a serious political activist and citizen who wants real change, you can’t afford to be cynical. You have to propose things in honesty, you have to come with clean hands and seriousness and expect the other party to be serious too. For me if President Museveni comes to the table with Dr Besigye to look at what went wrong in the previous elections, I expect seriousness from both of them and honesty and an outcome that can be discussed by everybody and turned into reforms that will lead us to a more acceptable election. That is what I expect. It is true people are cynical but I can’t afford to be cynical I am thinking about the future of my country, my children, the young people I see. I can’t afford to fold my hands and look on.

The talks received a lot of criticism

When two sides allow suspicion and fear to capture them then a dialogue can’t happen. If you come and assume goodwill on the other part put out your hand and put your issues down in honesty everything can be achieved.

The question of land is a time bomb in this country and there are proposals before parliament to give government more power. What do you think about this?

I see this provision as a shift towards putting power into the hands of government over land and taking away power from the people over their land. So, I don’t support. I think we had enough provisions in the Constitution for government to negotiate and buy land for public use. We also have parts of land still gazetted as public land. I don’t see the need for that provision, I see danger in it and again poor people becoming less secure on their land and this has implications for their human rights.

You are one of the founding members of FDC but lately, there are reports of cracks emerging in that party. What is your take on that?

Every party has its tendencies and FDC is no exception. I believe NRM has its tendencies but in opposition parties these tendencies tend to be unhealthy because they are exploited. The opposition parties work in very difficult environments were debates that should be healthy, transparent and end up to good decision end up deepening into factions then cleavages and end up splitting up the party. We have seen this happen to the oldest parties here DP and UPC and I think FDC struggles with these tensions, interventions coming from the ruling party and the government and manipulation and repression. Look why should the government and the police be intervening in the internal factions of DP. Why should they be helping one faction against the other? There is a hand of the state in political parties and they are not allowed internal debate. I have to say, I don’t think FDC is in danger of collapsing. I just think they are a group that is struggling.

The multiparty democracy seems to have failed to take a root

It is challenged there is no question but we had to have it. I find it difficult when people think that we should have remained a one party state because multiparty is challenged but it is better than where we were in a one party state.

Would you advise Dr Besigye to run again in 2021?

I think that is going to be his decision, I am not going to advise him for or against. It is him to make up his mind. Contesting elections is not the same as running government. To contest is just seeking power, you can’t compare them.

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