Dr Sam A Okuonzi
The recent Uganda North America Association (UNAA) convention held from August 29 – September 1 in Dallas Texas, USA brought to the fore the issues and concerns of our nationals living in North America - Canada and USA.
The convention was held under the theme: “HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE DIASPORA”. The Diaspora engaged Ugandan leaders, both in government and in opposition, in a lively general debate, as an activity of the convention. In this debate, Hon Ruhakana-Rugunda led the government team and Rtd General Mugisha Muntu, FDC president led the opposition team.
According to UNAA’s Chairman of Board of Trustees, Dr Mulera K Munini, the “next 25 years of UNAA will be to harness human and financial resources to realize the personal dreams of the Ugandan Diaspora in North America. The legacy that the current generation should leave to the next generation of the Ugandans in Diaspora is solid education and socio-cultural grounding”. Ugandans in Diaspora want to be actively involved in peace, political, social and economic development of Uganda, and were advised to work hard to “create attractive retirement communities back in Uganda”.
Diaspora populations are becoming increasingly important to national economies the world over. According to the ambassador of Uganda to the US, Ms Oliver Wonekha , Uganda government recognizes the vital role of the Diaspora in national development. That is why, she argued, there was now a Diaspora department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She said a draft National Diaspora Policy was being worked on. When completed, the policy would address most constraints that the Diaspora currently faces. She predicted that remittances from Diaspora would reach USD 1bn in 2013, far more than the annual revenue from traditional cash crops.
The Diaspora want to participate in Uganda’s national elections. In principle, government leaders at UNAA convention said government was agreeable to this demand. Opposition leaders however raised concerns about government’s sincerity and capacity to implement such a scheme. They also said the government could abuse this arrangement for rigging elections. The Diaspora want reforms on the electoral laws and on the Electoral Commission. The government team assured them that these reforms would be done. The opposition said not enough was being to reform the laws, saying that unless the entire Electoral Commission was dissolved, there would be no change in Ugandan politics. On being represented in Parliament and Cabinet back in Uganda, Ugandans in Diaspora were told by government leaders that this was a constitutional matter and would require amendment to the constitution.
On the dual citizenship law, now in place, the Diaspora were concerned about prohibitive clauses in the law. They cited paying USD50 per entry into Uganda and USD 47 to regain Ugandan citizenship. They also decried the clause which prohibits the Diaspora from becoming President of Uganda, Member of Parliament, and Chief of Defense Forces. Responding on this issue, Dr Rukahana said dual citizenship was a major achievement. He said most of the concerns raised could be addressed through administrative means. Rtd Gen Mugisha Muntu however wondered what could have been the rationale for those charges.
The Diaspora wondered whether the government could grant them attractive incentives such as internationally comparable salaries and tax waivers for transfer of skills and capabilities back to Uganda. Opposition leaders’ response was that tax waivers given to foreign investors should be extended to the Ugandan Diaspora. The government’s team led by Dr Rugunda and seconded by several others said government would not give more salary to the Diaspora who returned home because “this would incite the population against the returned Diaspora professionals”. Giving an example of professors, he said a Makerere University professor was no different from a Diaspora professor in technical capability, so the government would not give the latter a different (higher) salary.
The opposition however said government did not really care about Ugandan professionals. That is why, they said, it can pay a professional Sh 3million per month, but pay the Executive Director of KCCA Shs 43m per month. The opposition leaders said government should learn from Taiwan, China and India, which give their Diaspora very attractive incentives for investment (such land availability, tax waivers, etc) and which outsource them for government contracts, as well as for technology transfer.
The Diaspora were concerned about the rampant corruption in Uganda, citing the recent cases in the OPM and the Ministry of Public Service. Dr Rugunda said corruption was a problem all over the world not just in Uganda. He said what was important was that government was fighting the vice. He recalled that the NRM 10-point program listed corruption as a major issue to tackle. That is how the institution of the IGG had been created, he argued. He said what needed to be done was to strengthen the investigative machinery of the police and the courts of law. He said the fight against corruption should be a fight by everybody. He pointed out that the commonly cited corruption in the office of the Prime minister and in the ministry of public service were cases of individuals who are now in the courts of law or are being investigated, and that the cases were not orchestrated by the government.
Opposition leaders however pointed out that Uganda was ranked the 9th most corrupt nation in the world. They said high level government officials were implicated in all recent cases of corruption, and have not been apprehended.
The issue of State House Sponsorship of students was also raised by the Diaspora together with the issue of a school for orphans in Kanyanyerwa near Lake Mburo, allegedly reserved for a few selected ethnic groups. Explaining the history and evolution of the State House sponsorship and school for orphans, Dr Rugunda and Hon Mwesigye Fred said it was originally meant for orphans of colleagues who had fallen in liberating or defending the country. But now the sponsorship has been taken over by the ministry of education to help all needy children in the country.
The writer is the MP Vurra County and Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament