â€œFOR me the humaneness of our world is linked with Africaâ€™s fate. Isnâ€™t it a question of Europeâ€™s self-respect, in the light of our own foundations, values and history to show honest and generous involvement in Africa?â€ The man who uttered these lofty words is German President Horst Kohler.
The date was July 1, 2004. The occasion was his inauguration as President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
On February 5, 2008 he visited Gulu and had the occasion to prove that those were not mere words but expressions of serious commitments to a way of looking at the world. The first time I ever set eyes on President Kohler was in Athens in 2002 during the Annual Conference of the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank (PNoWB).
Former Kenyan health minister Charity Ngilu was moderating a Question and Answer session in which President Kohler, who was then still the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was the main speaker. At that time there was a dispute between the Ministry of Finance and parliamentarians concerning the controversial policy of banning recruitment of health workers.
I recall that on one occasion after failing to convince MPs about their position, the ministry officials claimed that the IMF had imposed the policy as a conditionality! In Athens I got my chance to ask the then IMF boss whether indeed they were responsible for the policy as alleged by the ministry officials.
I elaborated that the policy was responsible for the decline in the quality of health service delivery and was therefore anti-poor people. The answer from our guest speaker was unequivocal. The IMF was being used as a scapegoat. The Uganda government should take responsibility for the policy.
Kohler took the question so seriously that after the session, he stopped where I was standing on his way out and asked for details. He asked me to write to him a detailed letter and he would clarify on the matter.
In a short time I received the reply â€”Kohlerâ€™s bold signature stared me in the face. He said in the letter what he had stated in Athens. I shared the letter with Dorothy Hyuha who was then the Chair of the Parliamentary Social Services Committee. When the ministry officials came to Parliament and continued peddling their previous line, the committee was well armed with facts.
In the face of the letter from the IMF boss, the ministry officials looked like they had been battered by a tornado of truth. That is the kind of man whose plane touched down in Gulu at about 10:00am on a hot Tuesday morning. He is by all accounts a man who pursues matters to their logical conclusion. His advance team had told us that he does not like brief shallow meetings.
â€œPresident Kohler prefers every meeting to last at least an hour. He wants as exhaustive a discussion as possible,â€ they told us during one of the preparatory meetings. They also told us that the President does not want courteous niceties to mask an issue where plain truth is required.
After welcoming President Kohler and the First Lady Eva Luise Kohler at Gulu airport, we drove to the Bomah Hotel where the two lingered admiring dingi dingi and larakaraka dancers.
These graceful dancers did more than any red carpet would have done. Inside the meeting room, a cross-section of people awaited. Religious leaders, representatives of the cultural institutions, political leaders and the civil society were all there. After giving the formal welcome, I asked the host Minister Daniel Omara Atubo to invite our visitor to set the tone of the meeting.
Our guest was spot-on about the purpose of his visit. After stating that he was in Uganda on the invitation of President Yoweri Museveni, he said Germany has a history of â€œwar, despair and devastationâ€ and that he was in Gulu to get a snapshot of the conditions of the situation of displaced people and how they can be better served.
â€œThe purpose is always to give hope to the people. Germany got help in order to recover from the Second World War and that is why Germany is also committed to help others who are recovering from war,â€ he said before resuming his seat.
The discussion was fruitful as the various people assembled outlined the aspirations of the people and also spoke of the hopes and obstacles being faced in building peace and rehabilitating the war torn area. There was a clear message to the President that in supporting the Uganda government programmes, a clear-cut amount should be ring-fenced for purposes of rebuilding the north.
Sensing that perhaps some things were not being said, President Kohler asked to what extent the people of northern Uganda felt that they were part of Uganda. Our visitor was clearly well briefed about the sense of alienation and the stigmatisation of the north that had bedevilled our national politics!
A floodgate of strong statements lamenting lopsided government policies ensued. But President Kohler did not merely want finger-pointing.
â€œPeace building can give opportunity to forge a stronger nationhood,â€ he emphasised. The coordinator of the Gulu NGO Forum posed the question of the day: â€œDoes Germany support Uganda implementing domestic mechanisms of accountability as opposed to the International Criminal Court?â€ he asked. In his response, Kohler said peace is the pre-requisite for everything we are talking about and therefore we should make the peace process irreversible.
â€œThe ICC is a good institution,â€ he said. â€œIt is a global attempt to set a political standard to avoid impunity after crime. The peace process in northern Uganda therefore needs a hybrid accountability method which should be sensible.â€
So without placing a value judgment in terms of an either-or approach, Kohler wanted commonsense to guide our approach. What will work is what must be pursued. There should be no rigidity!
By the time President Kohler boarded his German Air Force plane for Entebbe, he had had a frank exchange with key people, launched a Professorship in Psycho-Traumatology at Gulu University and had a heart to heart talk with the victims of war at Coo-Pe camp.
â€œI have been deeply touched,â€ he said before boarding his plane. What did not have to be said but was obvious is that his visit had also touched our people. He left behind a heartwarming message of hope. We only await action to make the hope a reality. To quote President Kohler: â€œWords need to be followed by deeds.â€
Nobert Mao is LC V chairman of Gulu district
Kohlerâ€™s visit touched hearts in Gulu