After 34 long years during which his service in the US diplomatic missions has seen him serve in Nepal, Pakistan, Madagascar and Botswana, the outgoing American envoy to Uganda, Scott DeLisi, has decided to saunter into retirement.
After 34 long years during which his service in the US diplomatic missions has seen him serve in Nepal, Pakistan, Madagascar and Botswana, the outgoing American envoy to Uganda, Scott DeLisi, has decided to saunter into retirement. With his tour of duty in Uganda soon coming to a close, the New Vision’s Moses Walubiri caught up with him for a reflection on a number of issues that inform the bilateral relations between Uganda and the US. The discussion ranged from Uganda’s impending elections, its ‘army’ of young people that experts aver is a double-edged sword to terrorism. Below are excerpts.
QUESTION: What were your expectations when you were posted to Uganda as an ambassador?
ANSWER: I knew I was coming to a country where we have a very dynamic relationship.
It is the 21st largest US embassy in the world and I knew I would have some challenges but I also knew we had to build a partnership in a very complex environment.
Uganda is a very important partner that is engaged in every aspect that affects this region. I also knew we were going to work on issues that affect the future of this society, the wellbeing of the people of this country.
Also working together, as Uganda continues on its own democratic journey, has been on since independence. But most importantly, my expectation was that I will have a fascinating and challenging time in Uganda, which has come to pass.
Besides the fascinating and challenging aspect, have your expectations been achieved?
In a way, I will leave that for others to judge. I have been having a meeting with some ministers and one of them – a long-serving minister – told me that right now, Uganda-US relations are stronger than they have ever been. And if you believe him that our partnership is strong, I am gratified.
The goal of a diplomat is to strengthen these partnerships and being ambassador means advancing my country’s interests and values. I feel we achieved this. I am pleased to leave knowing that I have done some good work with my tremendous team.
You learnt Urdu while in Pakistan, have you learnt any local language in Uganda?
No. I have not and I feel guilty to a certain extent. There are many languages spoken here in Uganda.
When I was getting ready to come to Uganda, I asked friends which language I should learn and I was told different languages are spoken here and some people from some communities might not like it. It is better sticking with what I know – English.
The US government through USAID brings in over $700m to the Ugandan government annually. Are you impressed with the way this money has been utilised?
Our investment in Uganda is in excess of $700m. Well, I am impressed.
We are like businessmen. We make an investment in Uganda’s future and we want to see a return on that investment but not necessarily in terms of money or profit but in seeing Uganda succeed, stronger and better.
When I look at the investment we make, for example in health, $440m a year, I know that there are thousands of Ugandans alive today because of our interventions. That is more than a good day’s work. When I look at mothers who survive child birth and they raise their children, it is because we have made investments to save mothers during child birth.
When we support children – and that is a third of children below 10 years get stunted which can affect their cognitive development — to get proper nutrition through President Obama’s feed the future generation, we know that is a good day’s work. And regarding HIV/AIDS, we support the provision of ARVs to 800,000 Ugandans.
But we do more than that — the work of growing the economy, to create more jobs, investment in agriculture, confronting regional challenges to realise peace and stability in East and Central Africa. I feel our investment — $750m — is money well spent.
The majority of Uganda’s population is young and it seems the Government has not come to grips on how best to harness it. How best can this population be used?
I don’t know what you mean by utilising them. When you talk about utilising the young population that is 30 million people below the age of 30. As much as I might want to reach all the 30 million, that is too tall an order for a diplomat to achieve.
What we have been able to do is reach many young people both publicly or through social media where we enter into a dialogue with the broader community. But we have also got youth partners, our generation change programmes, African leaders’ initiative and Mandela fellows.
With these young people, we have been able to identify partners. We don’t utilise them per se but we seek to give them tools to help lead Uganda.
And those tools do not only include opportunities for training and skills but project management, learning how to do presentations and how to manage a grant, but to have a conversation with young people about values, quality of leadership, things that they require to make a difference in their country.
Many of these young people are ready to look beyond “what is in it for me” to “what can we do for our society”.
We know we cannot give jobs to 30 million people, create a path for everyone to become an entrepreneur, but we can provide a partnership and belief that young people are not a force to be feared but an opportunity for the nation that needs to be nurtured and developed.
Do you share concerns that Uganda’s youthful population is a double-edged sword?
It is potentially a double edged sword, absolutely. All we have to do is look elsewhere and see the demographic challenges.
Look next door at Congo and you will see in eastern DRC groups that will go to young people, give them $50 a month and a gun.
And for those young people, that gun is empowerment. But it is a wrong form of empowerment but they see it as their only hope.
I hope that here in Uganda, by working together, focusing on development, values and building a better future, we can offer young people a positive empowerment, an alternative to the gun. Everyone needs to be committed to this.
You have always asserted that the US mission will not get entangled in local politics. But as an ambassador, what advice would you give to players in the impending elections?
We never said we will not get involved in politics. Just as citizens of this country, we have invested in this country. Do we want this country to be a success with a strong and vibrant democracy? Yes.
If caring about this means getting involved in politics, then we will do. As for which candidate or party to support, that is for people of Uganda to decide.
We talk to leaders of all political parties – NRM, FDC, DP, UPC. Name them, we talk to them. We tell them that there should be a constructive electoral process in which people’s views are respected, where people engage each other respectively, where there is no room for violence.
So that, at the end of the day, no matter who wins the election, it is a credible result that services Uganda well and gives the new leader legitimacy to lead the country effectively and deal with the challenges that will emerge.
Do you share concerns by civil society that political space in Uganda is narrowing?
I don’t know whether it is narrowing down but I perfectly appreciate the challenges of civil society. But this is a constant dialogue we are always having with the Government to ensure that there is room for meaningful dialogue and engagement.
There is the NGO Bill currently before Parliament and during consultations; we have seen the NGO community, civil society engage with MPs in a robust dialogue that has brought significant changes to this piece of legislation. I don’t know what the final law will look like.
I know civil society would have liked to see the issue of electoral reforms addressed fully, but I leave that to Ugandans to debate among themselves about the need to strengthen the democratic process. We have seen in US that even after 250 years, we are still working to improve our democracy.
How would you rate Uganda’s anti-terrorism strategy?
Well, I have always told colleagues that if I were to choose which country I wanted to be in as we deal with threats of terrorism; that country will be Uganda.
We are proud to have worked closely with the Government of Uganda in our efforts to confront terrorism and our efforts have been effective. There has not been any instance of bombing since 2010. But there have been attempts which we have managed to thwart. We have to continue being vigilant because this is a constant battle.
Do you have any unfinished business in Uganda?
Of course. Our partnership does not depend on personalities. My successor will not start a new chapter but to continue our partnership on issues like health, which is critical in having a healthy population.
But one of the challenges that remain is to grow the economy and create jobs for this youthful population and which unfortunately is growing far too fast. We need to fight corruption and help Uganda build a democracy that reflects the values enshrined in its constitution.
How best can Uganda avoid the curse associated with extractive industries like oil?
I am not an expert and I am reluctant since I have little advice to offer. But one thing I want to say and which parliamentarians were saying is importance of transparency and accountability. And this is the challenge many countries with enormous resources encounter.
Give people confidence that those charged with public trust to manage these resources on behalf of the nation are doing it in a manner that is effective.
So, after Uganda, what next?
Well, after 34 years of service for my country, I am retiring from diplomatic service.
Does it mean I am retiring from active engagement? No. I hope I will find a path that will lead me to Uganda.
I have spent a lot of time working with young people. I want to come back in five or 10 years and see what these young people are doing.
The youths of this country are so impressive. I know that they are going to be leaders in their communities, business, politics and civil society.
Scott DeLisi’ on bilateral relations between Uganda and US