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Engaging northern Uganda is much wiser than ignoring it

By Vision Reporter

Added 1st June 2009 03:00 AM

LAST week, I met an NRM MP. We got to discuss Ambassador Julius Onen’s recall from Arusha. “Onen has become Onen,” she told me as she laboured to explain to me that of the two Ugandans holding the positions of Deputy Secretary General only one cou

LAST week, I met an NRM MP. We got to discuss Ambassador Julius Onen’s recall from Arusha. “Onen has become Onen,” she told me as she laboured to explain to me that of the two Ugandans holding the positions of Deputy Secretary General only one cou

LETTER FROM GULU - Nobert Mao

LAST week, I met an NRM MP. We got to discuss Ambassador Julius Onen’s recall from Arusha. “Onen has become Onen,” she told me as she laboured to explain to me that of the two Ugandans holding the positions of Deputy Secretary General only one could be retained at the EAC Secretariat following the admission of Rwanda and Burundi into the EAC.

Former MP Beatrice Kiraso and former foreign affairs permanent secretary Ambassador Onen hold the position of Deputy Secretary General. According to the MP, Onen’s contract has expired and Kiraso’s is still running. There is therefore no way he would be made to displace Kiraso. There is also no way his contract could be renewed given that the position now had to be offered to the new members of the EAC.

I checked this and found that it is not true. The fact is that Uganda was given an option to choose who to recall. Uganda chose to recall Onen, a career diplomat. In life there is always a reason why people do things. But when the time comes to explain their action, human beings are always in a dilemma. There is always the real reason why people do things and there is the reason which sounds good.

People who have done the most unreasonable things will tend to seek justifications that are more pleasurable. So, was the MP telling me the real reason or merely the reason that sounded good?

If you are Felix Okot Ogong, MP for Dokolo County, then you will say that explanation is but an alibi. Onen’s recall had nothing to do with the rules of the Arusha bureaucracy. It had everything to do with a problem in Uganda. In other words, Onen was recalled because he comes from the ‘wrong’ tribe.

Unfortunately, those who complain against sectarianism get accused of being sectarian themselves. But still there is a duty to speak out against sectarianism. I have spoken to a number of people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, people from various parts of Uganda. They all agree on one thing—Onen is hardworking, efficient and highly intelligent.

They should know because before he went to Arusha, he was the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But the EAC needed someone with his level of knowledge and focus. Many thought he was in Arusha on secondment and that he would return to continue as Permanent Secretary.

But when he left, a new permanent secretary was appointed. Ambassador Mugume assumed the position, not in an acting capacity but substantively. So Onen now finds himself floating. In the common parlance, he is on katebe. Methinks this is the crux of the matter.

Those who say Onen became a victim of his ethnic origin have a point. The strongly worded statement issued by Okot Ogong on behalf of Northern MPs can be said to have leaned on the Onen saga as a trigger factor. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Okot Ogong denounced the marginalisation of the North and threatened that the North is not dying to be part of Uganda so it may as well go its own way. Another MP, Saleh Kamba, hit back in an attempt to prove that the North is getting more than its fair share of the national cake.

Kamba could have made his contribution to the debate if he had ended there. But he not only went to an unnecessary length to rubbish Okot Ogong but also to urge that Okot Ogong be ignored altogether. This kind of reaction is not uncommon.

In 2006, during a debate in Kampala, a Makerere don reacted to my pleas for fair treatment of northern Uganda by saying: “We are tired of you, northerners”.

My only response was to tell her that Uganda was a colonial project and if the idea of statehood is to be sustainable, then we have to build a new consensus on how to live together. After all, like all the other communities, the people of northern Uganda didn’t fill an application form asking to belong to Uganda.
Marginalisation fuels the sense of alienation.

I even went so far as to say that if the alienation and unwarranted stigmatisation of northern Uganda based on the sins of a few well known past leaders does not stop, then it may become legitimate and indeed northern Uganda may have no choice but to seek a statehood separate from Uganda as we know it.

Given the likelihood of a similar initiative in South Sudan the long suffering people of northern Uganda could band together with their fellow Nilotics in South Sudan to create a new state. Naturally, this sentiment attracts backlashes.

Without understanding the context of the statement I made, most commentators simply accused me of mooting a dangerous and highly inflammable proposition. Suddenly even some cabinet ministers found something good to say about the LRA. “Mao is worse than Kony. At least Kony is fighting for the whole Uganda. He wants it intact. He does not seek to dismember it,” they said.

Even President Museveni weighed in. He called me. We argued about the underlying causes and interests that have fomented the feeling of alienation in northern Uganda. I told the President that I was not a cessationist and that the cessation of northern Uganda need not be an option. Northern Uganda is not pulling away. It is being pushed away.

So how can northern Uganda be made to feel and believe that they belong? How can the people there feel that Uganda is their motherland and not their ‘step-motherland’?

Not even Kamba can refute the real socio-economic indicators. Northern Uganda has the highest poverty rate in the country. HIV/AIDS infection rate is double the national average. It has the worst education performance in the country. Electricity in northern Uganda can only light bulbs even as we pay lip service to industrialisation.

For years, hundreds of thousands of the population were forced into camps under a dubious policy touted as a means of protecting them leading to the worst humanitarian catastrophe in recent memory.

Fortunately, the problem of the North-South divide can be solved. But we cannot solve them if we are indifferent or dismissive. Our politicians are only amplifying what is felt at the grassroots. My advice to Kamba and his likes is simple: do not ignore the legitimate leaders of northern Uganda.

Rather engage them. Let ideas contend. Sooner or later they will coalesce and common grounds will be found.

Secondly, the game of blaming the victims should stop. The problems in northern Uganda are a Ugandan problem and we have to find a Ugandan solution.

The writer LC 5 chairman of Gulu

Engaging northern Uganda is much wiser than ignoring it

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