The European Union's top envoy to Uganda, Ambassador Roberto Ridolfi, has thrown his weight behind the chorus against a proposal by President Museveni to hand out part of Mabira rainforest to sugar manufacturer-SCOUL to grow sugarcane.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Monitor, Ambassador Ridolfi said the stability of Uganda's eco-system depends on forests, arguing that to cut down trees would stall a vision he holds deeply of seeing the country become an agriculture superpower.
Ambassador Ridolfi argued there are three aspects to Mr Museveni's curious decision, "political, economic and environment."
"The very essence of something like agriculture superpower depends on the stability of the micro-climate that Uganda enjoys and that micro-climate is in unity with its forests, its lakes, everything, so if you move something in a substantial manner, there could be an impact," he said.
Speaking about the political aspects of the giveaway, Ambassador Ridolfi said: "We have been told that there are provisions in Ugandan law that if you gazette part of the forest to be cut, you gazette an alternative place where to plant other trees. That could be a win-win situation but we don't have the details on that."
This is the first time that a diplomat is speaking boldly about the matter. At the height of a sugar crisis in the country a fortnight ago, when the price of a kilogramme hit Shs7000 from Shs2,300, Mr Museveni rekindled debate on Mabira give-away, an idea that had been shelved by the government in 2007 following protests and riots by the citizens that left three people dead.
The President has since argued that cutting part of the forest for sugar production will also help with employment creation, import savings and increase tax revenues for the government.
In the wide range interview, Ambassador Ridolfi speaks about his first 100 days in Uganda, EU development projects in the country, the Libyan conflict, horn of Africa politics and his vision for Uganda.
The Mabira give-away debate has sucked in the EU head of delegation H.E Ambassador Roberto Ridolfi who spoke to Emmanuel Gyezaho on a wide range of issues. He says Mabira give-away may not be the solution to Uganda's current sugar crisis. Read details below:
How do you rate your now slightly over 100 days of official duty in this republic?
These 100 days and a few more before my accreditation have been about a lot of work for me both internally at the organization and also with member states of the EU in Kampala. We are 10 member states represented here. It isn't so common to have so many member states in a country of the size of Uganda but I am very happy because that means there is a special attention of the member states.
You arrived in the country around the election period and I remember the EU sent a massive delegation to observe the election. A lot of observations and recommendations were made, what has since happened?
We are pushing very hard and as we speak, we are having meetings. We had a meeting Dr [Kizza] Besigye [FDC leader] last week, we had a meeting with the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Amama Mbabazi, in his capacity as Secretary General of NRM asking them please can you give us feedback on our recommendations. We distributed recommendations to all of them. We discussed initially after the election with all of them, and now we are trying to go around to collect the feedback. If there is a time to work on electoral changes and reforms it is now because when it comes to two years from the new elections, it is already too late.
Have you received any feedback?
Yes, verbal and sort of non-structured. We asked a structured feedback. We also met the Electoral Commission. The first recommendation of our independent observers was to rebuild trust and confidence in the appointment and mandate of the Electoral Commission which has been so much the cause of conflict. On May 6, His Excellency the President was quite positive and open on this and said, 'Yes, I am willing to discuss,' and so has been the FDC leader and other leaders. But I still need to get some structured feedback from the actors. Anything that is pushed from inside domestically will work but anything from outside will not fly.
What other issue is the EU interested in seeing done before a new round of election cycle kicks off?
Discussing other models of the appointment of the Electoral Commission is the most important issue. We are advocating the so called Brazilian model where the top judiciary in the country is somehow appointing the EC. Even if the top judiciary is appointed by the President in Uganda, it still gives the guarantees of the ethical and high ground stand that could help. The second is the voter registers and I think the ID project will do a lot of roads in that direction. We also flagged the issue on special interest groups especially the peculiarity of a couple of them like the military. The one on women is perfect; universal suffrage, I think it's beautiful given an example to many countries in the world. Also of interest is the mechanism of financing politics. These are issues we don't have definitive approach but we recommend that these are areas Uganda needs to work on. Last time in 2006, we observed the elections and made recommendations but nothing happened. So let's hope that this time will be different.
So you are uncomfortable with military presence in Parliament? Why?
Yes. It is not normal. We do fully appreciate the history of this country and therefore the sort of transition in which special provisions are allowed is fully understandable. However in the future when things go deeper in multiparty politics, I think these should go little by little.
Let's talk about relations between the EU and Uganda. What areas of development co-operation is the EU seriously working on now?
I came here because I find that Uganda has tremendous potential untapped. We can define Uganda as one of the next agricultural superpowers on this planet.
Absolutely. If I don't have optimism in my work, I would be doing bad work.
But we see little in terms of budget support to agriculture.
Who does agriculture; farmers. We have middle size farmers here in Uganda who are the engine of growth. I think agriculture is the engine of growth in this country. Yes, electricity is needed therefore the chosen sectors of government like hydropower is very good, infrastructure is needed; we support it. But we have to have a vision of Uganda in 10years time. The president says five years for middle income level. Well five years is very, very difficult but not impossible. I like to think of 10years time. In 10 years, Uganda can be in a very different position than it is today in all rankings; GDP per capita, human development indices, all of them. We must praise the government because in the last four years the Millennium Development Goals have moved a lot apart from those linked to health. But still much has to be done.
The classical reaction is that we are under investing in the budget in agriculture. This is a wrong action to a good signal. We should invest in agriculture but more importantly, agricultural actors should invest more in agriculture. What is needed is public-private equity funding in agriculture, not loans, not grants. Serious commercial farmers don't need grants. They need finance.
The EU is a big donor to Uganda but what do you have to say to foreign aid critics who argue that aid simply makes recipient countries lazy and dependent?
Critics of aid should know a little bit more on aid. I would say not aid but development cooperation. A bunch of us with some experience in economics we know the detrimental effect of subsidies, grants, give-outs. But we know the good program approach in agriculture, infrastructure, energy, health, and education can assist the government to internalize the good use of resources and therefore delivery good results. The image of aid critics you are reporting to me today is a little bit obsolete. It is something they were saying 45years ago. We have done a lot of calculations and I can tell you without aid, the situation in many countries would be much, much worse. Yes, aid is not perfect. But you have to imagine today a country like Uganda has benefited a lot from aid, not only in terms of money but in terms of governance.
The EU is investing more than 30million euros in northern Uganda and Karamoja through a livelihoods project. These two regions account for the biggest chunks of donor money in the last decade but we see little change in those areas. Will this project not turn out another cash cow for the NGOs?
What the EU is doing in the north is assisting agriculture. We have so called farmer field schools (fff) and they work quite nicely. Farmers are helped to get the inputs they need to improve their productive capacity, including storage which is a very essential item in Uganda. We visited 7 or 8 projects in all these projects I can tell you after 25 years of experience I was extremely happy. People in the north were telling me they don't need any money, 'Just give me a piece of land and I let me work on my piece. At the beginning you can help with seeds, e.t.c but then I can work on my own.' That is a very good message which many other donors are confirming to me in the north. Karamoja is still one step below. But peace is bringing a lot of benefit in the north. That is the perfect atmosphere for development to work. I was very upset with a UN organization which I will not mention was carrying out our same project in a village 2-3km away. They were doing the same thing but they were also providing cash as wages which is wrong. It was like paying two times for the same thing; I give you the inputs, the seeds and fertilizers but then I also pay your labour? I don't see the logic. Yes, I agree certain issues still need to be resolved.
But the thing is most donor projects usually spend big percentages of the entire budget on consultancy fees, wages and vehicles before the money really goes to the ground.
I challenge that totally. If you find something like that in the EU project, I will resign. We are talking about projects on the ground helping farmers with fertilizers and seeds. We are not talking of consultancy projects because we are in Kampala not Karamoja. We have projects of technical assistance facility where we spend 100percent on consultation. But the 30m you are talking about, I only have overheads of about 10percent. Indeed we have a PMU and we have only one expatriate the rest are all Ugandan. We are still using vehicles of NUREF. I agree in certain places, the UN family, other donors we tend to exaggerate the infrastructure around the projects. But this is a very big question also with our taxpayers. They ask us if we give you 10million, 9 should go to the poor people. Overheads of around 10-15% in such projects are absolutely acceptable.
As the dominant development partner in Uganda are you concerned about corruption trends in the country and how do you intend to help rout it rather than just issuing diplomatic cautions?
Corruption is a concern. It is a concern for the leaders in this country as much as it is for the donors. Corruption is not an easy game anywhere. In 1992, there was an operation called clean hands in Italy. All the political parties were washed out from the scene out of a very big campaign by the public prosecutors on corruption. But how did it happen? It happened by the department of public prosecution bending the law to such an extent that people started to confess. They were denying bails, keeping people inside and saying no, you have to talk. And some started to talk. So it is difficult because it takes two to tangle. If you don't get people talking, you will never arrive at evidence. I sympathize with the IGG and DPP in Uganda. But we have to be honest in the last couple of months we have seen something. Don't you agree?
Of course it is not enough but we see something. We have to give credit to those working in difficult conditions to achieve results. They requested help in forensic techniques. You need to check and follow bank account movements, interceptions of phone calls. Without that you don't arrive at anything. And it's very difficult because again it could be an infringement on fundamental freedoms. But it's something you need to do with care especially in countries where you suspect security apparatus can use it for other purposes. To be honest, evidence in corruption is extremely difficult. The political debate can talk everything but until evidence is achieved, people must stay out of jail. The problem is not the law but the capacity to enforce it. But I do believe that today the less foreign diplomats involve themselves in domestic affairs the better it is; which is the very definition of diplomacy by the way. But I think in this moment in time all of us in the community must be very careful. Yes we have the right to express judgment especially if we are friends of Uganda. I feel myself a friend of Uganda and until proven wrong, I will behave as one. And behaving as a friend is also telling, listen I think here we need to do different.
The EU bloc is currently embroiled in trying to save its own neighborhood - Greece and Ireland - from an economic crash; how is this affecting the EU's ability to meet its obligations to development partners like Uganda?
The beauty of the European Union is that it takes quite long term commitments and it respects them all. There was a question on the Euro crisis and I want to confirm to you that Greece has not pulled any money back in terms of development to Uganda. But they reduced salaries of civil servants, pensions. But they didn't touch any penny on developing countries like Uganda.
What does the future hold in terms of the EU's recovery?
So far in history, the EU has been very bad in taking decisions, but very good in taking them at the very last minute. It's a little bit a curse of the EU in political terms. This has happened again. France and Germany have always been an engine for European integration. History is different in Europe. Growth is not moving fast enough. But you can see Germany and France doing well, exactly on the ground of China. Germany is producing high quality goods, exporting them and getting fresh currency we need in the system. Before the Euro people buying houses in currencies that were fluctuating a lot, they were buying mortgages with variable rates. Hoho, I have seen many of them the street. But today with the Euro interests rates have gone down which pushes for investments, stock exchanges.
The Ugandan economy has taken its biggest battering in recent years, what do you think is going wrong?
What has gone wrong in the US and Europe is going wrong in Uganda. There are a couple of internal issues which are due to the overspending of last year in the budget as you all know but how much these issues have had a responsibility in the current situation is difficult to say. Then there are external issues driven by situations in other countries. Even well before the drought, the food supply, and perhaps in preparation of the drought, created a situation of increasing prices in the region. Of course that situation in the region was imported in Uganda as well. In Uganda now we have beautiful rains it seems; good production? Uganda is doing below its possibility. Uganda can export to the region and in a situation like this; Uganda should have been able to export 4 to 500,000 tons of food to the horn of Africa. Also the wellbeing of Ugandans; there is a middle class growing in Uganda and it likes things that everybody likes. Imports as we speak are much greater than exports, which affect the exchange rate, which then affects inflation already hit by drought. And there you have the factors.
You talked about overspending last financial year. This year we see government budgeting for things like cars in billions of shillings, is this not a case of misplaced priorities.
The golden rule is that if the vehicle is functional to service delivery, then it should be bought and maintained. But if the vehicle is more for a status symbol or other purposes, then it should not. But I need to see the details. Quite clearly there are areas in which the budget can shrink or constrain itself. I am not sure if this is one of them. There are also synergies to be done across departments. There are vehicles in the Electoral Commission court yard that could be used by another ministry until they are not needed again by the EC. I would also welcome the Prime Minister's move to increase efficiency in the apparatus. A lot can be done without necessarily looking at political instruction.
What sort of interventions if any has the EU put in place to bolster a shift in the status quo?
Budget support. I hope to release the tranche of budget support for 2011/2012. We have done our due diligence and I think that should help both in terms of Euros entering the system and solidity of the treasury. I am also trying to develop this approach where private investors from outside the country come to Uganda because there is a lot that can be done. This is what I call the public-private equity fund approach. Last but not least, infrastructure. We have a very long history of roads here in Uganda. I am happy about what we have done. The northern corridor from Kenya is the main route of supply for this country and Rwanda. We do roads. There will be an opening of a very long stretch; Masaka-Mbarara. Stability is also key to the partnerships Uganda is building in the region. We praise very much the role of Uganda in stabilizing Somalia. We give our condolences to the people and government of Uganda for the losses but this is something that Ugandans all should be proud of.
Beyond a weakening shilling against the Euro, Ugandans have been hit hard by an apparent spike in sugar prices. Our President has in fact proceeded to open debate on the Mabira forest issue by stating he is ready to hand part of the forest to a sugar cane planter. What are your thoughts on this decision?
There are three aspects to it; political, economic and environment. The stability of the eco system in Uganda and the very vision of Uganda being an agriculture superpower depend on that. The very essence of something like agriculture superpower depends on the stability of the microclimate that Uganda enjoys and that microclimate is in unity with its forests, its lakes, everything, so if you move something in a substantial manner, there could be an impact. I am not sure if 7,100 hectares would have a big impact, but in principle, you shouldn't touch anything. That is the environment. The economic, in Europe we were the first in the world to have invented a system of trading schemes of carbon emissions. So if a factory in Poland is polluting too much, they need to buy carbon credit. And where do they buy it; in forests in Africa and Asia. So planting trees is good business because you sell your planted trees of carbon credit offsetting the emissions in Europe. I take the opportunity to invite the USA and other big countries, especially China to join us. Because that will be the system in which your assets get measured in terms of chlorophinian functions and oxygen which are very valuable in monetary terms in the global economy. So I would really challenge economists on sugar; which I dealt with extensively in Fiji, to challenge me on this. Regional trade and global trade would provide a better solution to the sugar problem. The political aspect, is that we have been told there are provisions in Ugandan law that if you gazette part of the forest to be cut, you gazette an alternative place where to plant other trees. That could be a win-win situation but we don't have all the details on that.
Is the President's idea in tandem with mitigating climate change especially if you consider resolutions of the Copenhagen conference?
Cutting forests is not a good idea in order to mitigate greenhouse emission effects. But let us first know all the details about this proposal and then we can comment fully.
Let's talk about democracy and human rights in Uganda. Plans are afoot by the Uganda government to scrap bail for a series of offenses including economic sabotage and treason. Your thoughts?
We have not got any concrete information on what the government is planning beyond reading what we see in the papers and listening to the debate. We haven't seen any formal proposals written. So I cannot comment.
But the President is on record stating that he wants this current Parliament to amend the constitution so that bail is denied. In fact government is busy drafting the bill.
The very reason we are here is because of the Cotonou agreement which is based on fundamental pillars on which the EU is founded; justice, democracy, human rights. So if anything would challenge any of these values then we will have a problem. But it is important to wait at this stage until we have something clear to interact with the Authorities first.
The Ugandan cabinet has finally decided to drop the anti-gay bill. Is this good news?
How do you respond to criticism that the West is increasingly becoming neo-imperialist taking recent development of foreign intervention in Libya?
This is international politics. This is how the world is today. There has been a resolution in the United Nations Security Council which is prevailing on any other European Union or African Union deliberation. And the resolution of the UN Security Council entailed a certain foreign intervention. Let's be vigilant even now that there will be no human rights abuses.
Recently, the President of Eritrea was in Uganda weeks after the Ethiopian President visited. What do you make of these visits in the horn of Africa politics?
We note the increasing international mediation role being played by President Museveni and we welcome this as a positive development. Of course we don't know what they talked in the meetings but the President said to the state function to which I had the honour of being invited, he said they talked serious business. I think when he said serious business, he meant security, which is very good news. We also put on record the declaration by the Eritrean President about them not being involved in any financing issues of Al shabaab. Therefore I think this is all good news.
Anything else you like to add?
I decided to come to Uganda because I see Uganda as a place of enormous opportunity and in a very crucial time of history. We have seen the elections; they gave a clear unquestionable response. But this must help increase the debate in the country and the democratic spirit of discussing openly any issue be it the gay issue, the forest issue or economic issues. We are here to help even more so today than yesterday as we believe today is the moment of friends coming up. I will behave as a friend of Uganda because I think I am and we are until proven wrong.