Dr. Olara Otunnu, former UN Under-Secretary General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, will be on his way back to his native Uganda soon. This is causing quite a stir in political circles, especially with talk of Dr. Otunnu, a northerner with longstanding ties to UPC, making a bid for the presidency in the 2011 elections. Below is an interview with Dr. Otunnu by Angelo Izama from yesterday’s Sunday Monitor:
Are you planning to come back?
It is indeed my intention to come home sometime soon.
What has motivated you to return?
Uganda is my home. One does not need any special motivation to return to one’s home. I will come back as a citizen, a son of the soil returning home. I must stress that my homecoming will bear no political labels or affiliation. It will be a completely non-partisan event, simply a much-longed-for homecoming.
After being away for so long, what are you most looking forward to?
Oh, so many things. I am longing to see many friends I have missed for a very long time. I wish to pay my respects to the friends who have, sadly, departed from us. I will visit and pray with the communities that were, for over 15 years, herded like animals in the concentration camps. I want to sit at the feet of our elders and draw from the deep wells of their wisdom.
I am eager to visit my alma maters (and my teachers), the institutions and people that formed me – Wii Gweng Pudure, Anaka Primary School, Gulu High School, Budo, and Makerere. I cannot wait to sing, dance and pray with our people in different corners of the country. And I look forward to sampling malakwang, odii nyim , moo yaa, lakotokoto, anyeri, akeyo, toke, oyado, lacakacaka, matooke, obokokwer, lamola, boo, esanyuse, ngwen, olel, kwon kal ; these are the culinary delights that, for better or for worse, have defined my palate.
There are reports that you are going to enter politics as the leader of a political party and a presidential candidate. Is this true?
I have been approached by some UPC leaders who wish to propose my name for leadership of the party. I am very touched by their demarche, and I am giving it the serious consideration it deserves. I shall provide my response soon.
After the experience of Dr Besigye and government rhetoric about you, are you not concerned about being arrested? How will you guarantee your own security?
Being arrested? For what for goodness sake? There are absolutely no grounds for arresting me. I do not expect any such a thing. As to my security, you should address that question to Museveni. I am aware that there is a long line of Ugandan public figures who have met with unexplained and un-investigated tragedies, most of them in very suspicious circumstances. Museveni is in charge of the State and all its security services. It is his responsibility to ensure my security (and the security of others). I expect him to fully assume his responsibility in this regard.
You have said in the past that the Museveni regime should be held accountable for what happened in northern Uganda. Is this your message today?
I have indeed spoken out truthfully and unequivocally about the comprehensive genocide which has been perpetrated in northern Uganda, and the conspiracy of silence on the part of the international community. At this particular moment, the most important task is to mount a serious and well-resourced programmes of resettlement and reconstruction. Sadly, the people returning to their homesteads from the camps have been left to fend for themselves without any assistance to speak of. Meanwhile, domestic as well as international donor funds earmarked for northern Uganda are largely being diverted or stolen. There is need for urgent action and accountability on this issue. In addition, right now as I speak, there is very serious drought and famine in the region; the government should immediately organise a major food relief project for the affected populations.
The government has said that you are a ‘foreigner’ because you are alleged to have renounced your Ugandan citizenship. Is this true?
No. This is an outrageous lie. I have never, ever renounced my Ugandan citizenship. Why would I? On the contrary, it is Museveni who has unconstitutionally ‘de-nationalised’ me; who has rendered me stateless. He crudely used his raw control of State power to strip me of my Ugandan passport. Yet this is a right, which flows to me through centuries of my Chua ancestors of the Central Luo, who were citizens of this land long before there was even Uganda; as well as through my own birth in Mucwini. Incidentally, as you well know, Ugandans have been asking Museveni to tell us where he really was born, and where exactly his grandparents are buried. These are legitimate inquiries. Ugandans expect and await straightforward answers to these questions. For 23 years, I have not possessed that magical little document that certifies my identity and affiliation to Uganda, thanks to Museveni. To be sure, over several years, in various Ugandan embassies, I filled out stacks of passport application forms, at least eight times. I did so in Nairobi, in New York, and in Paris. On many a visit, I would be told, “Your passport is on the way. It should be here next week”. But the passport never arrived. Eventually, I learned that Museveni personally blocked it. Were it not for Pan-African solidarity, I would literally not have been able to travel at all for the past 23 years. That is precisely what Museveni intended by his scheme. True to form, however, having deprived me of my passport, Museveni and his associates then proceeded to fabricate the narrative they have been circulating, to cover their tracks and bury the truth. The cynicism of this lot knows absolutely no bounds. The question concerning my non-possession of Ugandan passport should really be addressed to Museveni, not to me. He is the one who illegally and capriciously imposed this scandalous situation on me. I am the victim; he is the perpetrator. Please, ask him to account to the Ugandan people about this outrageous abuse of power.
President Yoweri Museveni
In your view, what are the key national issues that need to be addressed today by political leaders?
Sadly, there are too many issues. Among the burning issues are the following: Reuniting the country, which has been deliberately divided along ethnic and regional fault lines; developing quick impact programmes to address the humiliating impoverishment of the people; investing in and reviving the delivery of social services from which the Museveni regime has shamelessly abdicated; settling in a democratic and transparent manner the issue of land; instituting accountability in government and ending the galloping corruption; forging democratic consensus on the architecture of national governance – should it be highly centralised (as is the case today), decentralised or a federal polity; reconstruction of northern Uganda; and restoration of normal relations of friendship , solidarity and respect with Uganda’s neighbours .
President Museveni has just rejected the demands by opposition parties for reform of the electoral laws. How will this affect the 2011 elections?
The 2011 elections are very important, provided that they are free and fair, with a level playing field. Museveni has now been in power for over 23 years. The elections he has organised under both the one-party rule and the pro-forma multi-party arrangement have all been massively rigged, and have manifestly lacked a level playing field. On each occasion, this fact has been confirmed by the Supreme Court and election observers. You see, there are now universally accepted standards to ensure free and fair elections. This set of standards include: A completely independent Electoral Commission; counting, public announcement and posting of results at polling stations; prohibiting security forces from any involvement in the electoral process; complete freedom of movement and campaigning; independent compilation, update and verification of voters’ register; ensuring independence of and equal access to the media; prohibiting use of state resources for campaigning; and levelling the playing field for campaign financing. Ugandans must mount a robust public political campaign for the application of these international standards in our own elections. How long will the Museveni regime continue to be the poster-boy of exception to universally accepted standards? In 2011, the people of Uganda must insist on getting a government born of free and fair elections.
The opposition parties are in discussion about having a common platform and joint candidates in the 20011 elections. What do you think of this project?
That project is crucial. It is absolutely necessary that while retaining their separate identities and orientations and consolidating their bases on the ground, the opposition parties should come together under a common umbrella. Acting together, they would constitute an unstoppable critical mass for change. The common objective is to effect democratic regime change, not for its own sake, but in order to establish a genuine democratic space. Only within such genuine democratic space and practice is it possible to seriously address the burning issues on the national agenda. With the grave national crisis and malaise facing the country today, a common project is imperative. I must say that in this respect, the people of Uganda have actually been well ahead of the political leaders; they have for a long time made plain their preference for a common project.
Some of your critics have alleged that you were involved in the coup of 1985. What is your reaction?
That is absolute falsehood. It is a vicious smear campaign being peddled for political reasons. At the time of the coup, I was based in New York. First, there were those reports about tensions in military barracks on the outskirts of Kampala. When I contacted my superiors in Kampala, I was assured that the incidents were not serious and were nothing to be concerned about. But then, in very quick order (and to my great shock), came the coup itself. I knew absolutely nothing about it and had no part whatsoever in its planning or execution. After the coup, I travelled to London for a previously scheduled meeting of the Commonwealth Commission on Small States. While in London, I was summoned home. At that time, I called Mzee Milton Obote from Shafiq Arain’s office.
He told me how the coup by Bazilio Okello had unfolded. He knew I had nothing to do with it. He concluded the conversation by telling me: “The situation in Kampala is very dangerous. Be careful. And stay in touch when you can.” I did stay in touch with him. During the Nairobi peace talks, I travelled to Lusaka to consult Mzee. Much later I would visit him while I was now based in New York. From time to time, he would send me messages. In fact one of the persons who carried an important personal letter from Mzee to me on one occasion was Chris Opoka, the current Secretary General of UPC. When I reported to Kampala, at the urging of Paulo Muwanga and Tito Okello, I accepted the assignment to initiate and facilitate the peace talks. That was my primary responsibility as minister.
At the time, in a television discussion with Col. [Zed] Maruru, I defended the record and programmes of UPC from what was a wholesale visceral condemnation of the party without any regard to facts. I argued for an objective assessment of UPC’s record across the board – both its achievements and mistakes. Incidentally, soon after the coup, and before I left New York, Museveni had called from Gothenburg in Sweden (my telephone number was given to him by Betty Bikangaga from Geneva), urging me to return home to facilitate contacts and eventual peace talks: “The people who are in charge in Kampala know you and we know you; you can serve as a go-between and help to build confidence for talks.” He also wanted my help to obtain a Ugandan passport.
After I became minister, the first secret discussion (preparatory to formal talks), between Museveni and myself, would take place at Lillian Towers in Nairobi; Ruhakana Rugunda accompanied Museveni. For my part, I believed in the Nairobi peace process as the best option for the country in those circumstances, the best path to peace and reconciliation for the country.
And I believe that the situation in Uganda would be vastly different today, and the country would have been spared much bloodshed and pain over the last 20 years, had Museveni not deliberately and cynically scuttled the Nairobi Peace Agreement because he wanted to grab absolute power for himself. The need for serious national reconciliation is much, much greater today. Quite simply, Museveni did not care what would happen to the country as a consequence of his action. What an incredible tragedy for Uganda!