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In conversation with Museveni 27 years ago

In conversation with Museveni 27 years ago

Stealing not answer to low wages.

_ Museveni, Monday June 23, 1997 


In his address to the Global Knowledge '97 conference in Toronto, Canada, on Monday June 23, 1997, President Kaguta Museveni told his audience of nearly 2000 people that it was only universalization of knowledge that would create a world equilibrium where nobody would have an edge of knowledge to use to the detriment of others. The President, who had made Universal Primary Education (UPE) the cornerstone of his “Modernization Program”, gave an hour-long speech in which he analyzed the historical obstacles to access to knowledge by most Ugandans. 


These obstacles included illiteracy, an archaic curriculum, poor extension of knowledge from research centers to the peasants in the rural areas, and inaccessible ancient knowledge that was dormant in Africa.  Museveni's speech highlighted the magnitude of the challenge of bringing Uganda into the new Information Society, given the huge obstacles.   However, he did not address the two critical issues of sustainability of a major initiative such as UPE, and corruption which threatened to derail the progress his government had made.


Later that evening, I sat down with Mr. Museveni in his hotel suite at the Westin Harbor Castle, overlooking Lake Ontario, to discuss these issues a little further.  


Mulera: Mr. President, is the UPE financially sustainable in the long term?


Museveni: We have the money to fund it because our revenue collection is going up. Now, there is some money which is being lost through poor collection of taxes.   However, we have revenue.  UPE will cost us $60 million this year. That is not much really. So, we can sustain it.


Mulera: The process of computerization and access to information is favoring the children in the urban areas, especially Kampala, while those who go to the so-called third world schools, and other upcountry schools, have little opportunity of getting on this train to the new Information Society.  In my view, there is need to build the infrastructure in the rural areas first since you need electricity and telephones to access the Internet and Information Technology in general.  Aren't we putting the cart before the horse?


Museveni: When I went to school, we were very few who went to school. It is better to have few people getting exposed to modern information technology rather than having democratic ignorance. The few who are exposed will act as seeds for the whole of society. The fact that we were some of the few who went to school in the 50s, we are doing a service for the country.


 Mulera: When you took power in 1986, your priority was economic rehabilitation and democratization.  However, education is a basic requirement for the success of such initiatives.   Whereas you need an active economy to finance education, you need education to sustain economic growth.  Based on your long experience in government, would you advise re-emerging nations like Congo (Kinshasa), Rwanda and any others which might come along soon, to invest in education much earlier than you did? Do you regret having delayed the introduction of free primary education?


Museveni: Education needs funding, and funding starts with economic activity. I'd rather start with the available educated people, and launch a program of minimum recovery, for possibly three years.  That program will give you some revenue to support education.  The available educated people should be what the Bakiga/Banyankore call entango or the Acholi call teya dira - the bottom of the basket or nucleus- of the recovery program.


Mulera: Now Mr. President, there are a lot of available educated professionals living abroad, probably …….


Museveni: How many are here?  I hear there are about 40 thousand Ugandan professionals here in North America. 


Mulera: That may be true.  Most stay here for economic reasons. They are gainfully employed, with some of them earning very large salaries. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and other professionals earn big money.  To tell them to return home out of "patriotism" is too simple an answer and is very unrealistic.  Yet I believe Ugandans abroad have a lot of knowledge, skills, and experience to contribute back home.  What serious strategies do you have for reversing this brain drain?


Museveni: First, I do not think that returning to Uganda is the only contribution you can make. Second, we are training new people, such as doctors, every year. Our stock of professionals is expanding.  So, if those who are already established in North America cannot return immediately, let them stay where they are and send us money. Remittances are not a bad idea. We regard you as an export and you have been sending money to your people, to support them, build houses and so on.  Ugandans abroad have been remitting $400 million every year. That is about as much as coffee brings in.


Mulera: But Uganda needs the brain power of its skilled citizens who are abroad.   Mr. Kweronda-Ruhemba, until recently your Special Assistant for the Return of Professionals, tried for years to get people back.  I do not know how many he succeeded in bringing back.  How about looking into a program, a Marshall Plan for the reversal of the brain drain if you will, where you negotiate with Canada for example, to send back Ugandan professionals while Canada continues to pay them good salaries for a defined period?  


Museveni: I don't know. How can the Canadians sustain it? 


Mulera: Well, the Canadians are already saying that they have too many doctors here, for example, and they are looking for ways of reducing their number.  This may be true in other professions as well.  Now, if a doctor continues to work here, Canada pays her X-number of dollars a year for the rest of her working life.  If the Canadians pay her a percentage of that salary, for her to go back and work in Uganda, it is a win-win situation for both countries. 


Museveni: This is something we can look at. There might be problems associated with this.  The local professionals may react negatively to it.  But let us think about it.  We would need to explain the peculiar circumstances of our already dislocated professionals abroad.  But while you are here, we regard you as an export.


Mulera: Let's turn to a sore point, Mr. President.   Whereas freedom of the press to report corruption by leaders may account for the apparent increase in this crime in Uganda, there appears to be a true increase in absolute terms.  You have spoken many times about corruption, without much impact on this vexing problem.   How do you think it can be successfully fought?


Museveni: We have removed the dictatorship. We have established investigative institutions - the Auditor General, the IGG, the CID, Police force. There are representative institutions like the Parliament. So, there are so many ways in which you can expose corruption. So go and use all these to fight corruption. Once in a while, if I also come across some corrupt group I will intervene. But use all these institutions to get rid of corruption in the country. For us we have done ours, to remove the obstacles - those that are protecting the corrupt. Now it is your turn.


Mulera: Surely that is a Band-Aid approach to the problem, Mr. President. In medicine, treatment of a disease requires an understanding of why the disease is occurring and persisting. Why is corruption persisting?


Museveni:  But the answer for the why is not always to steal. If you are hungry, you go and kushaka ebyokurya (buy food from others). You do not steal food from others. I know you are going to talk about low wages and so on. But the answer for this is not to steal. The answer is to work. Uganda is fertile and even if you do not earn a high government salary, you still own your land at home.  When I was Minister of Defense in 1979/80, my in-law used to bring me millet flour from Buhweju. That was my food since the salary was not enough to buy food in Kampala. Remember we have something which other people do not have - free land at home. Each one of us has got a piece of land at home. Although the state is not paying you a high salary, you have got other facilities which other people do not have in other countries. You have that advantage. 


Even now as President, they have been paying me a very low salary and they have been saying that I should demand a higher wage.  I have said no. I am already being paid indirectly. I am prospering because of the good conditions prevailing in the country. That is my indirect pay.  So that "why" is not correct.


Mulera:  Mr. President, I do not subscribe to the view that wages have anything to do with corruption. I believe that corruption is a result of greed rather than poverty.  Ex-President Mobutu, who is said to have stolen billions of dollars, would have stopped after the first billion if the issue had been wages. Some of your highly paid people are the ones who are stealing most.  It seems to me that you need to address the deeper causes of the problem, and especially the sustainers of corruption.   Why are people getting away with it?  One of the problems is lack of accountability.  Where there is clear evidence of corruption, the individual should be punished.   I do not see this being done. To get the evidence, you need good auditing. How many qualified auditors and accountants do we have?


Museveni: The punishing is coming. In the past there was fear of the government. People used to run away the moment they were accused.   They now no longer fear, because they have seen that we never do anything unless there is evidence. This is good because people are now secure.  We need technical cadres to do the auditing and so on. We need people with political commitment.  We need friendly cadres who want the Movement to succeed.  I have been using some of these cadres. Similarly, we need commitment in the prosecution. We not only need to investigate, but also to prosecute in the courts.


Thank you, Mr. President.


© Muniini K. Mulera



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