Under President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, Uganda has experienced a period of stability and growth. In this interview, the president lists the long-term challenges that need to be tackled to fuel national growth and discusses opportunities for British investors as they seek out new markets in Commonwealth countries in a post-Brexit scenario
You were re-elected for a fifth term in 2016 with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. What are your top priorities for the upcoming years?
Our priorities are not annual; rather, they are strategic priorities aimed at transforming a pre-industrial economy and society into an industrial one. Several years ago already we identified 10 strategic bottlenecks that need to be dealt with in order to achieve this goal. The first bottleneck we need to eliminate is sectarian ideology, which has been part of Uganda’s problem in the past; we need to emphasise the interest of the people rather than the identity of the people, whether this identity is defined by religion or by ethnicity. Once you deal with that, you can easily build a capable state with a police force, a civil service, a judiciary and state structures.
Another bottleneck is underdeveloped infrastructure. How will the private sector thrive without electricity or piped water, and with high transport costs? This makes the cost of production in the economy go up. This makes attracting investments, so as to expand production and create jobs, more difficult. The next bottlenecks are the under-development of education and health, which affect the quality of our human resources. Underdeveloped service sectors and agriculture are also challenges that we must address. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a mistake of nationalising private sector assets, and that interference has been another bottleneck. When you deal with these issues, you attract the private sector. The private sector is the most efficient engine of growth.
You also view the fragmentation of the African market as another bottleneck…
Yes. Another issue is the fragmented African market on account of colonialism. The 53 former colonies, the modern African states are, individually, small markets, which would have an easier time attracting investment if they were larger. If you’re going to develop the country and encourage private sector growth, you have to consider where this sector is going to sell its products. Uganda has a population of 40 million, which is good but not enough: we need more buyers, so we need an integrated market. Fortunately, we have done a good job on this front by creating the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), The East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). We are aiming at the common market of the whole of Africa. The growing purchasing power of Africa would have attracted more investments if the African market was really integrated.
Since 1986, when you were first elected, Uganda’s GDP has multiplied by a factor of six. How much potential remains for Uganda to continue growing at such a fast pace?
The GDP grew over six times in spite of the bottlenecks. So by removing these, the economy can grow much faster. All that growth took place without electricity, and when borrowing costs were high. Now, we have made electricity cheaper and borrowing costs are lower, so growth is going to be much faster.
In 2007 Uganda hosted a successful Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), and you will attend the 2018 CHOGM in London. How would you describe the value of the Commonwealth and Uganda’s role in the community?
The Commonwealth is a potent international organisation, and one of the few world meetings that I attend without the inconvenience of speaking through translators. One of the key notions we continue to discuss is TTI: Trade, Tourism and Investment. This can be applied to the UK and Uganda: we can trade goods and services, we can exchange tourists, and we can also have business investments. Intensifying this relationship would be mutually beneficial.
How would you evaluate Uganda’s current bilateral relationship with the UK?
Our relationship is very good. With our historical ties, the shared language, and unique opportunities available in Uganda, we will continue to cultivate that relationship. Because of Brexit, the British government is advising its people to be more active in identifying business opportunities in Commonwealth countries, and we are happy with that.
The UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy, Lord Dolar Popat, recently led a trade mission to discover Uganda as a trade destination. Where do see the greatest potential for increased cooperation?
The greatest potential is in TTI. Britain can sell products here and we can sell products to the UK; we can have more tourists coming here and our tourists going there; we can have British companies investing here to sell their products in the local market of Uganda and in the regional market of Africa, and in international markets as well, as we can send products to China. They can invest in raw materials, minerals, forestry and freshwater resources. They can invest here and sell locally, regionally, internationally or back in the UK.
What benefits can Uganda offer to UK investors that make it stand out in the region?
Uganda has unique assets like its integrated steel industry and electricity. We also have huge phosphate deposits to make fertilizer. Some of these industries are country-specific because of the raw materials, and some are tourism-related. And we do have a unique potential for tourism. Our competitiveness comes from our uniqueness. Uganda’s strategic location bordering Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan and its close access to the millions of people in the COMESA free trade area make it an important regional hub.
UK Export Finance’s largest ever loan to an African government (£240 million) will help finance the construction of a new international airport in the Kabaale region of Uganda. Are there other opportunities for bilateral cooperation on major infrastructure projects?
We received a grant to revamp the hydro-power dam in the past, and recently they also funded the airport in an oil-rich area where Tullow, a British oil company is operating. The whole field is open. There are also Chinese companies highly involved in railway, roads, factories, integrated steel, cement, and so on.
Uganda has been praised around the world for its humane response to the South Sudan refugee crisis and in its success in combatting HIV/AIDS. What can the international community learn from Uganda in these key issues?
I don’t know whether we wanted to become teachers, but in any case, because of our situation, refugees from other African countries are not a problem to us. The colonial boundaries are meaningless to us, because the same people are cut into different countries. Refugees from South Sudan or Congo or Kenya are part of our same cultural groups and part of our society. These are our people, and if they want to percolate into society, it’s not such a cultural shock. It’s not like Middle East refugees coming to Europe, where there are cultural incompatibilities. If we had one million British people coming here, we might be reacting in a different way. So it is difficult to universalise our model. As for the success of our fight against AIDS, we were able to identify that the HIV virus was not very infectious: it was not like malaria which comes from the mosquito, or influenza which travels through the air. We made an effort to educate people about transmission modes.
After more than two decades as the democratic leader of Uganda, what continues to fuel your passion and dedication for this country?
Our passion is to modernise Uganda, to see if we can work together with other African leaders towards greater integration. We need to move on multiple points.
The population of Uganda is very young and growing rapidly. What kinds of concerns does this raise in terms of education and job creation?
I am not concerned about it because we have all the means to deal with it. In fact, it’s a very good thing. Africa’s problem has been under-population, not overpopulation. Africa is several times the size of India in terms of land area, but its population is smaller. So we could still accommodate many more people. The problem is how to educate them – that is one of our bottlenecks, to ensure they acquire skills and knowledge so they can get jobs.
The world is now highly aware of the importance of nature and wildlife conservation. What is Uganda’s stance on this issue?
We have strong conservation policies, nine big national parks, including big mammal national parks, and two of our forest parks are located in mountainous areas, where you can find mountain gorillas. I’m pleased to say we do not have much poaching, we are very strong on that point. Our only problem was with the wetlands, which were being encroached upon, but we are rolling that back and the wetlands are doing quite well now.