The government of Uganda has offered an apology to China in a bid to calm heightened diplomatic tensions after President Museveni mistakenly named two Chinese ‘diplomats’ in the illegal sale of ivory in a May 2 letter.
Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kahamba Kutesa told The Observer in a June 6 interview that government did its own digging and concluded that the two men Museveni referred to as Chinese diplomats attached to the Kampala embassy have actually never worked there.
“One thing which is clear is that there was a mistake [in the president’s letter]. We have since checked records and found out that the two men have never worked at the embassy. None of them is a diplomat,” Kutesa said.
“I have found in the records that the two men just entered Uganda and moved out. They never stayed here,” Kutesa added.
On May 2, the president wrote to the Inspector General of Government Irene Mulyagonja ordering an investigation into the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and two Chinese diplomats, Li Wejin and one Yinzhi, who he accused of involvement in the illegal trafficking of ivory smuggled from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Shortly after the letter became public in early June, the Chinese ambassador to Uganda, Zheng Zhuqiang, protested against its contents, saying they were based on wrong information. He demanded that Uganda formally repairs the damage the letter had caused to their embassy’s image. (See: China protests Museveni ivory trafficking charges, The Observer, Friday, June 2, 2017).
Wary of the possibility of hurting his close ties to China, the president reportedly asked the Foreign Affairs ministry to take immediate steps to resolve the matter.
This was after China demanded that the Ugandan government restores the Chinese embassy’s reputation, which Zheng said on June 3 was damaged by Museveni’s letter.
KUTESA, ZHENG MEET
The Observer has learnt that both Zheng and Kutesa met last week to resolve the matter. In an interview on Tuesday, Kutesa declined to reveal details of his meeting with the Chinese ambassador but said government was sorry for the mistake.
On Friday, Zheng confirmed to The Observer that he had held a meeting with Kutesa, but said the government of Uganda had not written a formal apology.
“We received a reply note from them [government] saying that they had found out that the two men were not our diplomats,” Zheng said.
Asked whether China was okay with the reply note, Zheng said, “We are happy with it because it clears us. I think it is the right thing to do.”
Nonetheless, Kutesa said, the other aspects of the investigation will go on.
The diplomatic slur embarrassed Museveni, who is said to be angry that he was fed on false information by his aides. The Observer has learnt from credible sources that the president is contemplating disciplinary action against those that fed him with the information.
Senior Presidential Press Secretary Don Innocent Wanyama on Saturday said the president is following up the matter as an administrative issue, but declined to delve into details.
“That matter is being handled internally. I wouldn’t want to discuss it in the media,” he said, then added that the slip-up over the Chinese names “does not negate the [other] issues that the president raised in his letter.”
According to insider sources, Museveni wrote the letter based on information by some senior officers at Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) who are said to have an axe to grind with their counterparts at UWA.
The officers reportedly used their contacts and relatives working with State House to get Museveni’s signature on a letter that nearly damaged his relations with China.
Seguya’s current contract expires in November and UWA’s semi-autonomous status allows it to be managed differently from other public service structures. For instance, the Uganda Wildlife Act allows UWA to create its own sources of income, generate its own budget and expenditure priorities.
For some time, UTB has been at war with UWA over financing of its marketing budget. Under the ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, UTB is allocated about Shs 11bn to cater for its staff remunerations but also to market Uganda’s tourism potential abroad.
UWA reportedly rejected this demand and instead urged UTB to limit its activities within their budgetary allocations. The two entities later found themselves doing overlapping marketing activities that saw UWA with a bigger budget outpacing UTB.
MINISTER WANTS PROBE
The state minister for Tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda Ssuubi, downplayed the possibility of the fight since the law does not provide for inter-sector funding.
“If there is a problem, it can only be personal, which we need to investigate,” Kiwanda said on Saturday.
Kiwanda added that the ministry allowed the various entities such as UWA and Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) to complement UTB in marketing the country’s tourism potential.
“We have discussed the possibility of having coordinated marketing,” Kiwanda said. “For instance, if there is an expo in London, the different players have to work together to avoid wastage because we are all marketing Uganda.”