AMBASSADOR HAROLD ACEMAH is a retired diplomat who served at several levels in Foreign Service.
After retiring from Foreign Service in 2007, Acemah, now a consultant, speaks to Olive Eyotaru about his experience and life as a diplomat.
I attended Wolo primary school in Yumbe district from 1953 to 1958. Then I went to Ombatini Junior Secondary School for two years and later to Sir Samuel Baker School, Gulu, where I completed my O-level.
I joined Busoga College Mwiri for Senior Five and Six from 1965 to 1966. Then I did my Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from 1967 to 1970.
We were 18 who joined the [Foreign Affairs] ministry on August 1, 1970. Among those was (President) Yoweri Museveni, the late Geoffrey Kabushenga (father to Robert Kabushenga), Alex Okwonga and Margaret Nswemu, the only woman.
Most of us were from Makerere University. Unfortunately, many of them have passed on, which is sad. We were two from West Nile, that is myself and a fellow called Maja Olul, but he was unfortunately discontinued. When I graduated from Makerere, I had wanted to do a master’s degree or join Foreign Service. I opted for the latter.
After joining, we were sent on an induction course as most of us were first-degree holders, except one who had a master’s. They used to recruit the best from the universities. The ministry would advertise for Foreign Service officers and you apply.
The forms we filled never asked for your tribe or religion; so, it was really on merit. I didn’t know anybody in the Public Service Commission. We did interviews in June or July.
We got our letters of admission and they told us to report to the Institute of Public Administration, which is the current Uganda Management Institute (UMI). The permanent secretary then was Sam Baingana and he welcomed us.
Then Foreign Affairs office was at parliamentary buildings. At that time, the minister was Sam Odaka while Paul Muwanga was the chief of protocol (chuckles). Prince John Barigye was one of the senior officers in the ministry.
When Muwanga became vice president, whenever I used to go to his office to take special people from the UN, he would hold my hand. He used to like us so much and was like a father figure. After the meeting, he would ask me to stay behind because he liked company. He would ask his people to bring tea and snacks.
Regarding Museveni, we joined during the last year of Obote 1 after he [Museveni] left the University of Dar es Salaam. He actually left during the induction course and joined the president’s office, and when the General Idi Amin coup d’état took place on January 25, 1971, Museveni left and went back to Dar es Salaam, in exile this time.
After our three-month course at the Institute of Public Administration, we were taken on a tour of the whole of Uganda. We first went to Fort Portal and then Mbarara, plus other areas.
That was the standard because if you are going to represent Uganda abroad, you must know your country. So, we were given a fantastic opportunity before we reported to foreign affairs. It is something which I will always value. The first time I visited the Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks was during this time.
I eventually went for my first posting in 1971 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Out of the 18, six of the trainees were discontinued.
My first assignment was in 1971/72 in Addis Ababa as third secretary. I covered commercial matters and did consular work like issuing visas and passports to Ugandans.
I did political work, including monitoring what was happening in Ethiopia because, at that time, Haile Selassie was the emperor but there were already indications that things were not going well and in 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew him.
So, one of the roles that an embassy plays is to monitor the political situation in any country. In a crude way, you can say diplomats act as spies, although that is not their role. I also covered the Economic Commission for Africa and the OAU meetings.
Then, from 1974 to 1980, I was in Uganda’s permanent mission to New York as first secretary. I used to cover the economic committee, which is the second committee of the UN General Assembly.
In addition, I used to represent Uganda on the economic and social council; I represented Uganda on the UNDP governing council, UN human rights commission and UN commission on transnational corporations.
In 1974, while still in New York, I was sent to Canada as acting high commissioner for six months and then came back after someone else took over.
I returned to Kampala at the ministry in 1980. Between 1981 and 1987, I was the director of international organization department at the Foreign Affairs ministry. In that capacity, I dealt with all UN organizations, Commonwealth, Non-Aligned Movement and Group of 77, which deals mostly with economic issues.
In 1987, I was honoured by the British government which sponsored me as a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford. I was the first person in Foreign Affairs to go to Oxford as a visiting fellow, although they used to offer places for junior officers to go for diplomatic training, more like an extended induction programme.
We were about 20 from different Commonwealth countries. I was based at Queen Elizabeth House, which is the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and it was a very great experience.
Between 1988 and 1995, I took sabbatical leave and went to Canada as a graduate student in Toronto. That is where I did my master’s degree and part of my PhD programme in political science.
I returned to the ministry in 1995 and replaced Ambassador Nathan Irumba, who went to Geneva, as head of the multilateral organisations and treaties department (MOTD). I held this position until 2003 when I was posted in Brussels, Belgium as ambassador and deputy head of mission, up to 2007, when I reached retirement age.
My assignments were mostly to deal with the European Union. I was the key person for EU. I also dealt with Uganda’s relations with the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Brussels embassy covers Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg, and our core mission is our relation with EU which is Uganda’s biggest donor and the biggest destination for Uganda’s exports. So, we did a lot to promote and strengthen Uganda’s relations with the EU.
Our embassy was opened in 1975; so, we were basically building it, but mostly strengthening relations. During our time, EU aid to Uganda increased substantially and we managed to also get EU to give access to many exports of Uganda, including honey, tilapia and Nile perch.
EU has got a policy called Everything But Arms (EBA). So, as a least-developing country (LDC), Uganda is allowed to export tax-free goods except arms, but the challenge is that we don’t have much to export, something we need to work on because EU is a better export market than any other destination.
When I joined in 1970, I was the second person to join from West Nile. The first person was Lino Avua who [had] joined in 1967.
Then in 1972, Ambassador James Baba joined and thereafter Ambassador Idule Amoko in 1973. I think we cannot ignore this issue. In our time, ethnicity was not a big issue and nobody cared about where you came from but, unfortunately, now it has become an issue.
In Foreign Affairs, it is obvious now that ethnicity has taken over competence. For a person like me who spent my whole career in Foreign Service, I find it rather shameful.
I did not know anybody from Karamoja among the career officers, which is very sad because Karamoja is a very big area. I think the only person from there is Ambassador Elizabeth Paula Napeyok (Rome) but is a political appointee. I think Foreign Service, which represents the totality of Uganda abroad, must reflect Uganda as it is.
SERVING UNDER DIFFERENT GOVTS
As a Foreign Service officer, I serve Uganda. Our primary duty is to serve the national interests, not of a particular regime.
I joined during Obote I, worked during Idi Amin’s regime, I worked during UNLF, Obote II, Tito Okello’s regime and also President Museveni’s rule. You see, the national interests of Uganda are permanent and should not change because governments have changed.
Once you identify your national interests, it should remain constant and that is the advantage of having a career service because a service in which people join on merit, your commitment is to the country and not who is in State House.
Of course you are loyal to the sitting president, but if you have to choose between him and Uganda, you must choose Uganda. People come and go.
Even during transition period, you continue with service. The most they can do is to transfer you from a mission. The most affected people are [political] ambassadors because, normally, there are new appointments but career ambassadors are retained, and not sacked.
A career officer is permanent and pensionable and you can only sack him for violating civil service standing orders.
The role of diplomacy is very critical. So, you need people on the ground to represent and advance the interests of the country – in the case of Uganda, investment and promoting trade and tourism. This is what all our embassies are supposed to do.
Today, you hear something about commercial diplomacy. It is a misnomer because in the 1960s, every embassy had a commercial attaché who focused on promoting trade with Uganda.
They are there now in name but unless you provide resources to enable them to do their work, you cannot sit at the embassy and expect people to consult you on what they can export to or import from Uganda.
When I was in New York, we had a coffee office under the auspices of the defunct Coffee Marketing Board (CMB). It was a big office covered under diplomatic immunity near Wall Street because America was one of our biggest buyers.
It was replicated in London and Germany to sell coffee. All the big embassies like Brussels were focused on commercial interests of Uganda. So, the embassy represents literally everything that happens in your country. That is why part of training for a career diplomat is to be a jack of all trades so that you are versatile enough.
I think the embassies can play a big role if they are well facilitated and if the diplomats are people who are there on merit, not because of know-who or political appointees.
In Uganda’s national interest, you need a strong and effective diplomatic service which is a career, from ambassador level up to down; and we have the people. Foreign Affairs is a core ministry and must be accorded the highest priority.
DIPLOMATS' ADVICE SHUNNED
When the late James Wapakhabulo was minister of Foreign Affairs, around 2003, he got a request from State House. They wanted to refer the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) case to the ICC and he asked me as head of department for advice.
I discussed this with my staff and came to a conclusion that the LRA case was really a political, not legal, problem and gave him a written brief that the matter should be handled using political means. He agreed with us and made a recommendation that the LRA case should not be taken to the ICC, but his advice was disregarded.
In 2005, when I was at the embassy in Brussels, then minister for Security, Amama Mbabazi, came with the Rwot David Onen Acana II, the Acholi paramount chief, and wanted to withdraw the case.
Those people refused but asked them to ask the [UN] Security Council to suspend the case for a year. It took long for Uganda to realize that it was a mistake to send that matter to ICC.
The point is that government, especially the head of state, should take advice. The decisions are made by the political leadership, but diplomats’ advice is technical; we tell you the objective truth on key decisions.
You must have trust in your professional staff and especially public service. Foreign Service wants what is in Uganda’s best interests. The problem with political appointees is they want to please the appointing authority.
Recruitment in public service, especially Foreign Service, must be on merit; not on religious, tribal lines or based on political affiliation.
In the 1960s and 1970s, our foreign service, apart from being recruited on merit, was national in outlook. Today, it is the opposite and the diplomatic service is now dominated by political appointees. I think the majority of ambassadors representing Uganda today are basically political appointees.
You can’t have such an arrangement yet there are many senior career civil officers who would be able to represent Uganda effectively; people who have the know-how, have the experience and commitment. I don’t know why they are not being deployed.
Many of them are stuck here at [ministry of Foreign Affairs] headquarters and they are very frustrated.
When I was in New York, I was still a bachelor but when I moved to Brussels, I was married. My family would only come for holidays. During the 1990s, if you moved with your family, government would not pay tuition fees for the children yet it was so expensive.
What most officers did was to leave family behind which, in a way, split families which is not healthy. We fought for the instatement of this privilege for the officers but by the time I left, it had not been implemented.
So, if you had a family, it was not a burden. But if you compare what our government pays with Kenya, the latter is much better, even Rwanda is better.
INVESTMENT IN DIPLOMACY
Implementing foreign policy is very expensive. So, you need resources. Unfortunately, today the resources which government allocates for the ministry are not adequate.
If you want the benefits which come from having an effective policy, in the case of Uganda as investment, trade and tourism, you must invest. If you want tourists, you must promote Uganda as a tourism destination.
If you want investment, you must promote Uganda as a favourable place where people can come and invest their money without undue risks.
You need to spend to reap the benefits. In the 1960s, Uganda used to have tourism offices. There was one in Frankfurt which was part of the embassy in Germany.
I visited it in 1972 and it was well staffed and Ben Otto (former permanent secretary) used to run it. As a result of their work, many tourists used to come to Uganda from Germany and also the US.
This is where government goes wrong. It must be willing to spend resources on foreign affairs and recruit the right people, not because of where they come from or what political party you belong to.
Look out for another engaging interview in this series next Friday