A very unusual silence swept through the hall as the master of ceremony introduced the next speaker. The over 200 youth representatives from all regions in Uganda waited attentively to listen to what a senior citizen had to say.
The old, Justice James Ogoola, a former principal judge, took to the podium to tell them why they had been gathered at this Desert Island hotel in the country’s eastern district of Soroti. The topic on the menu was an inclusive national dialogue.
“Most of what is going on in this nation currently is not good. We are not yet to the point where we are a one people, we still have a lot of divisions especially at tribal levels,” Ogoola said.
“Very few times we have hard peace and peace doesn’t mean absence of war. It means constitutionalism and justice.”
According to Ogoola, the contemporary differences between Ugandans along tribal, political and social lines require that there is dialogue to ensure a period of enduring peace, justice and equality.
“We would rather have the whole nation assemble and say, how did we get here, how do we move from here and how do we do it together as a nation,” Ogoola said.
Ogoola was speaking on Wednesday during a consultative meeting on a proposed national dialogue by a section of civil society groups. The meetings seek to acquire ideas from the public on the scope of a national dialogue process that will constitute political, economic and general governance discussions.
The groups include the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), Women Situation Room, the Elders Forum, Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (Ccedu), National Consultative Forum and the Inter-party Organisation for Dialogue (Ipod).
According to the draft scope, the dialogue seeks an agreement on a “national consensus to consolidate peace, democracy, and inclusive development to achieve equal opportunity for all.”
The organisers said this seeks to recognise the progress the country has achieved since independence, putting into consideration the contribution of past and present presidents, and citizen’s contributions.
The consultative meetings that started last year and abruptly came to a halt, have resumed with organizers now targeting carefully selected people from different groups like the youths and religious leaders.
According to the associate director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Planning, Godber Tumushabe, these groups have been chosen to spearhead the process basing on individual characteristics like honesty, integrity, self respect, influential and an ardent belief in social justice.
“We chose these categories of people because of their level of penetration and also the peer pressures of the groups. We want them to develop the confidence to talk about the dialogue in their communities,” Tumushabe said.
He added that there was need for the current generation to talk and discuss what kind of country they want for themselves and their children.
“We have spent our entire life as a generation talking about Museveni and Besigye when it comes to politics but what have we done for ourselves,” Tumushabe wondered.
Tumushabe said that the country has on several times been plunged into war to by warring factions who later stage sat down for peace talks but their interests, instead of those of Ugandans are put first. The national dialogue, he says will give everyone a platform to “talk about these issues with brutal -honesty.”
“We have been resorting to violence since 1962 and when these people realise that they are going to finish themselves, they sit and talk yet we Ugandans are never involved. Up to now, we don’t know what, Museveni and Gen Moses Ali agreed upon,” he said.
Other top issues to be discusses are quality services delivery, accountability, political consensus and national diversity consensus.
“Who said that Uganda needs a standard gauge railway and not hospitals, who said that we need an airport and not schools, we need to sit down as a country and agree on the bare minimum of things that we want,” Tumushabe said.
Dialogue on course
Joshua Kitakule the IRCU secretary general said that after the formal consultations, the dialogue will commence by the first week of May 2018 after the group met Museveni at State House Entebbe last week and got a government commitment on the issue.
For the consultations, Museveni earlier last year assigned Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, to work with civil society and opposition and fast tract the national dialogue process.
Ogoola said that the timing of the dialogue was good “because to get the people of Uganda speaking non-partisanly, the dialogue must be carried out in a period that is not an election and with less political activity.”
Some of the youths in the meeting offered their thoughts on the proposed dialogue process like Matani Samuel who believes that there can never be a dialogue with Museveni unless there is equality where everybody comes to the discussion table knowing that he is equal to the other.
“There can never been dialogue between master and slave,” he said. “We need to have equal stakes in this. Dialoguing with Museveni is just like smashing stones with eggs.”
Joseph Opio however wondered whether strong politicians will not infiltrate the dialogue process by paying off people to front their own agendas, given the wanton poverty and palpable corruption in the country.
“We need to be economically empowered. If we have the money, it is easier to make leaders accountable but many of us are very poor and those in power simple buy us off,” he said.