Air Date: August 6, 1996 Program 9632


Christine Achicng, Director, Prisons Project, Uganda
Stella Sabiiti, Executive Director, Center for Conflict Resolution, Uganda
Nathan Twinomugisha, Director, Legal Aid Project, Uganda

STELLA SABIITI: I'm old enough to have experienced the difference regimes in Uganda. I'm really amazed at the attempts by this current government to be a bit more human. They are not really perfect, we can't say that, but they're trying.

KEITH PORTER: The future in Uganda on this edition of Common Ground.

NATHAN TWINOMUGISHA: If a person was in Uganda in 1979 or 1980, immediately after the fall of Amin, a few more years after, you would not recognize Uganda today.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter.

Uganda is a country with a horrific recent history. Life has been carried out under a shadow of civil strife and sometimes barbarian dictatorships. But now a cautious optimism is rising. Today on Common Ground we hear from three human rights activists in Uganda.

I first asked Christine Achicng to describe the human rights situation in Uganda. Achicng is director of the Prisons Project at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiatives in Uganda.

CHRISTINE ACHICNG: I'll begin by making a comparison with the past regimes. Within the last 10 years there has been a great improvement in the human rights situation in Uganda. At least the current government somehow has a positive attitude toward the observance of human rights. But there is still too much ignorance among the population. That's why human rights organizations have come up to educate the people and to assist the poor people who can't get legal aid their own. Except for the northern part of the country where there is insurgency, that's where there's still human rights violations.

PORTER: There's an insurgency in the north?

ACHICNG: Yes, there's insurgency in the northern part of the country.

PORTER: All right. Stella, is there something you wanted to add to that?

STELLA SABIITI: I just want to say that I am old enough to have experienced the different regimes in Uganda.

PORTER: This is Stella Sabiiti, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Uganda.

SABIITI: I'm really amazed at the attempts by this current government to be a bit more human. They are not really perfect, we can't say that, but they are trying. I remember attending a workshop, which was for the law enforcement officers—the police, the prisons, and the army officers. They were teaching them about human rights. Imagine under Idi Amin, how would he allow anyone to come into Uganda and try to teach these forces about human rights?

So one thing which touched me was one officer who was seated next to me (he was a soldier) on my right and there was a policeman on left; and they couldn't believe that torture was a violation of one's rights.

I said, "Do you mean it is not a violation?"

"But then if you remove it from us, how do we get information from the people we have under us in custody?" They were open. They were so surprised, and "Ah, we see."

That is a good example for me. There is something positive happening in my country.

PORTER: Stella, you mentioned Idi Amin. As you have traveled around America, I am sure you know that when many people they hear about Uganda that's probably the one thing they know. How many years has it been since the end of Amin's rule?

SABIITI: Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979. Since then we've had so many different leaders.

NATHAN TWINOMUGISHA (Twino): I wish to agree that we have moved very far as a nation. We have come from Amin, and this was the extreme. This was the worst situation, I think, we had. But now things are changing.

PORTER: Nathan Twino is director of the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society.

TWINO: People have begun to accept each other. The leadership is good, the army is more humane and the polices also humane. So this situation has actually improved, and we have moved far.

PORTER: Many people in the West have questions about the democratic system in Uganda. You do have elections; and they appear to be free and fair elections, according to many people, but they don't allow political parties to operate. What do you say to people in the West who question that method of operation for your democracy?

TWINO: The people in West must give Uganda time. This is something that is homegrown. It is being experimented. We see it working. When they are moved people are actually happy, because they use to bring conflict. People use to fight. People use to kill each other, people use to hate each other. Brothers would not eat with each other because of [political] parties.

So now that there are no parties, people are free. People stand as independent people on personal qualities without having to rely on a party, without having to use a party as a shield. So people, I think, are happy. We should be given time. I think it is working. The no-party system is working.

PORTER: Anyone else have a comment on the situation of political parties in Uganda? Christina?

ACHICNG: I just wish to say that Ugandans are working now. They've gone through this for several years. It looks like the parties have failed. As we saw in the last elections, the different parties try to ally to challenge the current government. But they were defeated by a very large margin by the current government. So that really shows you that the Ugandans are trying to forge their own democracy.

PORTER: And Stella?

SABIITI: Yes, I would like to add that maybe the world should be aware that when we talk about parties in Uganda we are not talking about the parties that you experience here in the United States or in the United Kingdom or around the world in other democracies. For us, when the parties were introduced in the early 1960s there were married together with the religion, with our own local tribes, with so much. So when you say a party in Uganda, you're not just talking about a political party; you're talking about many other things that are involved.

PORTER: Your country, like so many other countries in your region, are affected by what is happening in Sudan. Can you tell us how the war in Sudan plays a role in Uganda?

TWINO: The regime in Sudan... we have the most unfortunate regime we have ever had in Africa. Because they are not sufficient. Their aim is to spread Islam by force. This is something that is unfortunate. Religion should be voluntary. What the regime in Sudan is doing is to try to use Ugandans (rebels who are there) to try to further their ends. So the Armadas people are ruthless. They give them arms. They give them mines which have killed so many of our people. They bring them to Uganda. So it affects the northern part of Uganda, especially the district of Gulu.

So these people are armed by a brutal regime. They are themselves not educated. They don't have a clear cause they are fighting. They are killing innocent people. So this regime, this war in the north, actually affects Uganda very much. Because this is the war situation, we find that we are fighting a war which is actually not meaningful. It is just a useless war, because someone just wants to extend a religion.

PORTER: Stella, did you want to add anything to that?

SABIITI: Yes. Just to say that Sudan is not at loggerheads with only Uganda. It's fighting with almost all the countries surrounding it. So the problem must be within Sudan.

PORTER: The reports that I've read say that half of all the adult deaths in Uganda are due to AIDS. What's being done? But first of all, why? Why are half of all adult deaths in Uganda due to AIDS? What is being done to try to put an end to that?

SABIITI: I'd like to say that I really don't agree with that statement. People have feared to sit with Ugandans because of AIDS, even within Africa itself. For us as Ugandans, we believe that is because we are open about AIDS. Right from the start the government was open about it. The people were open about it. We thought that was the best way of preventing the spread of AIDS. So whoever contracted the AIDS disease stood in public, either in church or at a rally, and talked and said to the young people, "Everybody who is sexually active, please don't do this. Don't follow my path, because it is really terrible."

We became open about it, and the whole world focused on us. I remember, not so long ago, I was in Nigeria and was listening to a radio program which was discussing AIDS. It was a phone-in program. One of the girls said, "If AIDS really exists, then I suppose we have to be careful." (laughter) She was talking about AIDS like it's something from outer space, we're not sure whether it exists or not.

Yes. We do have people dying of AIDS. It's true. I've lost my sister through that last year. But the statistics are not that bad. That's what I think.

TWINO: I believe it's because Ugandans are open about AIDS. Many other countries may be even worse than Uganda. But because our government decided to be open, everybody opened up and we started talking about AIDS. Now the world might believe we have more cases of AIDS, which might not be actually correct.

The situation is that we are open, we talk about it. I am surprised to hear in the United States it seems there is not much talk about AIDS, not much awareness being done. I haven't seen places where they sell condoms openly. I think the United States is not as open as we are about AIDS. For us it's open, not secret. Everybody knows AIDS is there. It has to be fought. We are frank about it. So that makes the difference. Maybe the world might believe there are more cases of AIDS in Uganda, which is not true.

PORTER: OK. Christina, did you want to say something about this?

ACHICNG: I just wanted to say that I think AIDS is a world problem, not a Ugandan problem. Like my friends have said, it's just because Uganda has an open policy on AIDS. Our president, for instance, cannot make any speech anywhere without talking about AIDS. So it's just because of that. If I can say something about our neighbors in Kenya, they feared to go open about AIDS because they thought it would put away the tourists which were bringing in much of their income. So I think it's just the openness that makes the world think Uganda has more AIDS cases than any other part of the world.

TWINO: The campaign is paying off. According to recent statistics, the figure of victims and people dying are falling. The campaign is paying off, and we are proud about that.

PORTER: On this edition of Common Ground we're talking about the future of Uganda with three Ugandan human rights activists. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: You may find this hard to believe, but in America there hasn't been much attention paid to the issue of child labor until very, very recently. In fact, just this year some American celebrities who endorse products, people like Michael Jordan who sell sneakers with their names on them, have just begun to realize that they are oftentimes made by child labor overseas—sometimes overseas and sometimes in the United States at very low wages and in very poor conditions.

Now the International Labor Organization released a study just last month, I believe, and Uganda was listed as one of the countries where there was a high percentage of children between the ages of 10 and 14 who were employed. Do any of you in any of your organizations work on the issue of child labor, or is that one of the topics you work with? Do you believe that child labor is a problem in Uganda? Nathan.

TWINO: I don't believe it's really a big problem in Uganda.

PORTER: Nathan Twino is director of the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society.

TWINO: I believe the children who are actually employed, sometimes it is positive for them. It is good for them because otherwise... Uganda's education is not free. Some of those children find themselves on the street. If they are not given jobs on the notion that a person under 14 or 18 should not work, what will they do? The situation is not like in America where education may be free up to a certain level. Maybe employing some of those children is not actually as bad as other people might look at it.

As long as the work isn't too much anyway for the child. But if the child, who is not at school, is 13 can find work to do which is not harmful, we don't see any problem with that. But this is not to say that the situation is alarming. Children are being made to work so much more than in other countries. We feel that the situation is much more the same in many African countries.

PORTER: That doesn't necessarily make it right though, does it?

TWINO: It doesn't necessarily make it right, but in Uganda and local situation, a child who is not at school and is 14... What do you expect him to do? Remain at home, become redundant, start smoking bang? I think the situation is better if such a child can find some work which is not harmful to him or her.

ACHICNG: Just like Nathan has said, I would like say that in the African culture a child grows up working in the family.

PORTER: Again, this is Christine Achicng, from the Prisons Project in Uganda.

ACHICNG: The child knows he or she has a responsibility to play. So you find the children also would farm when they're still young. But you'll also find that there are so many children who have no parents. We have so many orphans, and so many of them have ended up in the streets. The only way they can earn their leaving is by doing some simple job, carrying loads for people.

I'm not aware of any single company that has a rule or something to recruit children to work in such places. There isn't any. The children actually go out on their own and try to earn a living, because there is nobody else who can offer them a living. The government does not have the funds to look after them. We don't have enough charitable organizations to offer services for them. There's no free education in Uganda. So that is the situation.

SABIITI: I'd like to know exactly what they mean by child labor. I've seen the documentaries about Pakistan and so forth. Children in a factory making footballs, basketballs, or whatever. When we see it, we say, "How come?"

PORTER: Again, Stella Sabiiti is from the Center for Conflict Resolution in Uganda.

SABIITI: I'm aware that our children work. But that is in their family setting. That is the way the African child grows up. It's a learning process. They don't do any backbreaking work. For instance, my tribe, the Kotokeep(?). Traditionally it was the job of the children to look after the baby cows. It's no big job. Some trail their mothers to the field, because we didn't have any schools there traditionally. That was their schooling system.

So to break that kind of cycle, to break that lifestyle takes time. For us when we talk about child labor or a child working I think that's what they mean. Using them in cities, in a family in a city using them as domestic help. Usually these are your relatives who have no school fees... who have had no chances at school. If you can't pay school fees or no one pays school fees for them and they're too old to go to school, then some of them find themselves in the household of a relative working there.

They live and eat and do everything with a family. I think we can improve on that. I am not saying it is the best thing. I don't think so, for myself. I can't employ anyone who is younger than 20. I don't do that in my household. What our family has been doing is, instead of bringing that child to live with us to work, just give money to the family of that child to be educated. But then there are just too many of them. Africans have a lot of children. Our shilling can't stretch that far. Our money, that's our currency. A shilling is a currency. It can't. It's like our dollar, it can't stretch so far to cover everybody.

PORTER: Maybe I could get each of you to comment then on the education system. Is there a movement, a plan, to offer universal education, and to what age?

TWINO: In the past there hasn't been free education except at the university level. That is a tashad(?) education. That is where education has been free. From the primary to secondary level there hasn't been free education. So you find that people pay many fees and children are forced out of school because of fees.

But according to the promises by the new government, four children out of every family are suppose to study free. Starting with this year, I think, that's what we are promised by President Museveni. And he has said many times that he is going to carry through his program. So we are hopeful that four people out of every family are going to have a free education at whatever level.

PORTER: Stella.

SABIITI: We have a promise from our government that four children out of each family will be given a free primary education, because our system was upside down. The parents had to struggle to put you through school, then when you reached the university level you got everything free. That was ridiculous. So now they're trying to do it the other way around so that you get free primary education. At least you get the basics to make you survive in life. Then later you can struggle to support yourself at university level.

PORTER: And Christina, anything on education?

ACHICNG: In addition to the four children we have been promised, there's also a new education of policy. A white paper that was put up on education making education universal. So it's going to be compulsory for parents to take their children to school. So in addition to the four children that are being educated for you, you must take the remaining children to school. Every child is expected to go to school up to the level at least of 18 years of age for a child.

PORTER: Nathan, are you optimistic about the future? Are other Ugandans optimistic?

TWINO: Yes. I think we are very happy that this government has won elections. For the first time we are experiencing a better human record. As I said, we are coming from very far, but we now see human rights being respected. Factories are beginning to work. People are free. You can now walk in and around Kampala whatever time you want. Everybody is optimistic. Things are changing.

And I think in a few more years, if we could have this government for another 10 years, we shall see Uganda developed. That is why we pray that this government remains for at least another 10 years. If we remain with the present leadership, we may develop, just the (?) of peace on the clear-headed leadership. We have these except in a very, very small part of the country. So if we have these, I don't see why we can't develop. And you know things have improved so fast that if a person was in Uganda in 1979 or 1980, immediately after the fall of Amin and a few more years after, you would not recognize Uganda today if you went there.

PORTER: Is there some reason you're so much in favor of this government?

TWINO: Yes. I don't usually support governments in power, by the way. I'm usually anti-government. (laughter) But I see some things strangely, it's the only serious government we have ever had. I am impressed by a government that can really encourage people to develop, bring peace, start factories, and give people back their property. Remember, Asians had been deprived of their property when they were expelled by Idi Amin. They have been given back their property. They have come to Uganda. They have been accepted. I think we are really moving forward.

PORTER: Now your countrymen here are laughing. Why? What's so funny, Stella?

SABIITI: Because the current government said it would be in power for only five years. It's good if a free citizen can give them an extra five years. That is good. That's why we are laughing. What Nathan is saying is correct. We've come from far. It's great to see that we have clearly the shape. It seems as if the human being needs to have a leader. It seems we get lost without a leader. Once you see a leader, you just automatically follow as long as that leader is making sense. I think that is what is happening in Uganda. I just hope it stays like this or becomes better. I hope the power the government has now is not going to be abused. I just hope it won't.

It's also very, very encouraging to hear from our neighboring countries, people... and not the countries, not the governments of surrounding countries, but citizens of surrounding countries being impressed with what they see in Uganda. That gives us encouragement. It means we are not just admiring ourselves in a mirror. We are getting feedback from people around us, and that's very positive.

PORTER: Christina, I'll give you the final word.

ACHICNG: I'm just hoping for the best. Surely this government has exemplified something good to all of us. There are so many structures that were put in place that were not there before. For example, they expect the rate of government that was not there before. The Human Rights Commission had never existed in Uganda before. The making of the constitution that involved every Ugandan, at least participated in this activity. The existence of the human rights organizations in Uganda, we didn't have these nongovernmental organizations.

We really have a lot to do, which in the past we did not have a chance to do. So I'm really hoping we shall move ahead, the human rights organizations together with the government. We have at least a free atmosphere to operate in.

PORTER: That is Christine Achicng, director of the Prisons Project for the Foundation for Human Rights Initiatives in Uganda. Our other guests have been Stella Sabiiti, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Uganda; and Nathan Twino, director of the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society.

For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter.

Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free, cassettes cost $5.00. To order a tape or transcript or if you'd like to share your thoughts about the program, please write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa, 52761. Be sure to refer to program number 9632. To order by credit card, you can call us at 319-264-1500.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Liederman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


Copyright © 1996, The Stanley Foundation