By Albert Bakasara
This September 3rd to the 9th, on the US and Canadian Labor Day holiday weekend, the umbrella organization for the over 120,000 Ugandan diaspora community in North America, the Ugandan North American Association (UNAA), will celebrate its 34th anniversary – at the annual ‘Convention and Trade Expo’ in the City of Cincinnati, Ohio.
As we have done, for the last 33 years (except, last year – when COVID 19 forced us to cancel the San Francisco 2020 Convention), hundreds of us will show up to parade the latest in fashion and expensive rides, get drunk and fraternize, and even entertain Uganda’s political and business class. And, before we know it, the three-day holiday weekend will be over, and on Monday, many of us will trek back home to the reality of our daily hustles. Don’t get me wrong, many of us work very hard (there aren’t many deals in America), and deserve a merrymaking weekend to retune. There is also immeasurable social value in reconnecting with old friends, and even making new ones. And, this year, Cincinnati should be special – as many of us will be venturing out for our first social event since the COVID 19 pandemic quarantines and travel restrictions.
But, for a mostly affluent western world-exposed, and highly educated group of people, these annual UNAA gatherings are such an underwhelming experience – and, a very poor return on investment (ROI) – especially, for the Ugandan taxpayer.
These conventions used to be small community affairs. Kampala money has changed that. Annually, the government of Uganda now spends about $1 million – on ‘a briefcase case organization’, that offers very little to its membership, and the broader Ugandan diaspora community in North America!
Yes, on paper, it looks like a legitimate non-profit organization – with a website, officers, and even purports to hold elections every two years. But, in actuality, it’s a syndicate – a Ugandan taxpayer-funded-corruption-oozing gravy train for Kampala politicians and the regime’s super connected cadres and security operatives, and their allies in the US. In a sense, it’s become an extension of Kampala’s ‘divide and conquer’ modus operandi. In this case, to keep Ugandans disorganized – so that they never unite to threaten the survival of the regime in Kampala. They have been fed a false narrative for years – of how the regime has to keep control of UNAA, lest, it falls in opposition hands – and cause trouble for the NRM government.
Over the years, they have spared no expense to make sure that only pro-Kampala government ‘leaders’, are at the helm of UNAA. To the Kampala regime, leadership qualities like competency and/or integrity; or even a reasonable return on investment for the Ugandan tax payers, don’t matter.
To be fair, the government of Uganda has not shied away from its involvement in UNAA – lest you think this is just gossip and innuendo.
After the 2019 Chicago elections, the official Facebook page of President of Uganda posted the following congratulatory message to the current UNAA President, Henrietta Nairuba Wamala –
“I also congratulate the NRM for defeating the reactionary Opposition among the Ugandans in North America. I congratulate daughter Nairuba on her election and the Hon. Nankabirwa for leading the fight on that front where the patriotic position of the NRM was under attack by reactionary (non-progressive) groups.”
In that campaign, our team (the first time I got involved in UNAA elective politics) was proposing to create a UNAA investment arm – to build a modern diaspora village in Uganda, a headquarters for UNAA in the US, and create regional Immigration Service Desks (across the US) to support our diaspora community – among other things. But, no, we were labelled “reactionary (non-progressive)”! And, why not? The President and his team had been sold the usual malarkey – and, they didn’t even bother to find out the truth. For starters, the gentleman who was leading our ‘reactionary (non-progressive)’ group, is an accomplished senior officer in the US military – who would have been forbidden (by the US military code of conduct) from participating in Uganda politics – even he wanted to.
So, you see, the syndicate has found an Achilles’ heel – even in the President’s armor. The ‘opposition’ is their permanent boogeyman. It will always be there. Yesterday, it was FDC, today it’s NUP. And, the cash will keep flowing to UNAA – directly and indirectly.
The largest share of government expenses on UNAA, are the government and quasi government-sponsored delegations to the annual convention, every September.
Start with a Cabinet and Parliamentary delegation that usually numbers 50+, add on Uganda diplomats – from near and far, and sometimes their staff. In 2016, the Boston Convention, had over 60 MPs, including both the Speaker and her Deputy. At the 2019 Chicago Convention, I met a diplomat who had traveled all the way from his duty station in China!
Then, there are the delegations from government entities like the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), National Social Security Fund (NSSF), and many others – that supposedly come to do business at these conventions – but, in reality, never close enough business deals, to justify their taxpayer-funded trips.
Last, but not least, are the State House political cadres and operatives. Add in that mix, the expenses for the government’s US-based ‘lookouts’ and ‘sleeper cells’ of party cadres (that are usually activated during UNAA elections); and the Ugandan taxpayer-funded delegation at a typical UNAA convention, can easily exceed 100 people!
A conservative estimate of just one week’s per diem for a 100 member strong delegation – at an average rate of $750 per day, adds up to a cool half a million US dollars.
That’s before adding in the (mostly business class) airline tickets, and other foreign travel associated expenses. If you halved that number, and only counted business class tickets for just 50 of them, at an average cost of $5,000 per ticket, that’s another $250,000!
And then, there is the official annually appropriated $100,000 direct payment to UNAA – which the government never asks for any kind of meaningful accountability. For example, half of that money ($50,000) is meant to support the annual UNAA convention. Well, last year, the annual convention was canceled because of COVID 19 restrictions – but, the government still sent the payment to UNAA!
I can keep going – but, I am sure, you get the picture.
And, true to our nature (as Ugandans), where there is food (or a gravy train), there will be a fight. The select group of Ugandans who constantly access these foreign travel perks, and their allies in UNAA leadership (and circles), will do anything to keep riding the gravy train. I mean, ANYTHING. For example, this year is supposed to be a UNAA election year – and already the harassment, intimidation, and even overt threats (to harm people who would stand in their way) have begun. The Executive Secretary of the organization (presumably, working on the orders from ‘above and beyond’) is busy jamming the UNAA membership registration system – to supposedly ‘weed-out’ National Unity Platform (NUP) supporters. The UNAA President and her supporters, have teamed-up with the majority of Trustees on the 5-member UNAA Board of Trustees (BoT), and are openly intimidating the organization’s an independent Electoral Commission (EC) – interfering in the election process (in clear violation of the organization’s constitution).
To their credit, the EC have surprisingly stood firm – calmly and respectfully countering all the flimsy excuses advanced by the BoT – including, the demand to hold only on-site elections – even when, they are fully aware that the COVID 19 restrictions at the hotel site in Cincinnati, will not accommodate all willing UNAA voters. So, the fight rages on!
And, an organization that is supposed to be a uniting force for Ugandans in North America; and a potential economic development vehicle – to direct capital investments – both financial and human, to our motherland, has now become a toxic pit of intrigue and endless infighting. For years now, UNAA leaders (with the financial muscle from Kampala) have been acting like little dictators – they don’t follow the organization’s own constitution/bylaws, or even the non-profit governing laws of the US, and/or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (where UNAA is registered).
Over here, some of us have talked and talked, and of course, been ignored. So, since UNAA’s financial backing and (many of us believe) marching orders are coming from Kampala, maybe, a direct appeal to you (Kampala leaders and policy makers), might help.
First, what’s in it for the Kampala government?
As former President Trump once clumsily asked (the African American voters), ‘What do you have to lose’?
Let’s take stock of where things are now – with the Uganda-US relationship, your reputation (as a government and ruling party) in our diaspora community, and the ROI on the taxpayers’ money.
Right now, the Kampala regime has fallen out of favor with the Biden-Harris administration, and the majority (Democrats) party policy makers on Capitol Hill; and, a number of government and security officials are on ‘sealed indictment’ and/or no-fly lists. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to you to have a strong Ugandan diaspora organization – that could have helped to lobby the Administration and/or Congress on your behalf – to listen to your side of the story?
Also, the overwhelming majority of Ugandans (especially, young people) in North America, ‘hate’ (and, I don’t use the word lightly) you. By continually supporting and funding an organization that doesn’t embody their values and aspirations – and that’s increasingly being viewed as an arm of a ‘repressive government’, that ‘hate’ will only increase. And, NO, hiring a couple of lobbyists in Washington DC – even with the support of the skilled (skeleton) diplomatic staff at the Embassy, will not bridge that gap. Ugandan-Americans are now integrated in every sector of the US – politics, business, military, academia – you name it… Like it or not, we are the face of Uganda. Put it differently, for better or worse, we are Uganda’s ambassadors.
The once strong support for the NRM ruling party in North America, is now at an all-time low. This is shocking – because, the founders of UNAA were mainly staunch NRM external cadres, who must have naturally envisioned an organization that would strengthen the bond between the Ugandan diaspora community in North America, and the NRM ruling party in Uganda. But, many of them eventually grew disenchanted – and, now don’t have or want anything to do with the organization they founded. Even the few ‘holdovers’, currently still in UNAA leadership positions/circles, don’t ever claim NRM roots/connections, or want to be publicly associated with the Kampala regime.
Recently, I sarcastically asked our UNAA leaders – why there was no congratulatory message sent the President of Uganda on his reelection, and inauguration/swearing-in? As expected, I got no response!
Most importantly, the people of Uganda are not getting a good ROI on all the monies and attention their government has been giving UNAA – especially, in recent years. So, it’s a loss for everyone involved – the government, the Ugandan taxpayer, and the Uganda diaspora community in North America. Even some UNAA leaders and members are losing-out. The intense ‘food fights’ have divided people – ruining many longtime relationships/friendships; and even personal and professional reputations have not been spared – as the well-intended good folks are sometimes lumped-in with the corrupt and divisive characters. There is a cost to this constant ‘pitting of people against each other’, and we are all paying it.
The organization itself is in perpetual stagnation. For 33 years of its existence, UNAA is still ‘a briefcase organization’ – without even a small rented room for an office, or a toll free phone number. Imagine that – for an umbrella organization for 120,000+ community – with an annual budget of $200,000 to $400,000!
Kampala, there is another way – a better way, to get UNAA to work for all of us.
And, here are basic suggestions you can start with:
- The government of Uganda can start demanding accountability for all taxpayers’ monies spent on UNAA. For the annual parliament-appropriated direct payment of $100,000, Kampala should demand (and receive) an annual accountability report (through the Embassy in Washington DC).
- (2) The government should substantially reduce the size of the government-sponsored delegation to annual UNAA convention – and, also institute some form of performance matrix or cost-benefit analysis – to measure the return on that taxpayers’ money.
A small delegation of politicians and technocrats is appropriate. They should come and listen to our needs. Conversely, the leaders of UNAA should also be availed similar opportunities to come to Uganda and interact with policy makers – testify before Parliament, and/or present White Papers to the Cabinet – especially, on matters that affect this important constituency. The elite and business class, and others in Uganda, who wish to join us (at our annual gathering) for business dealings and/or merrymaking, should pay their way – just like many of us do.
- (3) To attract meaningful financial and human capital investments (from this community), the government of Uganda should identify and support the works of competent and credible leaders. The Ugandan community in North America has many credible intellectuals/professionals, and successful business leaders. If constructively engaged, these leaders can help redirect UNAA back – to its original objectives, and in the process, even improve the government’s image in this community.
It goes without saying, that in order to attract these kinds of credible and competent leaders, the government will also need to change a few things in Uganda. Start with sorting out the political mess you have on yours hands. If UNAA continues to be closely associated with the Ugandan government, not many credible community leaders or intellectuals/professionals will want to associate themselves with a ‘brutal dictatorship’ – as Uganda is now increasingly being referred to in these parts of the world.
Kampala, you can do be better – give UNAA a different kind of attention! Try it. Again, what do you have to lose?
The writer is resident of Maryland. He is the UNAA Council Deputy Speaker, and the Council Representative for Mid-Atlantic Region II (Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware).
E-mail: [email protected]