WINNIE ODINGA INTERVIEW
INTERVIEWER: CANARY MUGUME
TRANSCRIBING: SIEM FREDRIK VAN ECK
In this interview, we sit down with Winnie Odinga, a Kenyan lawyer and political figure who has been making waves in East African politics. As a member of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), Winnie has a unique perspective on the recent ban on Ugandan products by the Kenyan government and the challenges facing the East African Community. We discuss her views on the need for greater collaboration and trade between East African countries and the importance of strengthening the legislative framework for African integration.
Canary Mugume: In 2021, Kenya slapped a ban on Ugandan products like chicken eggs and milk. What do you think of that decision?
Winnie: I see the decision from both sides. Of course, I see it from the (point of view of the) Kenyan farmer. The cost of production in Kenya is so high that Kenyan products cannot compete against imports. However, I also see it from this side, especially being an East Africa assembly member. Where we are meant to cooperate and trade goods, there shouldn’t be any of these restrictions. We should be talking of economies of scale. What you can do here I don’t have to replicate in Kenya.
Canary: So do you agree with the decision by President Ruto to lift the ban?
Winnie: Absolutely. A poor person in Uganda and a poor farmer in Kenya are no different. We need to increase the standard of living for everybody across this region; and that comes from us working together and not finding the differences between us. Our competitors are, Singapore and South Korea and the UK. And so we have to stop competing within us for lower scale products.
Canary: President Ruto passed on this commitment in October last year while attending Uganda’s independence, but it has taken him four months. Do you think there are smooth processes in dealing with such issues, especially around trade between East African countries?
Winnie: One of the places to deal with those issues is the Assembly. We are talking about now of a customs union, a monetary union. There should not be any of these talks as far as the policy in the legislative framework is concerned. But often these issues are isolated at the summit level, which is president to President or minister to minister. And with that, many people get lost in the process. And as the Legislative Assembly representing the people, we need to have more discourse and interaction with some of these issues.
Canary: What is failing in the East-African integration?
Winnie: I’ll tell you this, the East African Community, on paper, is fantastic. Its problem comes in its actualisation. The problem comes when we have a legislature that still has to report to the executive for any of its mandates to be carried out. And this slows down processes. Because if you’re a president dealing with internal security, famine, hunger, whatever it is, the minister representing East Africa comes lower on the totem scale.
What needs to happen right now is that as legislators, we need to say more about what we do, who we are here for, what our mandate is. In turn, the involvement of people will put pressure on these movements to happen on a policy level.
Canary: Is this the reason why your Kenyan colleagues in the East African legislative assembly are pushing for huge perks at the cost of the taxpayer. Are you saying that that is what you need to execute your mandate?
Winnie: No, absolutely not. The issue of welfare for all parliament members is a standard written in the law. As members of parliament in East Africa, we have a much bigger constituency. I always say I am East African by way of Kenya. And if you go along my lineage, my people stopped in Uganda first. And before that, I came from South Sudan. We’re all the same people, just coming from different places. What’s important is what we can achieve.
Canary: What is the role of the assembly here?
Like I said in the beginning, the role of the assembly on paper is fantastic.
The actualisation of the legislation takes time. We would love it if our brothers and sisters from DRC came to this assembly and brought this up as a matter of concern so we can discuss it; however, as they have not been available, it would not be wise to discuss it in their absence.
We’re still in talks with them. Everything is cordial, and I believe that in our next leg we’ll be able to sit down and discuss this.
And the conversation doesn’t always have to be on official channels. We’ve been speaking with them on our forums, and they’re in a perfect position to talk and resolve this matter.
Canary: And lastly, what is your own opinion on financial integration having one currency for all East African countries?
It’s five years too late, if not more. For instance, for me to come to Kampala, I had to take my Kenyan shillings, change them into dollars, come to Kampala, change them again into Ugandan shillings, and I’ve lost for that. We are losing a lot of trade because of that.
But not only that; for example, if Uganda goes to Country X for a loan. They look at Uganda’s size, see its resources, and give you bad loans and terrible prices. Now if you come together as a confederation as a region, with more resources, larger extensive market, bigger ability to pay back, we get better loans, better rates. So, this integration must happen. We need to get one Monetary Union, one Customs Union, and we’ll be better for it.
Canary: How would you like to be remembered as an individual out of EALA?
Certainly, for changing lives, but more to speed up the process of doing things in this region. One of my main interests is innovation. One of the biggest things I’m working on now is, for example, human trafficking and the abduction of people from here into Kenya. Why isn’t that a more significant issue? How can we use technology to bring that out? We need a way of locating, identifying and saving many of these people.
How do we use technology to bypass agriculture? If we’re farming this amount, what do I need to tell you about your soil quality, your rains, your humidity, that will make that product that you are growing more beneficial? You know the definition of insanity: we keep doing things the same way and expect different results. I want to leapfrog past all of this time to where the world is, where we are, and implement technology to its utmost degree.