UGANDA: ‘It is high time Africa became ambitious’
Thomas Cromwell

For nine years, Edith Grace Ssempala has been the representative of Uganda in the United States, where she has been a great champion of her country’s efforts to modernize. Her many years as ambassador have not dampened her zeal, nor have they turned her into a woman doing little more than routine diplomatic work. From the way she first takes your hand between her own, to the fire in her eyes when she speaks of her beloved homeland, she embodies the spirit and passion of a true envoy.

She has many good things to tell about her country, such as annual GDP growth of some six percent for the past 15 years, or the reduction of HIV/AIDS cases from 30 percent of the population in the late 80s, to just six percent today. But the most gripping theme that runs through her discussion of topics from health programs and investment incentives to democratization and regional integration is that of responsibility.

Uganda’s successful battle with HIV/AIDS has been widely reported, but not as well known is the core message that has been pounded home by the country’s leaders: be responsible for your own life. Ambassador Ssempala says that the campaign to educate Ugandans about HIV/AIDS was not based primarily on religion, but on the human instinct to survive. “You only have one life. There are no spare parts or second chances,” she says. Young people are told that their future is in their own hands, that they have to choose between life and death.

The ambassador disagrees strongly with those who take the attitude that there is little point in encouraging young people to be abstinent, because they will just have sex anyway. Uganda’s experience has been very different. She says that if adults take that position, it is the same as saying they don’t believe in the integrity and capabilities of their own children. “Telling young people ‘You can’t control yourself, you cannot take decisions to protect yourself’ is wrong.” And “If we don’t believe in them, we are not showing confidence in them.” Their natural response to adults would be, “Don’t tell me that I can’t take decisions that are good for me.”

The core of Uganda’s success in the fight against HIV/AIDS has been an educational campaign that convinced young people that their lives are too valuable to risk on sex outside of marriage. In other words, that abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage are the keys to beating HIV/AIDS.

The ambassador says that although the results have been so good, and many countries in Africa and elsewhere have gone to Uganda to see how they achieved them, “We are intensifying our fight against HIV/AIDS. People need to understand that the 100 percent solution is taking responsibility for yourself and others.”

The attitude of taking responsibility in matters of personal behavior also has entered the policy-making process for national, regional and international issues. Uganda does not want to be the beneficiary of handouts. It wants to graduate, as soon as possible, from the post-colonial era of backwardness and slow development into becoming a modern nation.

In this, it wants to see all of Africa shake off its pitiful image as being incapable of good government or highly developed industrial and other economic activity. If Asia can graduate from poverty and backwardness, why not Africa? “It is high time Africa became ambitious,” the ambassador says.

Ambassador Ssempala is at pains to explain the history of political evolution in her country, which she believes is largely misunderstood elsewhere. She explains that when colonial Britain was getting ready to depart, Uganda was told it was time to establish a self-governing democracy. Some hand-picked representatives were invited to Lancaster House in London to prepare a constitution, and it was assumed by Britain that a multi-party system would immediately take root.

However, with all but a tiny minority of the population poor peasants eking out a living in rural Uganda, there was no basis to create a multi-party system. There could, the ambassador says, have been a peasants’ party with a huge majority, but then ideological differences would have been spread among a tiny minority of elites. Inevitably, then, the three main parties formed along tribal and religious lines. (Uganda is one third Catholic, one third protestant and one third Muslims, animists and others.)

Uganda, a country about the size of Oregon and home to 27 million people, won independence from Britain in 1962. The transition to self-rule got off to a troubled start under the leadership of Uganda’s first president, Milton Obote, who oversaw the writing of a new constitution, now nicknamed the Pigeon Hole Constitution because members of parliament first saw the text when it was delivered to their pigeon holes. The ambassador describes Obote as “a leader without a vision.”

Obote’s ineffectual rule opened the door for Idi Amin to step in, plunging Uganda into a morass of corruption and violence, and blackening its international reputation. Rigged elections in 1980 caused unrest leading to civil war, which lasted through the first half of the 1980s.

The winning force in the civil war was the National Resistance Army lead by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. Its political structure, the National Resistance Movement (now just known as the Movement), took power in January, 1986. The Movement’s chairman, Museveni, remains Uganda’s head of state and head of government today.

Ambassador Ssempala says that Museveni established a resistance movement and army because he believed that Uganda’s constitution and laws should be decided by the people of Uganda, and not be those of a former colonial ruler, or any other ruler. And, in post-colonial Uganda, “The parties were part of the problem. Therefore we decided that our priority should be to unite our people, and reconcile them… and create a foundation for the nation where we can build unity with diversity.” The Movement, then, was created to accommodate a wide range of ideological positions.

 In the 1990s, Uganda’s Constitutional Commission received over 20,000 formal suggestions for a new constitution, from individuals and organizations, and a new constitution was adopted by a 284-member Constitutional Assembly in 1995. Ambassador Ssempala says that as a result of this consultative process, many Ugandans can point to sections of the constitution and say, ‘This is my part of the constitution.’

The ambassador explains that while Uganda is often criticized for its one-party system (although Museveni says the Movement is not a political party, but a mass movement), the objective that has guided its leaders has been to provide Ugandans with the right to choose their leaders and the political structures that hold power. “The guarantee was to have an electoral system that was free and fair,” she explains. Hence, the constitution adopted in 1995 embraces the Movement as sole ruling power in Uganda, but also provides the opportunity for voters to later choose a multi-party system.

In July this year there will be a referendum on this very issue, which Ambassador Ssempala says is quite likely to see the majority of Ugandans opt for a multi-party system, which they opposed in a 2000 referendum.   

Next year there will be a presidential election. The constitution only allows for two five-year terms for the president, making Museveni ineligible to run in 06. Interestingly, the ambassador says that a minority opposed constitutionally-mandated term limits, arguing that they did not protect the nation from slipping into dictatorship (after all, Idi Amin had destroyed Uganda in only eight years as its leader). The minority position now appears to be held by the majority.

This could have a lot to do with the popularity of Museveni. “He would win if he ran,” she says. “The opposition has not found the secret to his success,” she adds. But the reason is simple. “It is because he is close to his people, and because of his results.” She says the president is always listening to, and consulting with, the people, and that he works extremely hard, devoting himself to improving Uganda for all its people.

She says, “The people have seen him close, seen him working close.” And because of steady economic growth, “People in Uganda crying poverty now, are driving a car.”

The ambassador notes that Museveni did not have a direct hand in framing the constitution, and that he is now campaigning for a multi-party system for Uganda. With a middle class that she estimates at 20 percent of the population, conditions now exist under which multi-party politics can flourish.

But, she stresses, “Political parties are not democracy. They are one form of organization.” She notes that Germany, America and Britain all are democratic, even though their political systems are very different from one another. “What makes you truly democratic is that the people can choose.” She adds: “That is what we want.”

She says that the international community should not be quick to judge Uganda’s political system. “It is important that people go deep, and look,” she says. The basic formula for democracy in her words: “Leaders must educate; the people must decide.” Because “the people are sovereign.” Article 1 of Uganda’s constitution states that sovereignty belongs to the people.

She points out that in African countries where the leader simply was hungry for power, the economy typically went down and discontent increased. “People driven by power do not have respect for other people,” she says, citing Zaire under Mobutu as a classic example. Contrast Mobutu with “people who are burdened with a sense of mission,” such as Museveni, she says. She adds that, “President Museveni is completely committed to the idea that the people should decide.”

Uganda’s president asks, “When will Africa graduate?” He is talking about African nations leaving behind the poverty and backwardness that are all too typical. He wonders why Africa can’t be like other regions of the world that have greatly improved themselves, such as Asia and Latin America. The ambassador points out that most African economies still depend on exporting agricultural products and raw materials, instead of adding value through refining, manufacture and the like.

In a practical step to speed up this graduation, Uganda is an active proponent of the East Africa Federation as a political structure to integrate the East Africa Community, an association of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The three countries have been discussing political and economic integration since independence in the early 1960s, but recently have moved more forcefully towards implementation, including the inauguration of an East African Legislative Assembly in Arusha, Tanzania, the administrative center for the EAC. Last year a Committee on Fast Tracking East African Federation was set up by the three countries, tasked to expedite the integration process.

Ambassador Ssempala says that Rwanda has also agreed to join the federation, and that Burundi is likely to as well. Together, the East Africa Federation countries are a market of some 100 million. Initially, the presidency of the federation would be rotated, but eventually federal elections would be held to choose a single leader. A customs union has been agreed, and is being implemented in stages. A common currency is to be adopted as well.

Uganda has made great strides despite a lingering conflict with the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army, based in the north. It has been “a thorn in Uganda’s flesh” since 1988, the ambassador says. She calls it the Devil’s Resistance Army because of the many atrocities it has committed, including raping women and killing children.

It has been a priority of Museveni and his government to negotiate with them and end the fighting, but they have not responded and “they have no agenda” the ambassador says. They claim they want to implement the 10 Commandments of the Bible, but all they do is cause suffering.

Relations between Kampala and Khartoum have much improved in the last couple of years, and this is helping limit their use of Sudan as a sanctuary.

Since Washington considers the LRA a terror group, the fight against it is one of several areas where the US and Uganda work hand-in-hand. Nevertheless, the ambassador says that formulas that limit the amount of military aid as a percentage of total aid in fact prevent the central government from defeating the group once and for all. If the LRA had not been in the picture all these years, she believes Uganda’s growth could have averaged 10 percent a year.


Ambassador Edith Grace Ssempala

Currently serves as The Ambassador Extraordinaire and Plenipotentiary of Uganda to the United States of America; also as representative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, 1996 to date. For ten years, Mrs.Ssempala served as Ambassador Extraordinaire and Plenipotentiary of Uganda to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, while based in Copenhagen, Denmark. During that time, she initiated and coordinated official and private visits by President Yoweri Museveni to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (1986-1996). From 1992 to 1996, while in Denmark, she served as Dean of the Diplomatic Corps.

May 2001, Ambassador Ssempala played a crucial role in planning and coordinating the visit to

Uganda by the U.S. Secretary of State, Gen. Collin Powell. She went on to accompany him throughout his visit in Uganda.

1997, Coordinated President and Mrs. Yoweri Museveni's visit to Washington, D.C.

1997, Initiated and coordinated the visits to Uganda by former First Lady of the United States of America, Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright to Uganda; and accompanied them throughout their visit.

1998, played a key role planning for the state visit to Uganda by former President Bill Clinton of the United States, and former First Lady, Hillary Rodham.

Mrs Ssempala is credited with being the leading promoter of passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was signed into law by former President Clinton in May 2000.

Gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.

Spoke at a conference on Trade and Investment in Africa organized by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Corporate Council on Africa (Atlanta, GA.). "Opportunities for Women in Africa"

Featured as a panel tone-setter on Political Reform in Africa at a Town Hall meeting organized by Constituency for Africa (CFA) and Mayor Webb of Denver, CO.

Delivered a keynote speech "Africa in the Next Decade - the Bad News and the Good News" at the United Nations Global Community Day in Washington.

Delivered a lecture on the "Uganda Miracle" at the African Studies Department, Georgetown University.

Keynote speaker on observing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday organized by Friends of Africa's Martin Luther King Observance at the Boys and Girls Club of Washington, D.C.

Served as a panelist on the International Trends and Services Panel The Links, incorporated National Assembly, Boston, MA. "Issues affecting Uganda: Education".

Lectured on Uganda's Political and Economic Transformation for the last decade to Political Science and International Relations Students at Brigham Young University, Utah.

Organized seminar on Uganda-Nordic Private Sector Cooperation in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo (1994).

Organized seminar on "Democracy and Human Rights in Uganda" in Stockholm (1990), Copenhagen (1989).

Member of the Advisory Board of Center for Strategic and International Studies - Africa Program 1998-99.

"The Road to Development: Africa in the 21st Century"

"Democracy - Uganda's Experience"

International Service Award to a Foreign Woman (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. 2000)

International Trends and Services Award (The Links, Inc. 2000)