Ugandan Journalist on His Country's Path to Avoid the Resource Curse

Angelo Izama (Photo Credit: © Edward Echwalu for the Open Society Foundations)
Country: Uganda
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After a past ridden with poverty, corruption and civil unrest, Uganda has the potential to change its course with the recent discovery of oil. An oil reserve estimated to hold 800 million barrels and to generate $2 billion annually for more than 20 years could help Uganda accelerate its growth and diversify its economy—if the right steps are taken.

Angelo Izama, a journalist for the regional newspaper, The East African, is optimistic. He believes Uganda can avoid the resource course if the public gets engaged, government institutions evolve with the country’s needs, good laws are not only put into place but also enforced, and democracy finally prevails over political patronage in the next election.

“We are already in great shape,” Izama said. “Why? Because we have time. Uganda doesn’t start oil production until 2017, so we have the time to sort ourselves out. We have the time to escape the resource curse before we even extract oil from the ground.”

RWI asked Izama about Uganda’s next steps, his role as a journalist in helping the sector and the country’s complex political climate.

You expressed great optimism for Uganda and its oil future and mentioned that your country already had many good systems in place to help with the management of the sector. What are they and what are they doing right?

My optimism is more of an attitude about the future. A friend once described the African intellectual as essentially schizophrenic, torn between idealism and pragmatism. My view of Uganda’s oil future is constructed on the notion that countries whose resource sectors are preceded by a democratic political culture will behave much differently than those that experimented with democracy after building their resource sectors. If you group these as the “before and after democracies,” you have Nigeria on the one side and Uganda on the other.

While the jury is still out on how resource revenues will eventually affect governance and with it development, I think the stress test on existing democratic institutions—a freer and more responsible press, an assertive legislature, an independent judiciary and political competition that migrates to issue-based electioneering—can deliver a positive mix. In Uganda, I see the stress on institutions as necessary for them to come of age. Rather than see them as failing, I view them as maturing.

You also mentioned that you're suspicious of some "good" laws and practices, and that having them on the books has made government complacent. What would it take for government to enforce these laws and practices? Is it a matter of mobilizing journalists to ask why they aren't being enforced and getting civil society to mobilize citizens? What will light a fire for more accountability against corruption?

The “best practice” paradigm, loosely translated, is finding what has worked elsewhere and applying those practices in a country facing a similar headache. Uganda is the poster child for best practice experimentation. Our Constitution of 1995 is rather progressive, correcting, for example, gender inequality and includes some of the most extensive protection of rights of any constitution on the continent. But good laws don’t necessarily translate into good practice.

Because the transfusion of best practice has essentially been doctored by donors and paid for by donor aid, countries like Uganda often point to the existence of new laws and institutions as a sign of progress. For a law to be good, there must be a realistic possibility that it can be enforced.

In Uganda, all the institutions created for fighting corruption have instead helped foster it by providing a lawmaking and institution-creating bonanza that feeds the growing appetite of political patronage. Thus, donor-financed reforms backed by legislation have not resulted in good governance outcomes but instead slowed progress while aiding and abetting corruption.

Uganda’s current attention to corruption does not owe much to organized action by CSOs or the awakening of institutions. The renaissance we are witnessing has come out of a political moment driven by the pressures of political transition and, to an extent, the expectations generated by the oil discovery.

The lesson learned here—that donor aid from the ’90s has financed reforms expanding the public sector to a point that it’s collapsing under its own weight—is actually not positive. Institutional change often happens on the back of a crisis, and in Uganda’s case, that crisis appears to be the aging of the political hegemony of the ruling National Resistance Movement, which has lasted 27 years. That is the dilemma of reforms—that they may sit inert until a political moment arrives.

Legislation should learn from its environment rather than simply borrow the experiences of another. I think this is why good laws are not enforced properly—they are improperly tailored, tax codes developed out of political and social traditions that are alien, ethical demands and immediately disregarded because they do not resonate with public servants and the general public.

Does reform of the government need to happen before better extractive governance can happen? Or can it happen with the current regime?

Uganda is undergoing a dual transition—one is political involving a potential leadership succession within a multi-party system and the other is economic—toward an economy anchored in newly discovered oil and mineral resources. My research is to understand how public and political institutions are coping under this pressure. While it is too early to tell, evidence suggests that the public is engaged, there is a resurgent parliament, and many other professional bodies would like deep reforms now and not in six or 10 years when both the leadership question and the oil economy have resolved themselves.

Uganda has a Freedom of Information Act in place, yet you have found it hard to obtain oil agreements. How do journalists and civil society bring transparency to the sector?

I and Charles Mwanguhya, a fellow Ugandan journalist who works for The Monitor, filed the first case four years ago to try and pry oil agreements from official objections. The case is still in court, but oil and how it’s governed is a now the subject of major public debate. This experience taught me that some creativity is needed to nudge things along. The ultimate goal is to create conditions where public affairs matter enough to Ugandans to make their reactions matter to the choices and legitimacy of their rulers.

As a journalist, my work on the oil sector pushes the boundaries of public engagement but even I am aware that the limits of success depend on the political moment. Officialdom is fighting back in the same old ways with sedition charges, intimidation and legal restrictions, but FOI supporters are reinforced by today’s convergence of technology and interests coming together online.

You mentioned that 3 of 4 companies operating/bidding on Ugandan resources are Chinese, and asserted that Chinese companies have no problem bribing government officials.

China in Africa is a subject that is well researched and has created a polarized situation of China haters and supporters. Uganda, like other African countries, finds Beijing a comfort, compared to the “aid-with-conditions” relationship it has with Western donors. Both infusions of cash, however, have to deal with the same institutional set-up and political institutions and motivations.

The reference I made was to bribery allegations surrounding the procurement of Uganda’s biggest hydro-power project, which showed that Chinese companies are less fazed by the reputational risks that come with money changing hands. However, before the Chinese arrived, no single public works procurement in Uganda was completed on time and within budget. Using Western ethical rules to “clean up” procurement has created problems, resulting in severe delays. My feeling is that rather than focus on entry checks like open bidding, we should focus on exit checks with transparency centering on project completion and punishment of companies found to be breaking the rules.

Carolyn Bielfeldt is RWI Communications Coordinator.