Air Date: August 6, 1996||
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
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
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
PORTER: Anyone else have a comment on the situation of political parties in Uganda?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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The Stanley Foundation