By Moshi Israel
Yesterday, on the 27th of this month, Sino-Uganda Research Centre (SURC), the lead Think Tank on China-Uganda relations, and Development Watch Centre, Uganda’s leading Think Tank on foreign policy analysis hosted a symposium at fairway hotel in Kampala. The theme of the symposium was to have an in-depth look at a new era of China-Africa relations and what Uganda in particular could gain from it.
Several experts, dignitaries, members of the media fraternity, and Politicians from Uganda and China attended the symposium. The Guest of Honour was Her Excellency the Vice President of Uganda, Jessica Alupo, represented by the Right Honourable Rebecca Kadaga the 1st Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Affairs. H.E. the ambassador of China to Uganda, Zhang Lizhong also graced the event with his presence. Also, delegates from major Chinese companies in Uganda such as CNOOC, Sinohydro, and China Communications Construction Company were present and were given the opportunity to discuss their work and challenges in Uganda.
In her speech, the chief guest acknowledged the vital role of think tanks in guiding policy formulation and implementation and recognised the key role SURC could play in making this a reality in Uganda. She pointed to the importance of independence in research exhibited by the Sino-Uganda Research Centre and noted its importance for the benefit of Uganda, China, and the world. Furthermore, her speech emphasised the need to discuss China-Uganda relations candidly. In one of her key points, the guest of honor pointed to the need for Africans, in general, to control the narrative of cooperation with China without leaving room for distortions from cynics. This is an important point because for the most part relations between China and Africa are distorted by Western media and often painted in a negative light. Therefore, think tanks have an urgent role of setting the record straight through unbiased research that seeks to find the truth. The new era of China-Africa relations should be one in which the two parties control the narrative and avoid the use of Western frames to approach and debate issues.
The speech also, called upon governments in Africa and Uganda in particular to engage more with think tanks in setting national agendas. For the SURC to be the only think tank in the whole country to study and drive debate on the relationship between Uganda and one of her biggest trade partners shows that there is a gap between academia and government that needs to be covered. The chief guest was jubilant in pointing out the milestones China and Uganda have achieved since the bilateral talks in Beijing on 25th June 2019, between Presidents Xi and Museveni where they agreed to lift the two country’s relations to a comprehensive cooperative partnership. This set the stage for the betterment of China and Uganda relations which have hit a peak in recent years.
The vice president appreciated the fact that China does not seek to interfere in Uganda’s internal matters and assured the Chinese that Uganda is open and safe for China. She hinted at the fact that Uganda as a developing country has a lot to learn from China. The vice president understands that whereas China achieved modernisation and poverty alleviation through adhering to the principles of a socialist economy with Chinese characteristics, Uganda as well as Africa can create a development path with Ugandan and African characteristics.
Another important area that Her Excellency touched on was trade and investment. Uganda’s trade with China keeps growing and bilateral trade between the two states grew by 28.8% in the first quarter of this year. However, Uganda’s market in China is still low and has room for improvement as long as “Ugandan farmers produce high-quality products with value addition.” In a world facing a resurgence of nationalism that has left more countries hostile to anything foreign; for example, the countries that engaged in vaccine nationalism, the Vice president through her representative the Right Hon, Rebecca Kadaga thanked China for standing with Africa in supplying free vaccinations in a show of true friendship and win-win partnership.
H.E. the Ambassador, Zhang Lizhong also addressed the symposium and strongly condemned all efforts to undermine the relationship between China and Africa. He commented on the various projects that Chinese companies have accomplished and are on the verge of completing with Uganda. The ambassador also lauded his tours around Uganda and his most recent visits to western Uganda. Uganda has great tourist potential and beautiful scenery which the ambassador noted could play a significant role in Uganda’s economic development. The ambassador noted that China has extended a tax-free incentive to Ugandan exports. Furthermore, China will continue to expand its assistance to Uganda in the health sector, infrastructure, energy sector, Agriculture, and all other potential areas of cooperation.
The ambassador shared his perspectives on the role of government strategic planning in China that led to the elimination of absolute poverty and the modernisation of China. The emphasis was also placed on China’s development path which seeks to cooperate with the rest of the world through the concept of mutual benefit. Projects such as the Belt and Road are landmarks of China’s commitment to the development of African nations. He noted that the CPC (Communist Party of China) will always champion international cooperation instead of confrontation and that China-Africa, and in particular China-Uganda relations can only go higher in this new era.
The symposium also held a panel discussion where Ugandan experts and delegates from Sinohydro, CNOOC, and other Chinese companies shared thoughts on China’s projects in Uganda, challenges, and potential solutions. The representative from CNOOC shared the progress of the Tilenga oil project at King Fisher in Hoima. CNOOC has been instrumental in improving the lives of people in local communities surrounding the project and all Ugandans generally. CNOOC has employed thousands of local workers in both skilled and unskilled, provided scholarships for numerous Ugandan engineers who have subsequently been employed by the company, and just recently CNOOC has announced another round of scholarships for talented students. The company has built health centers in the local areas of Kikuube and eased access to water by constructing the Buhuka Gravity Scheme that supplies safe and clean water to over 1300 local residents. CNOOC has also engaged in environmental protection in collaboration with the National Forestry Authority by aiding and providing tools to ease law enforcement in the Bugoma forest reserve. This also aims to reduce the negative impacts of climate change in the Albertine region.
The symposium has been a milestone and is a potential trendsetter in the think tank domain within Uganda. Through the activities of SURC and Development Watch Center, the debate for a better, more knowledgeable, and progressive Uganda has been given a vital push forward. The Executive Director and founder of both think tanks, Dr, Allawi Ssemmanda noted that it is high time think tanks got the recognition they so deserve in Uganda as stakeholders in policy formulation and implementation. He emphasised that think tanks and academicians can play a crucial role in propelling a country like Uganda forward by leading the debate on issues that matter by analysing and providing a nuanced understanding of complex global and domestic issues for all citizens.
Moshi Israel is a Researcher with Development Watch Centre.