The meeting between US ambassador to Uganda Debra Malac with Uganda's disgraced Minister for Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa on 19 January 2018 demonstrated that the value of Uganda’s cooperation in furthering American foreign policy and corporate interests clearly outweighs any embarrassment caused by Kutesa’s alleged incontinence.
When US ambassador Debra Malac left her office on 19 January 2018 to meet with Uganda’s disgraced Minister for Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa, a number of options were open to her. She could have raised the issue of the bribery allegations made against him by the Department of Justice and which have led to the arrest and remand of Patrick Chi-Ping Ho in New York. Ho is accused of transmitting bribes through New York to Kutesa for the award of oil rights.
She could have avoided the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the minister’s legal issues are sorted out. Yet ambassador Malac did not choose to refuse the invitation, if in fact her visit was by invitation. She proceeded to the ministry where, failing to make a citizen’s arrest on behalf of the Department of Justice, she held discussions with Sam Kutesa about ‘peace, security and development.’
To hold Ho responsible for bribery while the other side of the alleged transaction remains in the odour of sanctity with the American Administration is absurd. It is like charging a person with murder while the alleged victim is known to be alive and well.
What this tells us is that Sam Kutesa’s exoneration is already decided without a trial. The value of Uganda’s cooperation in furthering American foreign policy and corporate interests clearly outweighs any embarrassment caused by Kutesa’s alleged incontinence.
There is the matter of seeds. For some time, oligarchs in the global agricultural industry have been striving for global control over food and other agricultural production. Legislation admitting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to Uganda was finally passed in October 2017 after a six-year struggle with opposition to the scheme. It is notable that the Act was passed in the absence of twenty-five members of the Opposition who had been suspended for opposing the removal of presidential age limits. The Alliance for Science celebrated with a blow-by-blow account of the committee stage of the debate.[i]
Opposition to GMOs is mainly based on the lack of adequate research into the effects of consuming GMOs on human health. There were calls for further research from Canada after an entirely new disease related to GMO consumption was discovered.[ii] GMO advocates argue that genetically modified plants are substantively equivalent to the natural varieties they mimic. However, as Nnimmo Bassey points out, if this were so, there would have been no need to patent GMO seeds.[iii]
The second issue is the loss of biodiversity. If entire populations discard indigenous seed (and livestock) varieties and become dependent on a single species, their food security rises or falls with the success of that one species. GMOs are an unknown quantity and their success is not guaranteed.
Third, it is foreseeable that food security will be threatened by Africa’s perennially weak currencies. Foreign exchange fluctuations govern a farmer’s ability to profit from a planting season. To abandon indigenous foods in favour of patented products engineered with foreign money and whose patents are foreign-owned means farmers may be unable to afford seeds. This is already happening with the several varieties of terminator seeds (which produce sterile plants), fertilizers and pesticides on the market. Carrying out the research locally is not an assurance. Uganda regularly runs out of reagents for laboratory tests in hospitals and essential drugs. How will GMO research be shielded from that reality?
Questioning voices are drowned out by those who have taken on themselves the role of sole custodians of food security and improved global nutrition.
However, just as the GMO lobby were celebrating, Alliance for Science reported that the president had sent the Biosafety Act back to Parliament for review in January 2018. The matters he raised are issues any bona fide representative of the people would have considered the first time around. Starting by saying, “I have heard that the following points may be inimical to our future” he goes on to list areas of concern. The issues of due diligence are ones that responsible food security and environmental protection lobbyists have been pointing out from the beginning. The need for;
- Preservation of biodiversity in indigenous crops by construction of a gene bank,
- Clarification of the ownership of patents for GMOs,
- Identifiability of GMOs by compulsory and regulated labeling,
- Provisions for isolation of GMOs from indigenous seeds, including protecting the environment from pollen and effluent from GMO farms,
- Explicit prohibition of the use of biotechnology in human genetic engineering,
- Penalties for non-compliance.
The President also requires responsibility for biotechnology to be moved from the new Ministry of Science and Technology to the President’s Office which is presumably better equipped to deal with the geopolitics of GMO scientific research. That he should be making this about-face after supporting the Bill for six years is puzzling.
The GMO Lobby
The introduction of GMOs in Uganda was vigorously supported by the Alliance for Science, a Cornell University-based group. Their objective is said to be to give small-holder farmers access to farming innovations. The Alliance for Science was started in 2014 with a US$ 5.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other funding comes from the American Endowment Foundation, United States Department of Agriculture and a number of American private foundations and individuals.
The Gates Foundation invested a further US$ 6.4 million to promote GMOs among small-holders. They have since given US$ 8.4 million to promote Quali Basic Seed in Kenya to produce “high quality foundation seed for small and medium enterprises on the [African] continent.” The Gates Foundation is also funding the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency programme together with the British government. Bill and Melinda Gates’s impartiality in the debate is questionable given that they are major shareholders in Monsanto, the global giant in genetically engineered seeds.
Uganda’s new legislation provides for local research into biotechnology and regulation of the dissemination of genetically engineered material. Ugandan agricultural researchers have expressed excitement. But what is more likely to happen is that foreign-owned seeds engineered by global oligarchs (in Uganda or elsewhere) will continue to flood the market. The world is not waiting for Ugandan seeds. The oligarchs are working towards creating a market for their own patented seeds and co-opting local researchers in their campaign. This requires large commercial farms. They also need markets for pesticides listed elsewhere as health hazards such as Roundup, popular in Uganda.[iv]
Phase II of Food Capture: Plantation-scale Commercial Farming
Reliance on small-holdings is seen as a factor contributing to food insecurity. Farmers rely on rain for water and there are too few feeder roads to transport their produce to market efficiently. Post-harvest technologies such as refrigerated vehicles are still minimal.
The provision of supporting infrastructure for agriculture was the primary goal of the Uganda Cooperative movement, a nationwide movement of small-holder farmers. Their achievements were many including building national infrastructure and providing social services until the movement was derailed by bad national governance. There are efforts to revive the cooperatives.
They will have to compete against corporate and mainly foreign-owned plantations now being touted as the answer to food insecurity. Following decades of ineptitude[v] in supporting farmers with basic infrastructure, the government is now implementing a programme of large farms run by foreign investors. The only trouble with this type of commercial farming is that there are people living on the proposed sites. 80 percent of Uganda’s population is dependent on small-holdings for its survival and it needs room to grow. (Coincidentally, in addition to investing in genetically engineered seeds, Bill and Melinda Gates are working with the British government to slow population growth.)
Somehow those populations will have to be transferred to urban areas to make room for the plantations. The World Bank is on the case, encouraging urbanization.[vi] Although there are some protected springs in urban areas, for the majority to relocate to urban areas would mean to purchase water daily by the twenty-liter can. Electricity is still only available to a small minority (38 percent in 2013). The urban population is mostly unemployed or under-employed while the rural population grows food. Other benefits of rural life include nutritious affordable and uncontaminated food, woodfuel collected from the small-holdings and free water for domestic use from natural sources. Presumably the GMO plan is for the expanded urban population to be employed by the agro-industries that are expected to follow in the wake of commercial farming.
Demand for Ugandan land is heightened by the animal industry. In January 2018 the president offered twelve square miles, free of charge, to one Dr. Ahmed Eltigani Al Mansourie, an envoy of the Emir of Sharjan in the United Arab Emirates, for the purpose of setting up a model dairy farm. This follows the president’s visit to Qatar in 2017 during which he promised to allocate land to potential investors. Dr. Mansourie is said to be in possession of a drug that will enable a single heifer to produce fifty high-yield milk calves. With such a Midas touch it is a wonder Dr. Mansourie needs free inputs from a developing country like Uganda.
The GMO debate is a valid one. There may even be some value in GMOs. However any meaningful consideration of the issues is undermined by the knowledge that historically, non-elite Africans have benefitted little from transactions between African leaders and super-powers, foreign corporations and oligarchs. With our leaders still willing to give away State resources —of which biodiversity is one — it is doubtful that anything has changed. Ambassador Malac’s recent show of support for Minister Kutesa seems to confirm that.
*Mary Serumaga a Ugandan writer.
[i] https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/uganda-parliament-adopts-gmo-law-monumental-victory-science-allies accessed on 20 January 2018 for all references to Alliance for Science.
[iv] Glyphosate (Roundup) was listed as "known to the State of California to cause cancer" in 2017
[v] Hunger, Foreign Debt and Uganda’s Fairytale Budgets http://www.cadtm.org/Hunger-Foreign-Debt-and-Uganda-s
[vi] Press Release, World Bank, Managing Rapid Urbanization Can Help Uganda Achieve Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, 3 March 2015 accessed on 20 January 2018.