In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Gilbert Bukenya, a former Vice President of Uganda, speaks on Africa’s leadership challenges, corruption, and how to foster African unity.
PT: You are an advocate of other universities not only in Nigeria but in Africa, adopting the “development university” model. Knowing that funding has been a major challenge for education on the continent, how do we go about that?
Bukenya: I don’t think it’s a question of money for universities to participate in the population, no. In 1989, then I was still in the medical training, we started in Africa, public health training without walls.
The concept was you can train doctors in communities without putting up a building and we applied this concept in Zambia, Cameroon, Uganda, and Malawi, it worked very successfully. We would have the doctors when they are doing public health, they would sit within the communities, they’ll help the communities to build sanitary systems. And it was much cheaper than the training programmes that are taking place here. Why did it fail? It only failed because our collaborating partners in the world made it sophisticated into needing the computer, into needing this transportation system, etc, and it failed. I still believe very strongly that universities in Africa must practice community-based education within where the buildings are. I mean, here in Yola, if you go to Jimeta and you see how people live…I thank the new governor because he has put up roads and really cleaned up the place. When I came here, first I said let’s put public health training in this university because I would go to the community here and see the problem they were in. Why has this university, AUN, managing….? It’s such a budget, it’s the conception, the teachers and students and it’s the concept of leadership that they have used to apply the methodology of teaching at a higher level to communities. So, for me I think it;s not a question of money, it is a question of mind change of people, it is a question of having a lecturer change his mind or her mind, that I’m so super, I cannot rub shoulders with the poor people.
PT: How do you feel having a son graduating from a university like the American University of Nigeria?
Bukenya: I’m very happy, extremely happy, not because my son graduated from AUN, happy because of the concept of bringing in Africa a development university. A university that does not become the ivory tower, I went to a university which was an ivory tower and beyond the compound, beyond the fences, I didn’t care what was happening there. Now this university here is unique for Africa, it’s a university which deals with excellence, at the same time a university which looks after the poor. In fact, that is why I brought my son here without taking him to these ivory towers but I prefer somebody to understand the development of people, at the same time applying the knowledge of advancement.
PT: You have the means to send your son to school in any of the western countries or the US, but you sent him to Nigeria. Why?
Bukenya: Absolutely, I had the means, I had the contacts to send this young man to any American university or European university, why? I lectured at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio, which is a good university. I lectured at Tulane University in Louisiana, which is a good university. I was at the University of London but I didn’t want to send him there. Why? Because they train you in the traditional way. Someone will come, give you the knowledge, and leave you to take it or you don’t take it. Whereas when this university was being formulated, I happened to have known the vice president, Atiku. We’ve been friends for a long time and he was coining in this idea of bringing American University. My first question was, why are you bringing American University? We had a lot of arguments until the question of bringing in development, leadership, training within all the faculties of the university, it clicked on me. I said ‘wow!’ And then when they brought in the staff, the faculty members here who came, the president then of this university, Margie (Ensign) – we had known for quite a bit of time in America, I said no, this is something very unique.
So the first year was very good, my son was not yet here. Second year I came, because I was a member of the Board of Trustees and I found there is something unique in Yola; that’s when I told my wife in Uganda, I’m taking this son of ours to Yola. There was a lot of arguments, she actually refused and even the son was influenced, the son had refused until I said ‘We part company,’ then the son, of course, fearing the father said ‘Well, I have to go where the father wants me to go.’ He came here, only two years of his stay here, when this man came back to Uganda, I saw a change. You know for me I was in politics, I was the vice president of the country, I used to go to communities, his mother would not allow me to go, you know chatting with these poor people because she thought I’m far above these poor people.
Now, this young man, Conrad, would come with me to my programmes within the communities and would shake hands with the poor, shake hands with the disadvantaged. And then I said “Conrad, where did you pick this?” And this young man said “You know when we were in Yola, we go to communities, we go to see their sewage systems…’ I said fantastic and I told him to continue that, that is going to be the future of leadership in Africa. Because in Africa we have leaders who stay in the palaces and they don’t know, they have no communication between where they stay and where the poor live. They don’t know that some of these poor people may not even have a meal a day, they don’t know that these poor people may go to the hospital and they don’t even get a tablet. Unless we create leaders who can permeate within the population and understand the problems that they face, that’s when Africa will change.
PT: One of the problems with Africa as far as leadership is concerned is the ‘sit-tight syndrome.’ Having once served as the vice president of your country, do you intend to return to partisan politics in Uganda?
Bukenya: (Laughs) No. I think every human being must have a journey. My journey started in my profession as a medical doctor, then my journey came into politics, and I did my part. Then my journey now is back into application of my profession and community service. Every politician and I appeal to politicians, they should never ever make politics a job. They must know that being a politician is a service to the community, but if they continue making it a job, that’s why they’re fighting, that’s why people don’t want to leave politics, that’s why they make a lot of money because they make it a job. I’m an example of those who say “You do your part, when you finish, quit and you do other things”.
PT: With your exposure professionally and politically, and having travelled extensively around the world, why do you think Africa is struggling with infrastructure, corruption and so on. What is wrong with Africa?
Bukenya: Why is Africa lagging behind? Simple reason, we African leaders cannot say no. If African leaders learn to say no to foreign influence, then we can shape our way. The African leaders copy, if someone comes here with a very good jet plane, they want to take it; they don’t ask how does this jet plane come about? African leaders copy the wrong things from Europeans. And I will tell you straight away, a white man does not like you, a white man comes here to exploit you. So if he finds you in a position of weakness, he will exploit you, even convince you to fly for you food from Europe, you as a president to eat it. And I have seen many presidents in Africa who completely forgo their own traditional food to prefer a la carte from Europe. We must learn to say no, we must learn to plan for our people, we must learn to eat and live with our people. If the mosquitoes are biting people in my community, I’m ready to put my skin so that the mosquitoes bite me. But in Africa, no. We must always take with scepticism what a white man brings to you as a proposal; look at it, say no if you think it is a no, say yes if you think it can help your country or Africa – that’s the problem we have.
PT: Obviously, your generation was not able to say ‘no’ to the white man, when you look at the generations coming behind you, do you think they have that capacity to say ‘no?’
Bukenya: The only way the young people can build the capacity to say no is to start training young people in leadership from primary level of education. Let these young people in primary education be trained to be leaders. Leadership does not mean leadership in politics, it is leadership in totality. If we have a road in the rural population and these young people can mobilise the community to clean up their roads, that’s leadership. If we have poor latrines and these young people can come around and say no no no, you, my father, my dad, the latrines are poor, this is how we will make them, we are now coming to your house to put up a latrine, that’s leadership. Once we develop that, like Europe did, Europe did a long time ago, even these Americans, they did it, you create patriotism, you create natural leadership. But this imposed leadership like mine, you decide let me become a political leader, it’s dangerous.
PT: How would you rate the level of education in Africa, generally, and how do you think it’s related to the continent’s level of development?
Bukenya: Education in Africa was imported from Europe and now from North America, etc. Education in Africa was not self-created in Africa and that’s why you find in Africa there is a fight. When I used to be in the political leadership, we had the Francophone because they spoke French, we had the Anglophone because they spoke English, we had the Portuguesephone and so on and then we found ourselves divided when we are all black people. We must create an education which is localised; if I teach my child agriculture the way we do it here, what is going to be the implication for the future? Look at Nigeria, Nigeria would have been the biggest agriculture country, in short Nigeria should be a net exporter of agriculture products, are you? You’re a net importer of rice, mangoes… that is why our educational system which was imported in Africa is wrong. And it is very difficult to change it. My children want to go and study in the UK, why don’t the UK children want to come and study in Africa? Why should I want to go to study in America and the American children don’t want to come and study in Africa? So, the education system in Africa must change, must look at our local challenges in Africa and then apply it.
You know these Americans, they started the university training based on their problems. That’s why every state had a state university but based on agriculture, now they changed because the are now advanced. But in Africa, where? I go to universities, I go to the university of Ibadan, which I know very well, and if you drive around the university, it’s as backward as it has been. So we need to change out education system.
PT: The language divisions you spoke about, as a challenge to African unity, what do you think about the calls for the adoption of one language for the entire continent?
Bukenya: If Africa has to move forward, we have to start getting languages that support our systems. I come from East Africa, in East Africa, we’ve adopted the Swahili, Rwanda used to be a French speaking country, they’ve now adopted the Swahili and they are English speaking, Burundi… so this is the way forward. And we have to abandon colonial mentalities, even in food. I am amazed that, you know one African president whose food is flown from Paris and I’m sure when he was growing up he was eating yam and cassava. So, that mentality must go. And how does it go? It’s mobilising communities to get rid of those political leaders.