ROBERT KABUSHENGA: The shocking Uganda coffee tragedy

Mr. Robert Kabushenga is a coffee farmer

Mr. Robert Kabushenga is a coffee farmer

On Monday, during a cabinet meeting it was proposed to give Nelson Tugume his Coffee investment consortium Uganda another US$36m. Last year they got US$10m which they shared among themselves.

Minister Matia Kasaija, the political head of Ministry of Finance objected, arguing that he had nowhere to find the money.

He was blasted and told to shut up. Then Dr. Monica Musenero tried a different approach. She suggested to first get accountability for the US$10m disbursed last year before committing more money. It is her Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation that pays out this money & therefore accountable for what it does. Musenero was simply told to shut up and sit down. This was followed by an awkward moment of embarrassment and uncomfortable silence.

The meeting adjourned for a short break.

When they resumed, the proposal passed without debate.

It will now go to parliament where it will be passed without question. Once that is done the money will be disbursed expeditiously without delay. And then it will be promptly shared out and eaten without shame. End of story.

This was never the approach to public affairs. Robust debate and analysis was the method by which a preferred direction was determined. What has changed? It is not those in charge nor their ability to engage meaningfully and eloquently. It is the purpose. It is no longer the public good.

The only reason you entrust a known fraudster with money to execute policy with public funds is because you want to rely on these kinds of skills for a hidden purpose. If you subject this to debate & analysis it will reveal the true intention. These kinds of scams are simply money laundering projects. You sink billions in a false promise so you can extract money from the Treasury which you then externalize.

The public is left holding an empty can. The best example of this is along the Old Entebbe Road at a place called Lubowa. We are supposed to have a modern medical facility giving is specialized services so we don’t have to go out of the country at an exorbitant cost. It is 9 years now & all there is, is a slab hidden behind corrugated iron sheets.

So if you are expecting to find processed coffee products on the supermarket shelves or coffee shops here & overseas because millions of dollars have been given to a bunch of conmen, I suggest you manage your expectations. It is not going to happen, certainly not from Ntungamo. If you are still in doubt, check what happened with the Soroti Fruit and Atiak Sugar factories.

The conventional (& well informed) wisdom in the Ugandan coffee circles is that the two individuals who are purporting to set up ready to drink coffee processing units in Ntungamo & Namanve have simply purchased cheap equipment & pocketed the difference. So what will pass for verification whether we are getting value for money is a preparatory visit to Ntungamo by Chris Baryomunsi and Dr. Musenero to inspect on going works.

This is in preparation for one by their boss scheduled for 26/04/2024. The real purpose for this is to lend political cover to this scam & hope to legitimize the US$36m heist in the eyes of the public as investment in our prosperity.

Every which way you look at it, this is taking out from our children’s future prosperity. It is to feed the greed and consumerism of a few individuals. The future price of this will be heavy.

Each time we speak out about this hemorrhage, we are accused of being foreign agents & slave traders. In my case I have been described as an agent of disorientation.

Look guys, if there is one thing that makes us vulnerable to rapacious foreign forces, it is a parasitic political establishment. One that thrives on corruption, profligacy, greed which diverts resources from development to consumerism. This is what precolonial chiefs did. The practice is clearly alive & well. If US$46m was properly deployed in improving our productivity & quality of our coffee value chain, we would be in a better position to extract better value.

As it is now, we are desperate for financing & this undercuts our bargaining power. There is no way in the world that giving millions of dollars to questionable individuals so going to reverse this situation. To articulate this set of circumstances is to speak for the interests of the majority. As Oliver Tambo (the illustrious President of the African National Congress in exile) taught us, the masses are always right. Power does not confer correctness. Force does not objectivize subjectivity. Experience cannot replace process. The future direction of our country is a collective national project. And for this reason it must draw on the vast cognitive reserve of all Ugandans. To restrict this process is to lock ourselves in an embrace with disaster. It is to put us at the whims & limitations of an individual’s subjectivity. Therefore what should be done with our coffee must involve all the real sector players. Otherwise it will end in tragedy

A note on the foreigners/imperialists argument. It is simply opportunistic. The same foreigners become investors/friends of Uganda when dealing with government. The same people become imperialists & homosexuals when they engage with those who hold different views on public matters. This line of reasoning conveniently forgets that the so called foreign agents are subsidizing public expenditure. Part of the reason corruption reigns supreme. In our case, a lot of foreign money is plugging the hole in crop finance, cost of inputs, extension services & other needs in the coffee sector. The government is absent. We are on our own. So investment misadventures like financing crooked individuals supposedly to execute a value addition strategy is possible because there is no spend to support primary producers of coffee. Just so you know, coffee nursery operators have never been paid for supplying seedlings. The last I heard the figure was only UGX 7bn. In many sectors, the foreigners are picking up the tab.

Anyway, I have been at this issue since December 2019. I am driven by the conviction that a bottom up broad process of defining the direction of the coffee sector is the only one that will deliver sustainable & sustained success. A top down muscular approach will fail. It is not the first time it has been tried. And no amount of speechifying however voluble & forceful will bring the desired outcome into existence. It is going to be a long & difficult exercise, even slow. But we can learn from our neighbors particularly the Tanzanians. They have figured out a workable coffee model.

To those who have been dismissive or even contemptuous, I leave you with an interesting lesson from history. Churchill, one of the most powerful leaders of the British Empire, dismissed the Mahatma Gandhi as an Indian Coolie. Today, a man Indian extraction is in 10 Downing Street. Diwali is now THE religious celebration at that residence. Life has a way of delivering cruel ironies.

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