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Monday, 18 April 2016

Clergy have allowed Museveni to manipulate them – Bishop Zac

Bishop Zac Niringiye
The former assistant bishop of Kampala, DR ZAC NIRINGIYE, has engaged in political activism since taking early retirement four years ago.
Bishop Niringiye played a central role in the ill-fated The Democratic Alliance (TDA) process to select a joint candidate to challenge President Museveni. In this interview with Benon Herbert Oluka, Bishop Niringiye discusses that process and other events that have happened in the last six months.

When you were taking early retirement from your pastoral duties, you said you were going to “help President Museveni finish well.” Given that the status quo remains as it was, do you feel that you have failed in your mission?
First of all, I think it is a misunderstanding – either deliberate or not – to suggest that that was the primary reason I took early retirement. If you check both my public interviews as well as my written communication, I was very clear that the overall reason for my early retirement was to be able to devote time, attention and energies to be an activist for social justice, accountable governance and accountable leadership.
Really, [it was] to focus on the fact that the dignity of every Ugandan and, indeed, of every human everywhere, matters to God – and that is why Jesus was sent. So I need to re-state that my early retirement was not a departure from my call to follow Jesus, to serve the Lord and his Church because it is very clear that the gospel is about justice; it is about salvation, which is about human flourishing and, indeed, the flourishing of all of creation. So, anything that goes against all that, God abhors.
Now, serving as assistant Bishop of Kampala, I did that and, as you know, I was chair of the Africa Peer Review Mechanism for about four years. So, I was engaged in efforts and initiatives for advocating for and ensuring good governance, accountable leadership and fighting corruption. But it wasn’t something that I gave my full-time attention to because, in addition to all that, I was engaged with civil society.
You will recall that I was the chair for the national taskforce for peace and conflict transformation during the 2011 general elections. I could give you a number of other engagements. The difference was that now I was going to commit all my energies to the work of justice and dignity of every Ugandan and beyond. So, that is the wider call.
Have I failed? Absolutely not. The day I stop following Jesus is the day I will have failed. I am following Jesus and I am seeking to do God’s will every day. It is a journey. I am not finished until I leave this earth. It is at that moment that [anyone] can look back to, and history will be able to judge.
Indeed, there is not a question, that one of my conclusions at the time – and it still is – is that the Museveni-NRM regime had become an obstacle to the human flourishing and the quest for justice and human dignity for Ugandans. Why?
Because the Museveni-NRM regime has come to be characterised by militirisation; the denial of freedoms of speech, of assembly, of association; [and] the denial of the basic rights of Ugandan citizens. It is really sad that the Museveni-NRM regime is synonymous with impunity, unbelievable levels of theft – not just misappropriation or embezzling but money is taken from the public coffers and used for purposes not of public interest, not for that for which it was designated.
So, for President Museveni, having served for 26 years at that time, it was very clear – and it hasn’t changed – he has done his bit. So, it is true that for a person who has served the country for that length of time, it is important that he finishes well.
But also as the head of state of this country, which has never known peaceful transfer of power from one president to another, I believe that it is important that we see, at least in our time, a president hand over power peacefully, and not by bullets and violence. Is that still a cause that I want to see through? Absolutely. Why? Because that is actually a very necessary step towards the achievement of accountable leadership, accountable governance, and a Ugandan society where there is shared opportunity for all.

Since you retired, you have spoken strongly about the role some of the bishops play in our society. Now, given the prevailing situation that you have talked about, do you feel that the Church is speaking out strongly enough about some of the things you feel are going wrong?
There are definitely a number of Christian leaders in all the Christian traditions in Uganda who have been speaking and who are men and women of integrity. Some [have spoken] at parish levels, in the congregations; people who are really faithful to the gospel and who seek to see what the scriptures command; to be salt and light; to be voices for the downtrodden; to speak against injustice. So, there are many across the levels, and that I think we need to acknowledge.
However, what people often want to hear are clear statements by the institutional Church, where the Church leadership speaks either from its synods, diocese or provincial synods (in the case of the Church of Uganda) or the synod of the Episcopal Conference for the Roman Catholic Church – and often the institutional voice, as represented by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda or the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC) or the Church of Uganda House of Bishops, or the Church of Uganda Provincial Archbishop in his Christmas or Easter messages.
We really want to say there could be more. If you look at statements of Inter-Religious Council or UJCC in broad terms over the years, they have been true to challenging corruption levels, challenging impunity, and demanding leveled ground for elections. I think that has been consistent. The challenge has been whether the Church will follow through their speech with actions.
What kind of action? That they will go the next step and put in certain drastic actions that would reflect that speech.
Number two; that there would be speech that is not just generalised. I think the faithful long to hear voices that say, we demand A, B, C, D, E, F, G actions; clear actions demanded of those who are entrusted with authority to manage resources.
And that is why for us in the Black Monday Movement we went the next step and demanded specific actions; that if a minister is implicated in a corruption scandal, the president needs to take political actions. Such a minister should be asked to resign as investigations are proceeding. If you read the scriptures, read the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, they were very specific on what kind of action God demanded of those who were entrusted with public responsibility and the authority to govern and manage public resources.

So, why are the religious institutions not playing such a role?
I must say that the UJCC report was very, very clear – and it must be applauded – in terms of the level of theft of that election, the failures of the electoral commission. So, you should have an interview with the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda to say, ‘you had a UJCC report say there was [election] theft and failures of the electoral commission.
How could you then, as the chair of the UJCC, go ahead and congratulate Museveni?’ How could he then do that when he knew that there was even a case before the Supreme court?
 
We will take up your suggestion. I asked the previous question because you have been a senior leader in the church and you are privileged to know its inner workings. We want to get your insight on what could be wrong.
There are at least three things that may explain the silence of these structures or the lack of clarity in terms of giving direction and challenge to the governing authorities. The first, broadly speaking, is lack of an appreciation that to speak and to act demanding that those who hold public office are accountable; that they are just; that they lead based on the rule of law; and that the laws that are passed must be for the well-being of the people; that that is part of the mandate of being a minister of the gospel.
I fear that there are a number of religious leaders who have believed the lie that that is the duty of politicians. And President Museveni plays back that kind of religion, which is complete heresy, by the way.
The duty of a minister of the gospel is the whole, the human flourishing, that the salvation that God brings is total, for the whole being in community, in creation – not just the individual. And, therefore, we must be at the forefront of fighting for the environmental integrity. This abuse of the environment is unacceptable. So, do our religious leaders understand that?
Secondly, every dictatorship, in its quest to entrench itself, targets centres of conscience of society. Dictators work in one of three ways. First, through co-optation, buying out, ensuring that people are part of their patronage network. The second one is coercion; instilling fear and force. The third is seeking legitimacy through laws that are not really for the common good but are to entrench the dictatorship.
If you look at the president’s donations, the State House budget, all that money is for oiling the patronage machinery. Truth be told, religious institutions, churches, mosques, Sheikhs and Bishops have become very much targets of dictatorship.
Now, we have been very clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong in a president putting our taxes to contributing to developments that are initiated by religious institutions. The difference is when he begins to disperse these resources as though they were his own, as though it was an act of benevolence on his part as an individual. That then becomes corruption because it becomes part of developing a patronage system.
It is not just religious leaders who are being compromised, but even cultural leaders. You have seen how cultural leaders are being created and funded.
Number three is the fear factor. You have what I call the Museveni state. There is no doubt that when I was arrested and detained and roughed up in 2013 and 2014, I am very sure that that was intended to be a message to religious leaders that if you should act for justice, demanding in a very clear activist manner, this is how you are going to be treated.
But truth be told, it is failure [on the part of religious leaders] to be true to God and to the calling to be ministers of the gospel, ministers of faith.

Now, towards the 2016 elections, your activism evolved into trying to form an opposition coalition through The Democratic Alliance (TDA)....
Let me first clarify that the TDA effort wasn’t an effort to bring together the “opposition.” It was an effort to bring together all democracy-seeking forces and individuals because the mood and drive for change is clearly for the whole country.
The scriptures enjoin us not only to speak for justice but to organise for justice, to act for justice. So, we must organise to bring down the forces of injustice but also organise to build, to put in place systems, processes, mechanisms that could work for the common good. So, I was deeply involved in organising the campaign for free and fair elections because it was necessary. And that became the launch pad for TDA, an alliance that seeks to remove the dictatorship not by violent means but through elections as a means to do that.

You have spoken about the weaknesses of Museveni and NRM. The government in waiting are the people in opposition. Having worked with them during the TDA process, what are your candid views about those who seek to replace Museveni?
First of all, the level of brokenness is not just in government but our society. We all acknowledge, and it is very easy to show, how the Museveni-NRM regime has brought total collapse to institutions of the state. They have totally co-opted them and they have become Museveni institutions; they are no longer state institutions. There are a few positive signs here and there but the overall story is that all these are on their knees.
What we are faced up with is not simply that you have institutions of the state that have collapsed, but actually we risk the collapse of our society and the evidence of that is failure for society to bring about leaders who will provide leadership. But I need to say this; the work is not over.
What failed has to do with the nature of our society; the way in which the Museveni-NRM has created a culture of selfishness, greed, and stealing. Leadership creates culture. We have a culture of stealing and selfish leadership because you see that from the top level and across the entire body-politic. This is something we must work at so that we have leaders who are committed to the common good; who put aside their own self-ambitions and are able to commit to the common good. That is a massive challenge.
So, while the [TDA] process did not yield common leadership for this cause, it is not all lost because we are still on that journey. Why? Because the dictatorship is still here and we can’t give up. We still must work to find a united leadership that holds this cause together.
Secondly, we were very clear that the future of this country must be negotiated. There are issues that have bedevilled the country. Injustice reigns. There have been killings by the state, various governments. It is necessary to have a process of truth-telling, justice and national reconciliation.
Elsewhere, we have spoken about a predator state, a thieving state. The structure of our state is such that it makes dictators thrive. The re-structuring of the state, therefore, is a matter of priority. All this needs to be in a discussion.
We need joint leadership for this process. We need leadership that is able to put the dictator the other side and say, “By the way, this process is also for you so that you finish well. You need not be afraid.” So it is not over and this work is ongoing.