The Uganda People’s Defence Forces are coming into the spotlight yet again.
This follows the impending failure of a broadcasting project that would have supported disarmament and restoration of peace and rule of law in Karamoja and neighbouring communities, such as the Turkana in Kenya and the Toposa in Sudan.
Partially supported by a European Commission grant under the Africa Leadership Institute’s Civil Military Co-operation Project (Cimic) in Karamoja, the project is fast unravelling after private sector partner Voice Media Group pulled out.
It cited “controversies that have arisen and [were] expressed in a meeting held in Mbale on September 2.
“Given our excellent track record in the FM radio industry, we do not want to entertain any attempt at muddling up ownership and management of our company and investments,” Captain Mike Mukula, chairman of Voice Media, wrote in a September 4 letter to the executive director of the Africa Leadership Institute, David Pulkol.
According to information made available to The EastAfrican, at the heart of Voice Media’s action is the recent insistence by the UPDF on a majority shareholding in the Voice of Karamoja, the subsidiary company set up to launch a broadcasting operation that would have covered the entire Karamoja region.
The falling out comes just weeks to the September 24 D-Day, when the station was to go on air.
Apparently, besides wanting majority control of the station, the UPDF, which insists the EC grant was meant to finance an army radio, now wants total control over programming.
It has even suggested that army graduates of mass communication act as presenters on the station.
Army spokesman Lt-Col Felix Kulayigye told The EastAfrican that since the idea behind the radio was to support disarmament and the UPDF was the primary actor in that regard, the EC thought the Voice of Karamoja would belong to the army when it made the grant.
It turns out, however, that while the EC grant of Euro 27,300 (about $37,540) translated into just about Ush77 million, the total investment in the project is closer to Ush500 million (about $250,000), making the army’s claim to a majority share untenable.
In recent weeks, several meetings between the parties, one of them chaired by the Chief of Defence Forces, Lt- Gen Aronda Nyakairima, have taken place in Mbale and Kampala, with the saga taking a strange turn...
After sensing possible difficulties in taking over the station, the UPDF has turned to mobilising local leaders from the six districts that make up Karamoja to claim a stake.
There is growing suspicion that the real fight is over the hearts and minds of Karamoja ahead of the 2011 presidential elections, which promise to be hotly contested.
Mr Pulkol, who is surprised that after initially going along with the original concept, the army should now turn around, says there has been a total misunderstanding of the goals.
“If the government of Uganda wanted to build a radio station for the army, they would have done it because they have the resources.
“But there is no way the European Commission is going to set up a radio station for the army of an independent country,” he says.
Among others, the radio project, dubbed Voice of Peace, was supposed to support civil-military co-operation by mobilising public opinion in favour of peace building activities, education and consensus building on peace and security.
The project has its genesis in a December 28, 2008, Partnership Contract Agreement between the European Commission and the Africa Leadership Institute, to implement a nine-month Cimic project in partnership with the UPDF.
Under the agreement, the EC would extend a Euro 27,300 grant (about $37,500) to boost the broadcasting range of a government FM station in Karamoja.
But the government-owned Uganda Broadcasting Corporation did not have a functional FM station in the region, leaving the Africa Leadership Institute to seek an existing private broadcaster to partner with.
A subsequent survey found that while there were two FM stations in the region’s capital Moroto, neither of them was established to the point where the EC grant would make any meaningful difference.
One of the stations, owned by the Resident District Commissioner of Moroto, had no studios and was using a 75 watt transmitter.
The other depended on a 1 kilowatt transmitter that severely limited its range.
Meanwhile, at about the same time, the institute’s technical consultants discovered that the Voice Media Group was in the advanced stages of setting up an independent FM broadcast operation with superior capacity, and decided to enter a partnership with it.
Under the MoU the two signed, Voice Media would take care of all regulatory requirements, provide a broadcast house, power generators, associated accessories and staff.
Africa Leadership Institute would provide the transmission equipment, including a mast and antennae.
In return for this contribution, stakeholders such as the army, police and local authorities in the region would be entitled to 156 hours of programme time a year for the entire lifetime of the Voice of Karamoja, with the rest of the time being left for commercial use by Voice Media.
Later, it was proposed and agreed that in addition, the Karamoja community elders be give airtime so that the community could also benefit from the radio.
The MoU was initialled on March 27. By late August, the project was on schedule for its late September launch.
A key aspect of the project was that it should be financially sustainable, a goal that can only be realised if the station is commercially run and perceived to be independent of government control.
Although the AFLI pullout was intended to outfox the UPDF, it leaves Voice Media chair Capt Mukula, a cadre of the ruling party and its chairman in eastern Uganda, exposed to immense political pressure from his own party.
Located in northeastern Uganda, the Karamoja region has suffered decades of insecurity due to proliferation of illegal guns.
Since 2001, the Army has been engaged in a disarmament effort that has pacified large tracts of the territory.