Uganda: Great beneficiary of Great Lakes Region cross-border trade, investment and industrialization through AfCFTA implementation

By George Piwang-Jalobo


Charles Odongtho’s UBC TV “Behind the Headlines” Talk Show on Thursday 19th April 2023 had a gripping discussion on “Uganda’s shrinking economy.”

The panelists of MPs, academia and government minister were near unanimous. That sole reliance on URA’s domestic revenue generation to finance our national budget is not sustainable. They observed that Uganda’s tax revenue to GDP ratio, which currently stands at 13%, is the lowest in the East African region.

The panelists called out the Treasury to “walk its talk” of robust domestic revenue mobilization. That it should broaden Uganda’s tax base, close revenue leakages through corruption and un-ending tax exemptions; and in particular enforce collection of tax arrears on Uganda’s gold exports.

Wittingly or not, the panelists focused on the Treasury as the “go to guy”. This reminded one of the comments on TV by the late Keith Muhakanizi, Uganda’s long serving Permanent Secretary/Secretary to the Treasury–like his predecessor and mentor, Professor Emmanuel Tumusiime Mutebile (RIP). Muhakanizi made the comments during the COVID-19 pandemic that “everybody is looking to the Treasury, yet the Treasury is also in ICU.”

Quite befittingly, the “Behind the Headlines” Talk Show ended with each of the panelists’ personal reflections on late Keith Muhakanizi. They paid their condolences to his family and the nation. Indeed, Keith Muhakanizi was one of Uganda’s great economists and policy technocrats. He was also a patriot who has gone too soon. May he rest in peace and glory. Amen. 

Uganda’s sole reliance on the Treasury and URA for robust domestic revenue mobilization, misses out on the country’s other present and great opportunities of revenue generation. These opportunities are available through Great Lakes Region free cross border trade, investment and industrialization in implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) operational since 1st January 2021.

As IMF Country Manager Uganda, Amena Arif and World Bank Country Manager Uganda, Mukami Kariuki; wrote in their co-authored article titled “Strengthening Uganda’s economic muscle”: “There is more to Uganda’s economy than agribusiness, energy, and housing, of course, and the report therefore outlines how the country can tap into its potential role as a major regional trading hub, serving neighboring countries and beyond. Its central position, bordering five countries, is an opportunity to exploit the African Continental Free Trade Area.” (Daily Monitor, April 5, 2023)

In their co-authored article above, the Uganda IMF and World Bank Country Managers have both articulated and reinforced  President Yoweri Museveni’s incessant sermons about Africa’s regional integration, free cross-border trade, investment and industrialization. President Museveni has repeatedly urged Uganda to take advantage of the East African market, COMESA and AfCFTA.

The day Uganda will believe and act on President Museveni’s incessant sermons above, will be the day the country will reap phenomenal revenues. URA collections will shoot up especially from new enterprises, firms, industries, jobs and wealth. These will be created all over the country by robust Great Lakes Region cross-border trade, investment and industrialization through AfCFTA implementation.

The good news is that there already exists a private sector institution and mechanism for unleashing such phenomenal revenue generation. This is the Great Lakes Region Private Sector Forum (GLR PSF). Thus, a vibrant GLR PSF is a great asset that Uganda can and should harness for phenomenal revenue generation.

But what is the GLR PSF?

GLR PSF is made up of National Chambers of Commerce and Industry/Private Sectors of the 12 Member States of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). These are Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), DRC, Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

GLR PSF was established in August 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UNCCI) as a founder signatory member. Its establishment complied with the Declaration of the Summit of the ICGLR Heads of State and Government Meeting in Luanda, Angola, in January 2014. The Summit directed the Regional Inter-Ministerial Committee (RIMC) of ICGLR Ministers of Foreign Affairs to establish the GLR PSF.

Since its August 2015 establishment, GLR PSF’s strategic objectives have anticipated AfCFTA implementation, which became operational on 1st January 2021. GLR PSF’s strategic objectives, inter alia, are to: (1) Inform Private Sector operators on the ICGLR process and the relevant projects prepared in this framework, including promotion of entrepreneurship and job creation, notably improvement of Transport, ICT and Energy Infrastructure;

(2) Enable Private Sector operators, donors and other partners to exchange information and business opportunities and investment policies in the Great Lakes Region; (3) Enhance the partnership between the governments and the private sector within the framework of the implementation of the ICGLR Pact on Security, Stability and Development to foster employment creation, especially among the Youth and Women;

(4) Enhance modalities and mechanisms of private sector collaboration in financing and promoting resource mobilization strategies for implementation of national and regional economic projects; (5) Encourage public-private-dialogue (PPD) and Public Private Partnership (PPP) to enhance effective cooperation in the implementation of National and Regional projects and in collaboration with RECs/IGOs, Multilateral and Regional Financial Institutions and others; and (6) Identify obstacles to investment and private sector operations in the region, and propose practical initiatives and policy reforms to eliminate impediments to business and economic development in the region.

ICGLR-GLR PSF Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference (GLITC)

The 1st ICGLR-GLR PSF Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference (GLITC) was “The Private Sector Investment Conference for the Great Lakes Region of Africa”. This took place in Kinshasa, DRC, on 24-25 February 2016; convened by the Office of the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for the Great Lakes Region (OSESG-GL), Nairobi, Kenya; and the Executive Secretariat of ICGLR, Bujumbura, Burundi.

The 2nd ICGLR-GLR PSF GLITC is the current one being planned to take place in Kigali, Rwanda. Its preparation is led by GLR PSF in partnership with the Office of the Special Envoy (OSESG-GL) and the Executive Secretariat of ICGLR responsible for organization and resource mobilization. It was supposed to take place on 2-4 December 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its Steering Committee resolved (in Kigali, 3-4 May and Nairobi, 28-29 May 2019) that Uganda would host the 3rd GLITC. Accordingly, UNCCI has proposed Gulu City, in Northern Uganda, as venue of the 3rd GLITC subject to approval by Government of Uganda.

Poignantly, the ICGLR Heads of State and Government pronounced themselves on the 2nd and 3rd ICGLR-GLR PSF Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conferences (GLITCs) in Rwanda to be followed by Uganda. This was during the 10th High-level Meeting of the Regional Oversight Mechanism in Kinshasa, DRC, 24th February 2022, according to the Communiqué excerpted below.

“IV. On promoting regional integration

  The Heads of State and Government

Reiterate the importance of measures to deepen regional economic integration as a vehicle for inclusive and sustainable development, building on existing bilateral and multilateral infrastructure projects and initiatives…


 Collaborate more closely with a view to accelerating the identification and financing of integrative cross-border projects, strengthening the partnership with international financial institutions and other partners, and jointly mobilizing resources for regional socio-economic integration; and to direct their respective Ministers of Economy and Finance, jointly with other concerned national institutions, to develop options for such enhanced joint engagement;

Support the continuing preparations for the Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference, scheduled to take place in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2022, with the aim of promoting responsible business through structured cross-border projects that would provide better livelihood opportunities to the population, including women and youth; call on all national and regional stakeholders to participate in the Conference and mobilize support for cross-border trade and investment initiatives to be presented at the Conference and to ensure its appropriate follow-up; further encourage that this Conference be held on an annual and rotating basis.”

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly hampered preparation for the GLR PSF 2nd GLITC in Kigali, Rwanda. Another setback has been the expiry of the 1st Executive Committee of GLR PSF. Its 2-year rotational term (2019-2021) expired in September 2021.  The good news, however, is that the Executive Secretariat of the ICGLR, Bujumbura; has convened a GLR PSF General Assembly/AGM in early May 2023 towards revitalizing the GLR PSF. The General Assembly/AGM will elect the second GLR PSF Executive Committee for the 2-year (2023-2025) rotational term. This will “reboot” a robust preparation for the 2nd GLITC in Kigali, Rwanda.

UNCCI & UGANDA: great benefits through GLR PSF

UNCCI has proposed “cross-border trade and investment initiatives” to market for investments at the 2nd ICGLR-GLR PSF GLITC in Kigali, Rwanda. These are two (2) UGANDA-DRC Cross-border Special Economic Zones (SEZs), namely: (1) WEST NILE-ITURI PROVINCE SEZ and (2) AGRI-LED RUWENZORI REGION SEZ. The two SEZs are UG-DRC cross-border trade, investment and industrialization infrastructures. When successfully developed and operational, they will accelerate AfCFTA implementation in the Great Lakes Region.

UNCCI has also proposed three (3) cross-border technology-based Women and Youth Business Incubation Centers. These will also be marketed for investment at the 2nd GLITC, Kigali, Rwanda. They are (1) Goli-Mahagi Customs (UG-DRC); (2) Elegu –Nimule Customs (UG-SSD); and (3) Kasese-Mpondwe Customs (UG-DRC) Women and Youth Business Incubation Centers.

Furthermore, UNCCI has proposed two (2) other cross-border Special Economic Zones (SEZ), namely: (1) UG-SSD cross-border Okuti, Kiteng Sub-County, Kitgum District-Magwi County SEZ–where there are over 2billion tons of graphite deposits currently being mined by Blencowe Resources, UK mining company; and (2) UG-KENYA cross border Karamoja-Turkana SEZ. When these are successfully developed and operational, they will synergize very well with the AUDA-NEPAD Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, thus giving Uganda significant stake holding in LAPSSET. 

The President of UNCCI has marketed the two UG-SSD and UG-KENYA cross border SEZs to American private sector, institutional and technology companies. This is contained in her letters to the President and CEO of US Chamber of Commerce, dated 22nd March 2021 and the President and CEO of US Corporate Council on Africa (CCA), dated 31st March 2021. UNCCI will also market these two other cross-border SEZs at the 2nd GLITC Kigali, Rwanda.

UNCCI and Climate Change Strategy

UNCCI is a pace setter advocate for the private sector to address climate change through collaboration of Academia (Universities), Industry (Private Sector), Government (Public Sector), African Cultural Institutions (Buganda Kingdom and others) and international Development Partners. This was contained in the letter of the President of UNCCI, Mrs. Olive Z. Kigongo, to Professor Emmanuel Tumusiime Mutebile (RIP), Chairman, Makerere University Private Sector Forum (MUPSF) Board of Trustees, dated 25th September 2020.

In the letter, UNCCI proposed to launch the Makerere Africa Institute of Sustainability (MAIoS), 2008—regional Academy of Sustainability for climate change research, adaptation and mitigation—as a multi-stake holder collaboration above. But what is MAIoS 2008? It was a deliverable of the Commonwealth Business Forum (CBF)/CHOGM 2007 in Kampala through MUPSF and Makerere University.

This was courtesy of renowned Ugandan businessman Professor James S. Mulwana (RIP): founder of Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA), Private Sector Development Foundation Uganda (PSFU) and twice Chairman of the East African Business Council. Significantly, Prof Mulwana was Chairman of CBF, 2007-2009, and Founder Trustee of MUPSF, 2006-2013, when he helped deliver MAIoS 2008 for Uganda.

Therefore, as founder-signatory member of GLR PSF, UNCCI will be privileged to be part of ICGLR-GLR PSF developing a private sector-led Climate Change Strategy for Africa’s Great Lakes Region. This would be a similar multi-stakeholder collaboration of Academia, Industry, Governments, African Cultural institutions and the International Chamber of Commerce World Federation Chambers (ICC WCF).

It is noteworthy that the ICC WCF “under the Chairmanship of Nicholas Uribe focuses on strengthening the institutional capacity of Chambers of Commerce and Industry to support MSMES worldwide, enhance access to global markets, the digitalization of MSMEs, Empowerment of Women, Sustainability in Business and Climate Action in the 2023-2025 period.” (David Bikhado Ofungi, UNCCI Representative at ICC WCF, 2023-2025).

Way forward

Uganda, indeed, is geo-strategically positioned in Africa’s Great Lakes Region to benefit greatly from cross-border Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as trade, investment and industrialization infrastructures in AfCFTA implementation. As Inge Baumgarten, former Director, GIZ Office to the African Union (AU), wrote: “The AfCFTA is a game changer for doing business in Africa, and SEZs will play a key role in this development. Cross-border SEZs will have a positive impact on connectivity and the creation of national hubs. SEZs must link up across the continent in order to create the integrated value chains that are key to winning large markets.” (“Special Economic Zones: Catalysts for African Industrialization”, Africa CEO Forum & OKAN Strategy/Finance, October 2021)

Editor : The writer is Chairman, Amor Investments Ltd, Pakwach (Member, UNCCI Pakwach District Branch) and a UNCCI/Uganda  Representative on Steering Committee of Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference (GLITC), Kigali, Rwanda, Great Lakes Region Private Sector Forum (GLR PSF), ICGLR.

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