Ambassador speaks out on Egypt’s 2m acre land claim

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The Monitor | September 30, 2008

Tabu Butagira

In the past week, the alleged claim by Egypt’s Agriculture minister Amin Abaza that Uganda offered his country over 2 million acres of fertile land to produce wheat to feed the Arab nation’s 81 million people has rattled Ugandans. Officials in Kampala deny the deal. In an exclusive interview with Daily Monitor’s Tabu Butagira on September 26, Mr Reda Abd el Rahman Bebars, the Egyptian ambassador comments about the matter. Excerpts

Qn: The Egyptian media, while quoting the country’s agriculture minister Amin Abaza reported that Uganda had given Egypt over 2 million acres of land to grow wheat and corn. Is this claim correct?

I don’t know what you are talking about. I have read some statements from the minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation Mr Amin Abaza and he was talking about the future cooperation between Uganda, Egypt, Sudan and other countries. He said they will send a delegation composed of experts and businessmen to come to Uganda after Eid El Fitr in October to study and discuss the future cooperation between Uganda and Egypt concerning agriculture and animal husbandry.

President Museveni met our minister of International Cooperation at the [April] Africa-India Forum summit in India and talked about the future cooperation of Egypt and Uganda. The President took the initiative and invited the minister to come to Uganda and discuss that in detail.

Our minister of agriculture and that of International Cooperation [Ms Fayza Abul-Naga] came to Kampala on June 27 and they initiated this kind of cooperation, especially in cultivation of wheat and exportation of Uganda’s organic beef. They met President Museveni and talked about that.

The president very much welcomed the initiative of cooperation for the benefit of the people of the two countries. They talked about the possibility of growing wheat in Uganda and exporting meat to Egypt. It is not easy to take quick decisions on these things. You have to study it because you have a lot of aspects to take into consideration; climate, the land, irrigation and the rain pattern, what kind of wheat is suitable here and the type of land available.

We did not talk about any acres or feddans of land or whatever. They said this should be followed up by the embassy in Kampala, our ministry of Agriculture and respective ministries in Uganda and that businessmen and experts from Egypt would be dispatched to Kampala to examine the possibility of executing that on the ground. That is what was discussed and agreed upon during that meeting. There was no agreement on size, any number of acres or feddans of land but both sides expressed real willingness to cooperate because this is good for both countries and both peoples. I think all of us should encourage that very much and not discourage it. This is especially so because both Egypt and Uganda are members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) and they share the River Nile waters and are members of the Nile Basin Initiative. Whatever was written about the 2 million feddans, I don’t have any information about it. I think this was an imagination of the newspapers or the journalist.

The cooperation between Uganda and Egypt is really very transparent and it is not in the interest of any country to hide anything because we have to be proud of it.

And in the next stage, we shall have a delegation of experts and businessmen and they might be headed by the minister of Agriculture himself; the composition has not been decided but they are coming to discuss openly with officials and ministers concerned in Uganda. The media will be around to get all the details. This is the truth and this is the full information about what is happening and there is, unfortunately, nothing yet concrete.

But we hope that by October when the delegation will come here, we will have a clearer picture and more details about the future cooperation between our countries so that it can be supported and pushed by the highest officials of the two countries. This is for the benefit and prosperous lives of Egyptians and Ugandans. We have to encourage trade; exchange of goods and complementary economic steps between the two countries and the activities and goals of Comesa go in this direction.

Qn: Are you then suggesting that the agriculture minister was misquoted by the media on the offer of 2 million feddans?

Yes, definitely! It was something wrong from the media because the minister of agriculture would never ever have said anything like that and I am sure since I am the one responsible for bilateral cooperation between Uganda and Egypt and I know there was no agreement or even a preliminary agreement on the number of feddans or any acre. I am sure this was a mistake in the newspaper and we should not follow mistakes in the newspaper because they happen every day.

Qn: The Ugandan Lands minister Mr Omara Atubo has issued an official statement, highlighting an arrangement under which Ugandan farmers selected as demonstration growers would be empowered to cultivate wheat that would then be bought by Egypt. Do you have any idea(s) of the finer details of this framework that Uganda echoed?

It was not the final detail; it was one of the many ideas that were discussed on how to implement the agricultural project. Egypt buys 6-7 million tons of wheat every year and we produce about same quantity annually. But we also import a lot of wheat and we said we would like - in the framework of the good relations - and Uganda has a lot of land and you always complain that you do not have enough export market for your products, it would be a good idea to cultivate and make farmers earn money here and you export it to Egypt and Egypt will benefit from it. So both sides will make profit and this will benefit both peoples. So we said: how can we implement this? There were preliminary ideas that came up but the real discussion will start when the delegation from Egypt comes next month. One of the was to encourage farmers in Uganda to cultivate wheat and there will be some kind of an association that will collect the wheat and send it to Egypt because President Museveni was caring about the small farmers; how will they benefit not only the big farmers? But there was also an idea that we could go both tracks.

These ideas have not been agreed upon yet.

Qn: Any idea whether the land will be bought or not?

It is for the delegation coming to discuss and decide with the Ugandan side, according to the Ugandan laws, regulations, interest and benefit (it will yield) for the Egyptian side represented by the businessmen.

Qn: Do you know when this project will start?

We are very keen to start it even yesterday. To be frank, this is going to be a huge project and involves many aspects like logistics; how do you transport the wheat from here to Egypt. This is very important because it might too expensive to do that or we could find an economic way to do it. Egypt will see what is good for her and go ahead with it.

We should not rush or follow rumours. We need to work on figures or agreements reached. We are still at the initial stages of this project and for now, the most important thing is for the delegation from Egypt to come in October, study and agree on the future cooperation and look at the type and size of land, explore possibility of an irrigation scheme, logistics, and transportation.

For the beef trade, it might be easier because there was also an idea that Egyptians build a technologically-advanced abattoir here in Uganda to export chilled or frozen beef but this is also yet being considered; the best location for it and what the source of energy will be if the electricity and how it will be transported.

Qn: Who is putting the money in this massive agricultural investment?

The main investors in this project will be the private sector; not the government if it is to be successful but of course both governments will help to guide and facilitate the private sector actors like in research and identifying the grains that would be suitable to grow.

I am pleased to say that the trade between Uganda and Egypt in the last five years increased rapidly by about four or five-fold. The value of trade between the two countries in 2007 was over $29 million up from $9 million in 2004 and this year, we expect it to reach almost $40 million.

Qn: How would you describe the present bilateral and diplomatic relations between Uganda and Egypt?

It is very good; it’s perfect. We have very good cooperation at both regional and international organizations and support each other. We have similar ideas about the development of Africa; reform of the United Nations Security Council and the UN in general. We almost have the same views on disarmament issues and the integration of Africa; we have very similar ideas as well on African causes and issues at all international forums and as you know President Hosni Mubarak was here on July 26-29 and he and President Museveni agreed that we should enhance the relationship between the two countries in all fields and they gave instruction to the ministers on both sides to prepare for the coming Joint Permanent Commission between Egypt and Uganda and we may have it either in November or January next year. And both sides are now at the stage of agreeing on a specific date for signing this Joint Permanent Commission.

Qn: What is this Joint Permanent Commission being formed for?

It is an umbrella body for all aspects of bilateral cooperation between the two countries and all ministries are represented and it will discuss our overall relations - what were the problems, what is the status now and what can we do to improve the relations in the future?
Original source: The Monitor
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