Most senior Ugandan officer in US Army - Frank Bisase

This interview which appeared in Sunday Monitor, 10th Aug 2008, of the highest ranking Ugandan in the United States army, an OB of St. Henry's College Kitovu - Masaka. I hope it inspires the young ones back at the College and the alumni as well. The interview was conducted by Solomon Muyita of the Monitor publications.

Lieutenant Commander Frank Bisase, who is probably the most senior Ugandan officer in the United States military, was in the country last month, his second visit since he joined the forces in 1985. He spoke to Monitor’s SOLOMON MUYITA about his intentions to retire and return to build his motherland.

Who is Frank Bisase?

I was born to Ephraim and Florence Bisase on December 31, 1951. I went to Nakivubo Settlement School and St. Henry’s Academic College Kitovu - Masaka, after which I graduated from Makerere University. I was very politically active as a young man and would write political news articles and speak at rallies – I do not think Amin’s men liked it, because they attacked me a couple of times. My father decided that it was better for me to leave, like most others who had fled the country. I went to Gambia, where I taught art for three years before going to the New York Graduate School, where I got a masters degree in Fine Art. I worked as a teacher there for a while, then decided to join the armed forces of the United States in April 1985.

<= Lieutenant Commander Bisase with his mother on his most recent visit to Uganda.

Which political group did you belong to?
I wasn’t really into groups, but I have a very strong political background in terms of family. My uncle, Dr E.S. Lumu, was Uganda’s first Minister of Health, and he played a major role in the independence of this country. He belonged to Kabaka Yeka and joined the UPC when he became a minister. He is one of the five ministers who were arrested by President Obote.

How did you end up in the US Forces?

You can join the US Forces in different ways, as long as you are a legally permanent resident of the US – you do not have to be a citizen. Initially I was part of an organization of Ugandan political activists in New York City that used to mobilize and send supplies to support President Museveni and the (NRA) liberators back then in the bush. We would meet at my small apartment with friends like Perez Kamunanwire, who is now Uganda’s Ambassador to the US. Others probably got killed here. I seriously considered joining the liberation war, but I decided to go to the recruiters in the US to get better training. I signed a contract and figured maybe I would be trained and then come here and help but before the end of my contract, Museveni took over and was very successful. So I just continued with my life over there.

Could you tell us about your experience and ranking?

Like any other army, you start at the lowest level and grow through the ranks. Promotions in the Armed Forces overseas are not as fast as here. You go through the ranks and are tested as you fight battles. There are various competitions that you go through to get promoted. You get transferred here and there and get involved in so many engagements. I’ve been involved in three or four major engagements so far in East Timor, the first and the second war in Iraq, and some minor skirmishes of the sort. My current rank is Lieutenant Commander (Lieutenant Colonel here).

How would you compare with your counterparts here in terms of skills?

I don’t think the opportunities and training that people get here are as advanced as what we get. We’ve got advanced technology; I’m privy to different ways of gathering intelligence that people here do not have. I do not really know what experience the people here have, but I think I’m in a better position to do certain things. Over the years I’ve played different roles. Some are intelligence, some are simply administrative, and others are just leadership. Right now I’ve been so disengaged in that because I’m getting ready to retire - I’ve been playing some administrative roles.

You want to quit?

I think I want to retire. I’ll retire probably next year when I make 24 years of service in 2009. I could get more promoted now than before but I’ve decided that it is time for me to go. I’m a single father; my children are 17 years old (twins) and they definitely need my attention. They will be at university next year, so they need my guidance.

Tell us about your role in Iraq

I went to Desert Storm after the war had started. I was deployed there for about six months, and our job then was to search and rescue. I was in helicopters and if somebody (American soldiers) got shot down I would go and rescue such an individual and bring them back. I was also involved in the transfer of troops from one area to another or sending aid.

Do you choose what you want to do?

The Pentagon gives orders to you and you just do that job, depending on your rank, specialty and training. My superiors recognized the skills I had in terms of leadership and they assigned me tasks and promotions because I was educated, had an age advantage, and my African background gave me various values and endurance. Most American people do not have the stamina that we have, so I was happy to have those things. Those are the qualities I thought I could bring to our military or even the government here, given a chance...I could provide some help in terms of guidance, leadership or military tasking; I can gladly do that.

Would you serve in the UPDF when you retire?

Well, sure, if there is some role to play. I would purely do it on the basis of help and use my experience to help develop this nation. The US government has spent a lot of money on me in terms of training and experience gained over the years. I think the US government would gladly hire me back in a different role, but I think the government here would benefit more from my experience. My general view of African militaries is that they work hard, but probably not as smart as they hope to work. I think there are ways that we can teach UPDF ways of working smarter, not harder.
The problem in Africa and several third-world countries is that we have politicized the military. We’ve tended to regard African militaries as political entities serving a given regime, and there is always a loss when one regime goes and you start from ground zero to develop a new army. I dream of a time when we will have a neutral army, simply given the responsibility of defending that particular country; it would be much bigger, better, well equipped, and well experienced, because it would not have any lineage to anybody. An army composed of all the tribes of Uganda to take care of the country as a country, not as a tribe or political party or anything like that, would be ideal.

What specific role would you be interested in playing in Uganda?

I have dealt mostly with helicopter aviation, military planning in terms of wars, and I have done a lot of leadership roles – I do not know what their needs are! Usually some roles are so much inter-twined in their political roles...with very little regard to the constitution. Like I understand the head of the police here is an army officer. I have no idea how that was married.

You find this strange?

You do not normally find those things in the western democracies; people usually go up the ladder. To become a head of police, you really have to be very solid in terms of that area. Normally the police deal with civil disobedience, for example how to quell disarray and matters like that, but a general fights a war – that’s what he knows. Putting a general into the police is just like using a sledge hammer to hit a small nail.

Do you have a political ambition?

I hate partisan politics. But I’d like to use my experience to help develop our country. I have done urban and regional planning over the years. I went through Kampala and saw how terrible the infrastructure is. The city is (still) based on the 1950s model. I could advise on how to do certain things better. I don’t think we should have another war in this country because we have spilled a lot of Ugandan blood. We should learn to work together…Deep down, I think everybody wants a stable Uganda.

What is your take on the political situation in the country today?

I’m disappointed to see people a bit more divided. I think people have become less tolerant of the central government – at least here in the south; I don’t know about the north. They’ve become less trustful of government, and I can see that some people are on edge. And it goes back to having those enclaves of people that belong to certain groups or tribes – tribalism has always been a very divisive element in our society, and if we can get away from that, the better off we will be.
Things started going down because of Obote. I have no qualms about telling anybody that I dislike Obote because he disrupted this country. Amin came as a product of Obote’s disregard and what followed was just a mess. So we give a lot of credit to President Museveni for having come in and rescued the country at that time. Obviously, no one is perfect, and that is why there must be fine-tuning every so often. An American President cannot rule for more than eight years, no matter how good they are. Having term limits in place is so good because I do not think one person can have the best ideas for 20 or 30 years. People loved Museveni when he came in – I think they are less tolerant of him now. People are more driven by passion now than they were before, so that is very disappointing. It is a much more divided country today than it was the last time I came here.

What would you tell President Museveni if you met him today?

First of all, I would thank him for having had the courage to come in and having brought about some calm and normalcy. I would remind him about the history this country has gone through, like political turmoils, and perhaps caution him about not repeating that kind of thing. And I would tell him that we really treasure his leadership, but we could use his experience in a different role.
I would caution President Museveni about some of his close associates because they might be giving him a bad name. He is a very good man, but not all his confidants have good intentions. I would also tell the president to talk to the Americans and ask them to come and put their military bases here. Liberia is doing that. Allow them to come in and build a very big base, say in the north, because that gives us a chance to get some of the things we need to get here quickly. What that does for Uganda is, it creates development. Anywhere America goes, development follows.

Do you have contacts of the president or his people?

Not at all! If anybody does, let me know. My friend Perez, who I think is President Museveni’s cousin, is an ambassador – I’m sure he’s a busy man.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Obviously I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to come here. I also consider Uganda as my home. It is a very beautiful and well endowed country; even after all it has gone through. Uganda has so many resources. We are very educated people and we should use this opportunity to advance ourselves. I personally would like to come back and play a role in the development of this country, given a chance. There is also a corruption disease that we need to get rid of, but Ugandans should just love and work with each other, not fight or kill one another.

If you got any story of St. Henry's Kitovu high flying old boys, please forward it to the alumni and we will document it right here.

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