Labor Day | Convention Weekend | UNAA — What went wrong.

Posted August 28, 2016 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in UNAA Conventions ~ 3,686 views


UNAA Philadelphia Convention featuring a handshake between UNAA BOT member and the then Ugandan Ambassador to the USA.

UNAA Philadelphia Convention featuring a handshake between UNAA BOT member and the then Ugandan Ambassador to the USA.

By Ronnie Mayanja — The story of an institution once described as the most vibrant and largest formal grouping of Ugandans living in North America will go down in history as one of the biggest selfish undoing of any Diaspora community organisation. Ugandan North American Association – UNAA as we know it, was born about 29 years ago when a small group of Ugandans met in someone’s living room somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia with the desire to help bring Ugandans living here in the Diaspora together in a thanksgiving atmosphere annually. This idea was later formalized into UNAA,  an institution that now leads as one of the biggest sources of travel visas for those Ugandans coming to the USA.

According to some of the founders still with us today that I have engaged about this subject, they always felt home sick during the US thanksgiving holiday and it was then that this idea was mooted to help celebrate their heritage away from home. Of-course what was supposed to be a small gathering initially morphed into a major convention two years later as the news of the initial successful gathering spread across North America.

First forward to 2016 — almost 30 years later, UNAA is an institution that has weathered many storms including attempts to split its membership.  It has also over the years seen a lot of intrigue that has somewhat resulted into the growing number of cliques and special interest groups more powerful that the institution itself. After the Chicago convention we saw the creation of groups like Ugandan American Diaspora Association — UADA try to fight the status quo but this resulted in a still birth even though the founders were fighting what they believed were genuine excesses among the UNAA leaders especially the executive branch at that time. When clear direction, a pressure group of like minded UNAA members came together and fielded a single block of candidates took leadership many did not think that the current split would also involve some of its members who today have become sworn bitter enemies.

At the heart of all the UNAA problems today has always been the invisible clique that wields so much power and influence that even those that attempted to put a check on this influence would be met with a group of well choreographed surrogates that will attack and demonize their opponents on various diaspora forums until they fall off radar. It seems these problems were further compounded by the new constitution enacted in 2010 and ratified by a few members who attended the UNAA town-hall in Washington DC that led to the creation of un-elected office bearer positions that now decide UNAA’s fate without recourse to the membership.(I was personally opposed to this new structure during the constitutional review process as a board member)

However some of these members have partly exacerbated the divisions in UNAA resulting in a permanent split of the organisation. Like all conflict there will always be those who benefit from such divisions because their survival or influence depends on them hence the reason a united UNAA in the foreseeable future might be impossible.

Another factor at play has been the importation of Uganda’s politics to our diaspora events and conferences. In 2004 the President attended the UNAA convention in Seattle and pledged to support UNAA activities however this support came at a price of influencing UNAA politics and fighting proxy wars along partisan lines. As a sitting government NRM exploited the subsequent conventions to sell its party agenda among the diaspora. In 2005 I was in the town-hall meet when some NRM MPs — dubbed ‘yellow girls’ that included Hon. Hanifa Kawooya introduced the subject of lifting the term limits for the Presidency to the diaspora. Over the years we have seen growing numbers of government representation in UNAA affairs that has prompted some to ask if UNAA was now an offshoot of the NRM party.  This influence was made more evident during the Chicago convention where the government delegation were encouraged to vote as a block for an NRM leaning candidate before the UNAA constitutional changes that barred Ugandan attendees from voting were enacted.

It is partly this influence that has prompted some members to resist the $100,000 dollars first pledged when the President attended the UNAA Convention in Seattle because its used to arm twist the UNAA membership. I should also add of $50,000 government pledge meant for locals chapters across North America am yet to learn of one chapter that has received these funds. UNAA has collects the $50,000 including all the other monies meant for local chapters. Not to mention that they will also charge hefty convention fees compared to their competition in the other UNAA — I would be interested to learn how our UNAA tax returns for the past three years have been compiled given all our income and expenditure reports/donations/sponsors. With this sort of foreign aid to help us offset UNAA budget shortfalls we have seen a growing list of government ministers and MPs that show up for conventions often times to socialize with the diaspora.

This year it has been estimated that the UNAA Boston convention will witness a record attendance of government representation judging from the more than 30 plus hotel rooms that have been reserved for the government delegation. What of course will be interesting to observe is how much of our diaspora legislation will be up for discussion at the various forums.  With petitions like the dual citizenship law now in the Uganda constitutional court for interpretation we await to see how we as a diaspora community will be empowered outside the usual talk that characterizes the three day convention weekend.

Today UNAA is now split into two camps following a row that started between the UNAA Board of Trustees and UNAA Council disagreements. This rift was also preyed upon by intelligence officials who politicized the issues within UNAA as either those who were FOR or ANTI- government especially during the run up to the 2016 general elections in Uganda. I was surprised to learn from a government official who intimated to me that he was skipping New York even after booking his room because he had been warned that the New York convention had been funded by the Mbabazi campaign.

With a total operational convention budget of more than USD $250,000 dollars, UNAA has attracted so many players and interest groups many of whom join the institution for purely selfish reasons. As part of its initial vision UNAA was partly created to empower local chapters by strengthening their communities. However, gone are the days when UNAA local chapters were empowered to put up colorful bids that won the hearts and minds of both the UNAA board of directors the UNAA membership at large through an open bidding process for the next convention host. Now the process is stage manage to avoid locations with large numbers that could tilt a balance of power like was the case in New Orleans were less than 60 registered UNAA members cast votes that determined the outcome of an entire UNAA election.

Equally missed today is the system that allowed each service provider to present an open bid for consideration.  Today without advertising bids in this age of social media its unclear how some of those contracts are awarded. Previous boards named budget committees from UNAA members in good standing to create fiscal discipline and avoid unnecessary UNAA expenditure. This was all done to ensure transparency and increase accountability. In Orlando during Captain Frank Musisi’s reign as UNAA President the existence of a company not known to some board members was listed as a commission agent to all UNAA hotel contracts to date Helms Brisco and its connection to UNAA has never been properly explained to members.

 Today even after the convention is held, hardly any post expenditure reports are made public or readily available as stipulated in our UNAA by laws. Loopholes such as the ones exposed when a UNAA Treasurer was embroiled in a scandal after abusing UNAA resources and paying for his personal meals using the UNAA Credit card are only tip of the of the iceberg.  It was partly this modus operandi that prompted a UNAA member in California Mr. Jospeh Musoke to sue the organisation for the failure of the UNAA leadership to display its books for members as stipulated in the UNAA bylaws.

Although the outcome of this litigation is still pending in a Massachusetts court, failure to reign in all these excesses has made the organization more intolerant of dissenting views. As someone who invested many years in UNAA first, as a volunteer and later as an elected official; I feel sad when I see the politics of divide and rule extended so many miles away from home. Although some members have intimated to me about their unwillingness to ever see the two UNAA’s reunited I am tempted to really ask all UNAA members at heart after nearly 30 years of UNAA – what really went wrong. What do we have to show for our existence as a Diaspora Institution that has helped bring so many of us together.

Surely we can do better than this and I really hope those in leadership are listening to the people’s voices. Its not always about you but rather what the members want including those that may not support your agenda. So extending an olive branch is always a good start to resolve conflict.

This weekend as I head out to both UNAA Conventions — in Boston and Los Angeles I am keen to see which of the two UNAA will be more representative of the ideals for which this great institution was founded. However count me among those who still subscribe to the view that the UNAA 2010 constitution was a big blunder that has largely contributed to the current divisions we have witnessed in UNAA’s recent past. Many of the so called UNAA Council positions have largely been left un-constituted or left to hand picked cronies with no prior understanding of UNAA structures.

That said I still dream of the rebirth of UNAA as an institution that will work for all us and remain free of intrigue and radioactive politics for which the institution has become known lately. We also need to write the next chapter of UNAA that provides a micro-credit or mortgage loaning scheme for its members, acquires a UNAA piece of real estate in the diaspora and helps many of our undocumented members gain legal status. By now you would think that a UNAA spearheaded – Uganda Tourism roadshow would be part of the events marketing Uganda’s tourism potential. It should be UNAA and not private members championing legislation that helps reform the diaspora immigration policy since they now enjoy government support. If other minority communities can lobby for their people surely we can do better than hold annual convention parties were the outcome is always predictable if not more of the same!

For UNAA Boston convention details follow the link below — and for UNAA Los Angeles Convention — (UNAA Causes past 3 conventions following the UNAA split have been held in San Diego, New York and now Los Angeles.)



  • 1988 – Atlanta, GA
  • 1989 – Los Angels, CA (Cancelled)
  • 1990 – Dallas, Texas
  • 1991 – Boston, MA
  • 1992 – Woodbridge, NJ
  • 1993 – Cincinnati, Ohio
  • 1994 – Los Angeles, CA
  • 1995 – Chicago, IL
  • 1996 – Toronto, Canada (First time convention held outside of USA)
  • 1997 – Washington, DC (Key Note Speech by US Congressman Donald Payne
  • 1998 – Houston, Texas (Key Note Speech by US Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee)
  • 1999 – Atlanta, GA (Key Note Speech by Uganda Prime Minister Dr. Apolo Nsibambi)
  • 2000 – Kampala, Uganda (Key Note Speech by HE President Museveni) – First time convention held outside of North America
  • 2001 – Detroit, MI
  • 2002 – Las Vegas, NV (Key Note Addresses given by panel of speakers)
  • 2003 – Boston, MA
  • 2004 – Seattle, WA (Key Note Speech given by H.E. President Museveni)
  • 2005 – Minneapolis, MN (Key Note Speech by US Ambassador to Uganda Kimmy Kolker)
  • 2006 – New York, NY (Key Note Speech by Dr. Ali Mazrui)
  • 2007 – San Francisco, CA (Key Note Speech by Uganda Vice President H.E Gilbert Bukenya)
  • 2008 – Orlando, FL (Joint Key Note Speech by former UNAA Presidents)
  • 2009 – Chicago, IL (Key Note Speech reserved for US Senator Roland Burris)
  • 2010 – Washington, DC (Key Note Speech reserved for HRH The Nabagereka of Buganda)
  • 2011 – Denver, CO (Key Note Speech by NASA Flight Director, Mr. Kwatsi Alibaruho)
  • 2012 – Philadelphia, PA (Key Note Speech by former 3M CEO & Chairman, Sir. George Buckley)
  • 2013 – Dallas, Texas (Key Note Speech by Oxfam International Executive Director, Ms. Winnie Byanyima)
  • 2014 – San Diego, CA (Key Note Addresses given by panel of speakers representing Central, Eastern, Northern, and Western Uganda)
  • 2015 – New Orleans, LA
  • 2016 – Boston, MA
  • 2017-To be determined

About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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