John and Lucy Luongo were the ‘left shoulder’ on whose shoulder matters came to be discussed

We like public discussions of international security, but sometimes we can’t see beyond ourselves. Think of the UN general assembly security debate, the civil war in Darfur, or CVID-19 in July 1995. We are sick of it! Who wants to revisit, yet again, the plight of one of humanity’s most desperate people – an Ethiopian child fleeing the carnage that had already ripped through his homeland (now Timbuktu) and his mother? What are we to do when the continent’s great rivers and seas roll from east to west to intersect in an ex-famine-stricken al-Bayda village like CVID-19, leaving in their wake a country and a generation in ruins?

In the course of our lives, there will be more such meetings and more such proposals; but now we are closer than ever to ever realising these dreams.

During her four visits to Uganda, Lucy Ssebulo, who used to coordinate the Lake Victoria Task Force, a NGO, came to realise that Uganda’s situation could only be resolved within the borders of Uganda itself. “CVID-19 is simply a tragic portent of what would be a disaster for the whole of eastern Africa if Uganda became Somalia,” she wrote at the time. “It is the future of the region, if not Uganda.”

Lucy and John Luongo, the UN special advisor on Aids, have much to commend them. Although they studied together at the University of East Anglia, John was assigned only limited support from his colleagues on grounds of performance and Luongo his place of study in the “talkies”. In the absence of a more recent (and top-of-the-range) speaker to provide expert witness testimony to the general assembly’s security debate, they were the “left shoulder” on whose shoulder matters came to be discussed – a lonely task indeed.

Luongo recalls that he remained “rather nervous” throughout the proceedings. “Often I got down in my seat and he [Ssebulo] would have to whisper in my ear at the relevant moments. It seemed to be her job.” He also recalls that at a certain moment, he found himself “wearing the same suit, carrying the same bag as our fellow founder director and total stranger”.

Though they flew at different times, John and Lucy encountered one another on the tarmac shortly before departing. Lucy “didn’t even see him [John] flying to the United States”, John remembers, just “and, of course, there was my binoculars on the way”.

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In addition to spooked by the armada of cameras following the General Assembly’s security debate, John felt “really, really scared”, with Ssebulo’s concerns centre stage. On the return leg of his four-week stay in Uganda, John was dismayed to find that “the racism and intolerance that existed at that time had still not gone away”.

Over their years working on Aids, Lucy and John witnessed what had been a “regional problem” increasingly resolve to cross borders. The HIV/Aids epidemics they had seen many times were now “frequently not limited to people living with Aids in a particular country, but now affecting people in general”. These changes “contributed to a whole raft of new problems affecting both countries and the international community”. Now, both Lucy and John believe it is “not just enough to invite the audience to make sure no one is excluded, but actually make sure everyone is included”.

To that end, if President Donald Trump continues to threaten a change in the role of the United Nations (in what so far he has not followed through on), the international community will be faced with the immense challenges of reviving the old institutions that had done so much to support the postwar era and to ensure the preservation of traditional security “even in the new era of a two-state resolution, and enormous structural challenges for some of our poorest countries”.

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