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The challenge Amama Mbabazi faces

By Andrew M. Mwenda

While it is political choices that have fostered poor service delivery, it is reconfiguration of the civil service that will make service delivery possible

Finally, President Yoweri Museveni has ended the anxiety that was eating up the ruling classes – politicians, business persons, civil servants, prelates, journalists, etc by announcing his long awaited new old-cabinet. The politicians were expecting ministerial jobs from which they derive money and status. The journalists were hungry for a good story to go on the covers. Business people were anxious to know whom they now need to ingratiate themselves to, to gain advantage.

Their mutual anxiety provided considerable grist to the Kampala rumour mills. The newspapers speculated, politicians waited with excruciating pain, business hedged their bets while the public watched. Politicians were visiting churches and shrines seeking divine intervention in their quest for cabinet jobs. All this only shows that in spite of privatisation and liberalisation, the state in Uganda (i.e. politics) remains the central fulcrum through which economic and career opportunities are organised. That is why a cabinet reshuffle is bigger news than the rise and fall in the price of the dollar or of shares on our struggling stock exchange.

Over the last 25 years, Museveni has reshuffled cabinet 16 times: January 1986, February 1988, April 1989 (after expansion of NRC), June 1990, February 1992, November 1994, July 1996, December 1998, June 1999, June 2001, October 2002, July 2003, October 2004, August 2005, June 2006, January 2009 and May 2011. Only once has a reshuffle signalled a major shift in our national direction.

In February 1992, the president merged the ministry of finance with that of economic planning; removed Crispus Kiyonga as minister and replaced him with Mayanja Nkangi and appointed Tumusime Mutebile Permanent Secretary in the new enlarged ministry and Secretary to the Treasury. This marked a bold shift from state planning to reliance on free markets. From thence henceforth, government initiated a series of macroeconomic policy reforms – liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation, fiscal discipline and tight monetary control that launched the country on a trajectory of sustained economic growth of the last 24 years.

Since then, all other reshuffles have been largely political aimed at placating historical, ethnic, religious and clan interests within our body politic. Yet every time there is a reshuffle, the elite classes in Uganda debate, discuss and talk about what it means for the ordinary citizen, how it will deliver this and that public good. Yet cabinet in Uganda is not designed to deliver public goods and services but primarily to build a political coalition that can deliver an electoral majority.

During the last presidential election campaign, something happened that may (please note the use of the word “may”) signal a shift in Museveni’s thinking. Across the country, the population complained that public goods and services were not working. The president was forced to campaign as an opposition candidate, positioning himself as a critic of local authorities unto whom he deflected blame for government failures. The population largely agreed with him on the understanding that he must clamp down on the corruption of local officials.

It seems Museveni is acutely aware that unless he does something about service delivery, the population is going to lose patience with him. And if that happens, no amount of intimidation, vote rigging and bribery is likely to save NRM from the wrath of angry voters. Already, public discontent over food and fuel prices is giving the opposition popular appeal. Museveni therefore must be aware of the need to address the concerns of the voters. The recent cabinet reshuffle therefore can be seen in this light.

At its root is the appointment of Amama Mbabazi as Prime Minister. Mbabazi may be a polarising and dogged politician. But those who have worked closely with him find Mbabazi a performance oriented and results seeking manager. He may not be a good politician but he seems to be an effective manager. My   brother who worked with him on security in eastern Uganda was impressed by his personal discipline, hard work and strategic focus. It is these qualities that make a good manager.

Given that Mbabazi has the confidence of the president, he is the man who can bring a performance based ethnic in government work. He can decide on goals and push ministers and permanent secretaries to deliver on agreed targets. If any minister fails, Mbabazi has the political clout to get them fired. If Museveni gives him power to do this, it is very likely that Mbabazi will begin to address lethargy in the civil service and get government to perform. If my intuition is right, Museveni, in appointing Mbabazi as Prime Minister, may be trying to shift his strategy of political coalition-building from overarching reliance on elite patronage to performance based legitimacy through the delivery of public goods and services.

The appointment of Mrs Maria Kiwanuka also gives some indicators that the president may be shifting to a more business friendly and results oriented leadership. I think Syda Bumba was excellent as bureaucrats in finance and donors were happy with her. However, Mrs Kiwanuka brings a private sector ethic into government. Her husband, Mohan, is one of the richest people in Uganda who built a large empire without much reliance on state patronage. She has worked with World Bank and been managing a private enterprise for years.

It seems Museveni felt the anger and frustration of his supporters about government service during his campaign. He came across as both shocked by and concerned about popular demands for public goods and services. He made promises that he may find difficult to renege on without high political costs. Yet save for Mbabazi and Kiwanuka and a few others, most of the other cabinet appointments seem aimed at placating political interests rather than driving performance by government agencies.

There is a lot of absenteeism, foot-dragging, corruption, incompetence, false compliance, apathy etc in our civil service. Yet success of any government programme can only be possible if the civil service is ideologically and ethically oriented to service to the citizen, not serving its own interests. Mbabazi’s challenge is to recognise that while it is political choices that have fostered poor service delivery, it is the reconfiguration of the civil service that will make service delivery possible; his primary objective is to reform the civil service, not to fire ministers.


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