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Kasami and Uganda’s tipping point

By Andrew M. Mwenda

His death either marks or coincides with the death of something fundamental – moderation

It is said that the spirits of our ancestors snatch human souls shortly just before daybreak. And it was at exactly 6am on Friday March 11 that former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and also Secretary to the Treasury, Chris Kasami, died in a Nairobi hospital. The news hit me like a heavy blow because I had been planning to fly to Nairobi to visit him. Why did I procrastinate for so long, I blamed myself?

For me, Chris exhibited the best qualities in human nature: civility, humility, modesty, wisdom, balance, calmness, reason and composure. His death either marks or coincides with the death of something fundamental to our nation – moderation. Today Uganda is heavily polarized; our youths are angry and filled with rancor and our politicians speak a language of fire and brimstone. Did Chris die to escape the anger, hate and violence that have come to characterise our body politic? What caused the heart attack, which finally took his life? Was it this new virulence?

I knew Chris fairly well. He was a thoughtful, intelligent and balanced guy. If I wanted to be in the midst of greatness, I went to visit him: in his office at the ministry of finance, at his home in Entebbe or we would go out to lunch. Once in a while we would spend time together at the goat race in Munyonyo or take a boat ride on Lake Victoria for a picnic on an island. Or if we met on the plane, I would leave my sit and sit next to him and we would delve extensive and deep discussions of contemporary issues.


During these encounters, most of our conversation would be question and answer sessions, not conversations: him the teacher, me the eager student. Chris always struck me as sage-like; a Socrates – not in the academy in Athens but here in our land. Although I am no Plato, as his student, I sometimes felt that way; or as Alexander learning at the feet of Aristotle as the elderly sage walked in ancient Mieza discoursing on politics, art, and philosophy.

So I would bombard Chris with questions about the history of Uganda’s public sector, the dynamics of public service, the challenges of managing public finance, and the interaction between politicians and civil servants in the execution of government duties. When his wife was present, she would remark on the endless stream of questions I threw at her husband. That is how I came to appreciate this giant of a human being, a Kirimanjaro in a big sea of anti-hills, a Cyclopes among men, a giant among dwarfs.

I always asked Chris why he does not take a sabbatical and go to Oxford or Harvard where he can relax and reflect on his life’s experiences as a public servant. He would then write the best account of the postcolonial state in Africa. He joined the civil service in March 1972 and served it with dedication up to the time he retired in 2013. At the time he joined the civil service, it was still a pre-eminent institution that upheld some of the best standards the British left us.

In many ways, Chris was lucky and unlucky. He was there when the civil service began to slowly deteriorate in both ethnical conduct and institutional competences under Idi Amin. This process was initially slow, gaining momentum in the mid 1970s and becoming atrocious during the 1980s. And Chris would tell me all the stages as Uganda’s civil service degenerated from a professional and honest bureaucracy into the current cesspool of neo-patrimonial plunder. And Chris always advised me against such adjectives, calling them prejudice.

It is through such insights that I began to realise his wisdom.

I would condemn Idi Amin for the gradual decline of civil service traditions of integrity, honesty and hard work. Then I would hit at Museveni for not reversing the trend but instead accelerating it. But Chris would show me that this decline was actually part and parcel of the domestication of the bureaucracy, the bad if not necessary fruits of independence. The old civil service was manned by British officials and reflected their values. But as they left and those they had trained began retiring, a gradual process of the domestication of public service began eroding British values replacing them with those of the people who came to populate it.

At first I felt this was a racist argument. How can someone say there is something inherently incompetent and corrupt among Ugandans? But he would show me that nations like Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, India and Senegal that have never had an Idi Amin also succumbed, just like Uganda, to bureaucratic decline. Amin may have accelerated the pace but he did not shape the direction. Chris won me over. But this is a complex argument to which I will return another day.

Back to Chris; he was unique. He held one of the most influential positions in the country yet remained almost invisible to the public. He was powerful yet simple. He came from a royal background yet lived a modest life. For example, in Uganda, a person of his position and status drives the latest model Toyota Land Cruiser. But Chris always drove a small Pajero. He lived in a simple house in Entebbe, not a mansion in Kololo.

As secretary to the treasury, he was the accounting officer of the government. This made him head of all accounting officers – the boss of all permanent secretaries. This is a delicate position as it places one in a position to enforce performance, demand results and accountability. Yet in dealing with his peers, Chris (even in the face of frustration) never lost his cool, never raised his voice, never threw his weight around, never called anyone names and never threatened. He always advised, cajoled and appealed. He showed how to get results without being nasty. Because of this, he was highly respected. Even our rowdy MPs never yelled at him. He radiated nobility.

Uganda is among the most corrupt countries in the world. Chris was our national treasurer. Yet so spotless was his integrity that one cannot find a single case of a corruption scandal where his name was mentioned. How did Chris manage all this? Well that is a subject for another day. But for now, there is a lot for Uganda to learn from Chris. And if our quarrelsome politicians seriously think beyond their egos, Chris has left us an example to emulate.

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