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Mbabazi NRM’s most powerful Premier

By Bob A. Kasango

While not very skilled in political persuasion, he is a prolific political operator combining charm, cunning and ruthlessness.

The appointment of Kinkizi West MP John Patrick Amama Mbabazi as  Prime Minister has attracted wide political debate and commentary.

Prof. George Kanyeihamba believes Mbabazi will be powerless as a non-executive Prime Minister like all before him (read Sunday Monitor, 5th June 2011), the donor community think he is corrupt or at least tainted by corruption allegations and unfit to head government business to oversee the management of donor funds (The Independent, Issue No. 156, June 03-09, 2011). In other circles debate rages on as to whether his appointment is a “demotion” or “promotion”.

Whatever the arguments, Mbabazi’s ascendency to Prime Minister is one of the most significant political appointments President Museveni has made. As Prime Minister, he is leader of government business, and the most important word here is “leader”. With the notable exception of Otema Allimadi under Milton Obote (RIP), no other non-executive Prime Minister in post-independent Uganda has really had the clout and power to “lead” government business. They have lacked the political clout and persona for the job and were often appointed, not on the basis of their ability but  on the basis of affirmative action and political balancing.


Mbabazi’s appointment is a bold move away from that and his new posting surprised few, if any. He will be a real and effective Prime Minister. But that statement begs the questions, what makes an effective Prime Minister?

To determine the fitness of the holder of the office, one must analyse prime-ministerial performance and the strengths and weaknesses of our prime ministers since 1986 in terms of their  proficiency as public communicators, organisational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style and  emotional intelligence. There is at least as much to be learned from their failures and
limitations in these terms as from their successes and strengths.

Edward Heath (former British prime minister) thought that the ability to «keep your head in a crisis» was the key quality. Added to that, one would say a list of the qualities required in the occupant of the office include: toleration, an absence of egocentricity, the ability to be a good chairman to get others to work and to get the Cabinet to take decisions, keeping a ‘hand on the pulse’ while letting ministers get on with their jobs, the ‘architectonic sense’ (seeing the whole building not only the bricks), a sense of timing, and a sense of proportion. It isn›t really ‘intellectual power’ that is needed, but it helps greatly to posses it too: being prime minister is about judgment not cleverness. A ‘charming personality’ might help but is not absolutely necessary in a prime minister. One wants in a Prime Minister a good many things, but not very great things. He should be clever but need not be a genius; he should be conscientious but by no means straight-laced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion of issues, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin.  In the recent past, none of our Prime Ministers has had all the required qualities and it is unlikely that all of them will ever be concentrated in one person. Human beings do not come like that.

As Prof. Kanyeihamba rightly states, constitutionally and institutionally, Uganda›s prime minister is not a president, and the executive and the Cabinet system works in different ways from systems where the prime minister holds executive powers. Our prime ministers have to be assessed within the context of our constitutional arrangement and in relation to the powers, constraints and opportunities of the office. Detailed historical analysis of different holders of the office would arguably yield a more nuanced verdict on the impact of prime ministers. But it would be wrong to write Mbabazi off and focus only on history and the constitutional setting within which he will operate.

Of the qualities above, Mbabazi possesses all but one in enviable measure. He is rabidly intelligent, a great communicator, an admirably good manager, indefatigable, loyal and patient (even in the «queue»!)  What he cannot be accused of though, is being a great mobiliser.  Mbabazi is a great manager but a not-so-good leader.

The role of mobilisation of popular opinion is not as important in the job
description of a prime minister as in that of a president. As leader of government business, the prime  minister is the administrative head and the president the political head.

The limitations of Mbabazi as a mobiliser are obvious. He is naturally egocentric but
works hard and is a competent performer. He never makes a bad speech and he is never guilty of a “gaffe” or even of an indiscretion – always well briefed. He has had a ‘strong and commanding style’ in Parliament, dominating when he must and is good on debate in a solid, reassuring and intelligent way, dealing with his detractors decisively and very often in a devastating manner.

We must be concerned with Mbabazi›s ability to forge a team of aides and advisers and get the most out of him, and also with the ability to design
‘effective institutional arrangements’.

The new cabinet set up is full of Mbabazi loyalists and «Johnny come latelys» who have neither the spine nor the depth of character and mind to defy him. The few overtly anti-Mbabazi elements in cabinet like Kahinda Otafiire, have taken him on before and lost and will not be in a mood to take him on soon or at all. In such a setting, Mbabazi rules supreme.

The donors may have a point in their opposition to Mbabazi›s appointment but they must, in making their point, consider the political exigencies of his appointment. They must weigh the positives that Mbabazi brings to that office against his perceived image as «corruption tainted». We don›t live in a perfect world and Mbabazi is not perfect but picking him as Prime Minister is a near perfect choice. Most of the accusations against him are heavy in rhetoric but largely lacking in substance.

Mbabazi is perhaps the most managerially-minded premiers of our time. He is very active on government issues and commands the confidence of the appointing authority. That is a crucial fact that seems lost on many.

While not most lauded for skills in relation to political persuasion, negotiation and deal-making, his sensitivity to power relations and his sense of timing always comes out correctly. He has been an accomplished political operator in his own style, combining charm, cunning and ruthlessness.

It is easy to underestimate the political skills of someone like Mbabazi but one does that at their own peril as we have seen before. The challenge ahead of him now is to get a team of top ministers with strong and discordant personalities to work
together and who have an acute sense of the balance of party opinion.

Policy Vision

The tradition of collective and party-based government is an important factor here. His predecessors have not had policy goals and agendas of their own distinct from those of their party or their Cabinet colleagues. They have not had anywhere distinctive that they wanted to go. Most of the time, their own objectives were the objectives of their party or government, and they regarded themselves principally as the managers of their government’s and their party’s political business: maintaining party unity, preventing Cabinet resignations, winning the next election. Prime Ministers do not, in most cases, have important policy aims peculiar to themselves. Mbabazi will be different. He is an opinionated and crusading ‘conviction politician’, with a radical vision and a driving sense of mission, leading from the front and battling to impose his views on the party, government and society.

With a practical and managerial cast of mind, Mbabazi responds pragmatically to events, overseeing some damaging policy reversals and U-turns. All the same, he has a clearer vision of his objectives. A master political tactician and strategist, he practices a ‘keep-the-show-on-the-road’ style of politics, often more seriously interested in getting the right policy. With the cabinet line-up that we have, Mbabazi is the man to keep it in line and as a unit.

Mbabazi’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than succumb to them and allowing them to diminish his leadership is incredible. Rarely, if at all will you see him lose his cool and go into an outburst of rage. He keeps calm in a storm and hits back with intelligent wit and devastation.

Bob. A. Kasango is an advocate with Hall & Partners in Kampala

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