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Mediocre leaders, 30 years later

By Geoffrey Onegi‐Obel

The real danger of desiring to enter State House without being the Best

There is a saying that one way or the other we get the leaders we deserve. Another is we all raise our children to inherit a better economic and political dispensation. If that is true, unless something is done soon in Uganda, mediocrity will completely overwhelm and crowd out any indicators of excellence and achievement in the public space. Something is very off in the way we are conducting what are supposed to be   serious matters of policy in this country.

During the recent presidential debate, for example, what we got from the candidate Presidents were micro economic and civil service narratives of project development at the level of ministry accounting officers. It was as if the candidates were being interviewed for positions of Permanent Secretary in the public service.

The stars were Dr Kizza Besigye and Dr Abed Bwanika. Both are very cerebral. Unfortunately the numbers and statistics they generated were only related to the limited national budget process, and not the broad policy strategies that presidents have to deal will. Their handlers and researchers should have prepared them with replica ‘Presidential Briefs’ in preparation for the debate as part of working the ‘Presidential Look’.


The research for the Presidential debates should have been exemplary in demonstrating how far Uganda has come, and where and how the candidates would take Uganda on the now global benchmark and scale of ‘National Development’ – as compared with other countries.

Clearly our children should not inherit the mediocre spectacle of candidate Presidents being left off the hook by moderators who knowingly or otherwise lowered the bar for the candidates and engaged in pedestrian and cavalier questions for people who in a manner of speaking – wish to be in charge of Uganda’s nuclear briefcase and even worse, people who wish to determine the future of our children.

Everything is about competitiveness. And competitiveness is global – not local .There was a time in Uganda when  households sent their own children and those of relatives  to schools all over Uganda  – expecting them to learn and be moulded into achievers through structured  competitiveness, excellence, ambition, and teams . In an institutional environment of public choice, the idea was to compete among the best and strive to be the best as individuals and as teams – not to just to get an appointment by whatever means necessary, and to accept whatever is available.

Role models were many, even in remote villages – where workers stood out clearly and leaders stood out clearly. There was no role confusion.

It is for this reason that I expected candidate Presidents at national debate level to look presidential and talk presidential. Ministers and permanent secretaries talk about and discuss specific roads and bridges. Presidents talk about broad ‘Communications and Infrastructure Policy and Goals’ – and how they propose to fund such goals over the timeline they are in charge. For effect they may illustrate their point with some specific pieces of infrastructure.

Missing public policy

Presidents and candidate Presidents do not talk about Abim Hospitals – they talk about the National Health Infrastructure and the financial or funding strategy to improve and grow the sector over a given timeline. Of course they may illustrate.

I used to tell my students: if you have not understood the question, no matter how brilliant your answer, I will still grade you with an F.

Similarly Presidential Candidates must prepare rigorously so that they can be said to have understood the presidential policy mandates implicit in Public Choice and Public Policy in relation to the ‘Leadership Challenge’.

In a country where by 1970, the economy was on the threshold of middle income economy status by the sheer force of the first two post-independence 5-year National Development Plans, Uganda is not a poor country. It is only poorly managed by powerful and out of control ‘public servants’ who in the pursuit of ‘control’ and wealth, have captured the ‘policy function’ in  government and literally locked it in  a drawer.

Ordinarily and typically, it is ‘Public Policy’ which keeps civil servants and technocrats in check by protecting what is known as the ‘public good’. To the extent that our presidential candidates do not get this or if they do they gloss over it, we are in trouble.

The candidate presidents were all clueless on this and the moderators never raised or mentioned the two words ‘public good’ –  and the overriding objective of the candidates appeared to be the pedestrian desire to get rid of President Yoweri Museveni and enter State House.

For the avoidance of doubt, the reason civil servants and  permanent secretaries have an ill disguised  disdain for Ministers and Presidents is because  through control  and power  over the  short-term budget function, permanent secretaries  have led such ministers and presidents into thinking that they are also technocrats – having  long since lost their role of champions of  the medium to long term Public Policy and Country Development Strategy Function  – sometimes called the Comprehensive National Development Plan (CNDP) or the National Vision Program.

As mentioned before, in Uganda the short term budget function is in control of the long term planning function. So you can guess who is really in the driver’s seat and ‘in charge’.

The clever civil servants keep the Presidents happy and feeling in charge by allowing them to appear to ‘control’ the defence and security function.

At the level of candidate Presidents, it is not enough to point fingers at an opponent’s failure to create a viable infrastructure for sustained job creation. A candidate must have the ability to have a team to come up with his formulation. Go figure.

At a global level, the most unsettling economic indicator during the much hyped Presidential Debate was and continues to be the oil price signal. With production at over one million barrels a day above what the world requires, heads in the sand we continue to believe in the narrative that such events do not have any correlation to the domestic economy – and so, oil did not warrant any discussion by the candidates aspiring to be National Policy Champions.

The failure to discuss the price signal in the economy, as determined by various indicators including oil and equities, speaks volumes on how far we are off as a country.

We are one of few countries in the world without a credible National Energy Policy – even when the price of energy per megawatt determines whether any economy is competitive or not in terms of the key jobs imperative which our children deserve to inherit.

Urban development is a strategic policy objective globally, regionally, and domestically. We did not hear anything in this direction or on the East African Economic Community imperative from the debate.

Regionally  across the border , Nairobi has just been ranked amongst the top 20 globally for among other things – homeownership, innovation, ability re- invent itself etc . In Uganda, Kampala is a city improving but without a concept – moving forward day by day without a timeline or credible master plan. The city is led by the charismatic technocrat Madam Jennifer Musisi, but she has no structured support at the policy or master planning level. For some very Ugandan reason, this smart and hardworking lady has no team to strategically complete her so that she can concentrate on managing and growing the city’s potentially large balance sheet.

Apart from Nasser Road, it has no structured zone such a Financial Centre, Technology Centre etc. We expected the candidates to present their vision and strategies on urban development which can make Kampala competitive globally and regionally. We were disappointed.

With hindsight, it would be too much to expect the candidates to talk about domestic savings – that key growth variable which determines whether an economy succeeds of fails. I have previously given the example of the anomaly where in Uganda the Budget Process drives the Planning Function, instead of the other way round – and to make sure this never changes, the Ministries of Finance and that of Planning were collapsed into each other.

It is also normal to hear some technocrats equate having a mountain of non-performing cash to generating a good rate of return on investment. Others talk of a sound financial system when the only banks one can see are commercial banks, and the number of bank accounts relative to the population is embarrassing.

There are solutions to all these ‘constraints’. However, there will be resistance because the solutions demand policies which bring medium to long term domestic savings-driven strategy centre stage; displacing the current dominant position of short term budget and FDI driven programs. Do any of the candidates have the credibility to turn – even reverse development policy round?

Where is the vision?

There is nothing wrong with the brilliant Dr Besigye becoming President – only he must prepare for the transition from technocrat to policy champion. With good handlers he can make this transition. The same goes for Bwanika. Nothing beats benchmarking (setting the standard), preparation and hard work. Dishing out statistics and showing a mastery of numbers is very good for a presidential candidate – but number crunching is largely the mandate of civil servant technocrats. For a Presidential Candidate, we want to hear about your vision – and any numbers must be within the context of broad policy. We want to see your vision for the country. Like your take on the National Development Plan and Vision 2040 Program over a timeline.

To the extent that the candidates were not asked, and on their own they did not prepare and did not debate the NDP or National Vision Program, we have demonstrated that at the highest level of ‘competition’ where all resources are available to produce the best, in Uganda we have dramatically lowered the bar to the achievement of key development indicators such as jobs, housing, education, and health.

Therefore, in a largely well-intentioned but mediocre presidential debate such as we had, even the jokes of the candidates lent to the mediocrity of the process. Mbabazi was unsurprisingly disappointing- and came across as someone not seeking leadership but seeking the ‘position’ of the president of Uganda. Decades of being an ‘appointee’ in the technocratic netherworld have taken a toll and it showed.

To be sure a candidate can get an F from the public and still become president and be ‘in power’. A typical ‘F’ is when the electorate is apathetic and do not bother to vote.

However being ‘in power’ and being ‘in leadership’ are two different things. One can get to power by seizing and controlling the instruments of state or through a funny election process. That does not make one a leader. You are then only in ‘control’ of the instruments of power. You are not a ‘trustee’ of the electorate.

Only a duly elected leader can be ‘in charge’ of the instruments of power and therefore be a ‘trustee’ – a subtle difference for which there is no space here to debate on.

Based on this, what is called the ‘it factor’ for the hopes and aspirations of Ugandans was just not there for all the candidates. I gave the candidates a D, and the two moderators a C for effort.

As for my Boss who was a no show, it is doubtful whether his presence would have lifted the quality of the debate.

A winning strategy for President Museveni is to tell all Ugandans that he needs this final term to re – position and transition Uganda with a new team to realise the Middle Income Economy Strategy. He has the credibility to request this, as in truth, his precocious mixed economy 10 Point Program was derailed by Washington Consensus  technocrats – most of  whom 25 years on  now acknowledge that Museveni  was right in the first place .

By not preparing with the help of his friends at the BBC’s Hard Talk program, the otherwise knowledgeable Alan Kasujja unconsciously lowered the bar for the candidates. It is possible he bought into the sub Saharan Africa narrative that we Africans cannot be world class- and in the process spared the candidates.

Once the bar is low – grading the candidates becomes an issue of – in a class of average performers, who is the best.

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