By Agather Atuhaire
The ministers have turned out to be ceremonial; doing little as the country is buffeted by crises
When President Yoweri Museveni named his 4th term cabinet in May, few could hide their shock at the new faces in prominent ministries like finance, energy and mineral development, health, trade, and education and sports.
In these ministries, the president appointed mostly women who were fresh and untested in Uganda’s politics. Pundits queried the competence of some of them.
Museveni defended his cabinet saying it “represented unity, expertise and mobilisation ability”. He called his new team, “people of knowledge”.
Soon, however, as things deteriorated in the most critical areas, the untested new team failed to respond. None came out or made an effort to at least theoretically address the situation. Had President Museveni over-estimated his “dream team’s” expertise as he called it?
Observers say, under Museveni, it is not easy to adduce if the new ministers have been given a chance to inject new thinking into the decision-making. Everything continues to revolve around Museveni.
As the different groups protesting against awful economic conditions meet Museveni, some wonder how one man will solve the concerns of 35 million people all by himself.
This is what the African peer review mechanism report has termed as ‘presidentialism’ saying it has eroded Uganda’s system of checks and balances on government.
When the city traders under their Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) group went on strike over the depreciation of the shilling against the dollar, URA charging taxes in dollars and high license fees, their strike was only stopped after they met Museveni.
They had refused to listen to Trade and Industry minister Amelia Kyambadde’s promises.
When the city drivers declared a strike days later protesting the fees they were forced to pay by the Uganda Taxi Drivers and Operators Association (UTODA), vice president Edward Ssekandi went to meet them. They refused to listen to him but called off the strike the next day after meeting with Museveni.
When it was the teachers’ turn to rise up against the government demanding 100% salary increase, they refused to calm down even after several meetings with MPs, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Finance officials. They calmed down after meeting Museveni.
Renowned researcher and political analyst Frederick Golooba-Mutebi says the context that these ministers found in place matters a lot and is still a difficult one.
“However good the ministers are, Ugandans did not expect them to perform miracles,” Golooba said.
Worse still, continued Golooba, they have not been given a chance to perform because President Museveni has established himself as the Alpha and Omega.
“The president has setup himself as the only person who can solve everything,” he says.
He said ministers only follow what the president says and they have not been given the needed authority to adjust some policies.
Activists for Change (A4C) coordinator Mathias Mpuuga says the problem is that the economic fundamentals are nonexistent.
“There is no amount of Economics Maria Kiwanuka would apply to rectify the situation,” said Mpuuga.
The government itself says Mpuuga, does not know what to do with the situation.
Mpuuga says ministers like Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka have not come to the public to fabricate a pack of lies because they are technocrats and not politicians and cannot preach what they do not believe in.
Finance shadow minister Geofrey Ekanya says no number of experts or technocrats can do miracles more so when President Museveni puts them in office for “ceremonial purposes”.
In his opposition response to the budget statement, Ekanya states that the challenges confronting Uganda have been created by several years of bad planning, budget indiscipline, neglect and outright theft.
UPC-leaning political analyst, Prof. Edward Kakonge says Uganda’s predicament is a result of the failure of President Museveni.
The president as the Chief Executive Officer, Kakonge says, has driven the country into devastation and there is nothing the ministers can do.
“Museveni wants to stay at the centre of every activity and has made promises he cannot deliver,” Kakonge told The Independent. “All he has done is order these ministers to dance to his tunes and we can only blame them for respecting the decisions of their ‘superior’.”
Shadow minister for Education, Judith Akello says she cannot blame her counterpart Jessica Alupo who she says does not have absolute control over the sector.
“When there are limitations, even technocrats cannot perform,” said the Agago district Women representative, “These ministers have just followed what the president says regardless of whether it is right or wrong.”
Extreme control of Uganda’s economy by a single hand of the president, observers say has amplified the economic hardships that bad governance has driven the country into. The most competent personalities now look powerless because the situation is way out of their hands.
But Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi says President Museveni is in charge of every single issue because he is the overall head.
Citing article 99 clauses 1, 2 and 4 of the Ugandan constitution, Mbabazi says the president has the authority and the ability to be in control of all matters of the state.
He told The Independent that the president has the right to perform all state functions if he can or direct his subordinates when he cannot do it himself.
Finance minister Maria Kiwanuka, the much believed in business woman, an economist and financial analyst was only seen in public when she read the budget speech at Serena Conference centre on June 8. Amidst the current economic adversity characterised by shocking inflation rates and the inconceivable depreciation of the local currency, Kiwanuka has never made any public appearance or issued any statement. She started by boycotting the parliamentary committee on finance where she was called to explain the deteriorating economic situation in the country weeks after her swearing in.
The inflation rate increased by 2.6 percent in one month hitting a record 21.4 percent in August the worst since 1993 up from 18.8 percent in July. Commodity and fuel prices are exacerbating with commodities like sugar at shs 7,000 a kilo, petrol at shs 4,000 a litre and diesel at shs 3,600. The shilling has continued to weaken against other currencies notably the US dollar which is currently at shs2, 830.
Things could even be worse for Energy and Mineral Development Minister Irene Muloni. Although the president and some Ugandans were praising her expertise and experience in energy, she has completely failed to curb down the power crisis which observers accuse her of complicity. Muloni who has worked in the energy sector for 20 years has failed to end load shedding and intolerably high power tariffs. She is now in a dilemma with the public demanding that government cancels its contract with the power distributing company UMEME for its failure to address their concerns. It might however be impossible for government to cancel the contract with Umeme because the concession agreement government made with UMEME, in which she participated heavily, favours the latter and would require government paying costly if they insist on parting ways with Umeme.
The situation is not any better in the ministry of Education where former army officer Jessica Alupo is in charge. The country has experienced a series of strikes from students to teachers and lectures which saw the indefinite closure of the country’s state university on September 1. Makerere University was closed barely two weeks into the academic year after a series of strikes by lecturers demanding for an increase in their salaries. Teachers and lecturers are unanimously demanding an increase in their pay saying that they cannot continue to be paid peanuts with the escalating inflation rates. Teachers vowed not to go to class for the third term. When Makerere lecturers decided to indefinitely lay down their tools, management and government retaliated by closing the institution indefinitely.
Trade minister Amelia Kyambadde has not done much in her ministry as traders’ strikes have on various occasions paralysed business in the city centre. The traders earlier protested against high taxes and the licensing of foreigners who are doing petty business. They are currently lamenting over the incessant depreciation of the local currency against the dollar and the swelling inflation rates. The new minister stopped at meeting the traders twice which meetings did not have any significant impact as the traders did not seem to give her the expected audience. The former private principal secretary to the president has since laid low with a whole lot of the traders’ concerns unsolved. Kampala city traders association (KACITA) Spokesperson, Issa Ssekito, told The Independent that they have been patiently waiting for the government to do something about the situation as they promised. He said however they should not be expected to keep quiet because they are running out of patience.
The health sector would not have any problems save for the members of parliament declining to pass the maternal budget directing the ministry to first set proper health strategies. This was after parliament learnt that the ministry had sidetracked shs 2 billion initially meant for maternal health to seminars and workshops. But Health minister Christine Ondoa shocked the public when she was quoted by one of the media houses saying “prayer cures AIDS”. She claimed to have proof of three people who were positive and turned negative after prayer. Her remarks were not received well by health practitioners, born-again preachers and the general public describing them as careless and misleading. Possibly it is still early for Museveni and his dream team. But the omen doesn’t look good.