By Andrew M. Mwenda
Finally it has happened; National Social Security Fund (NSSF) managing director David Jamwa and his deputy Prof. Mondo Kagonyera have been fired. The use of the word ‘suspension’ is meant to keep them on Katebe till their contracts expire. And the reason for this is not the irregularities during the investment in (or procurement of) Amama Mbabazi’s Temangalo. That will be one of the official excuses. The actual reason is to pave way for the political takeover of NSSF by State House.
That President Yoweri Museveni defended the architects of political pressure on NSSF against censure but sacked its victims should not be surprising. But to that we shall return later.
For now, I have met Jamwa twice in my entire life. When I did, I found him intelligent and insightful. A background check revealed many unsavoury things about him. So I cannot vouch for his integrity. Yet the debate on Temangalo has been ill-informed, lacking in perspective and full of partisan rancour.
Over the last 10 years, four NSSF MDs have been fired amidst investment scandals. This means that average life expectancy of management is 2.5 years. The exit of managers is often characterised by a lot of political buccaneering. This has haemorrhaged the Fund of any capital in the market for professionals with skills, experience and the integrity to manage it well. Thus, even if government wanted a competent person and advertised the job, only crooks would apply; Jamwa’s successor can only be worse.
It is for this reason that in spite of the question marks around his reputation, I was willing to let Jamwa serve his term. This would preserve some name for the Fund to be able to attract competent people. I wrote a series of articles defending NSSF and its decision to buy Temangalo because I remain convinced that the price was good and the project has potential to yield good returns on workers’ savings in spite of the irregularities with which the purchase was done. In such matters, my advice is consistent: punish the political culprits, don’t kill the project.
Many people responded to this by accusing me of defending Mbabazi. While I could understand their frustrations with government corruption in Uganda, it was also clear they were mixing NSSF with Mbabazi. This mix-up armed Mbabazi’s political adversaries with sufficient public support to settle scores with him. Yet in doing this (which is a legitimate political action) Mbabazi’s opponents cared little about what happened to NSSF. The public jumped onto the bandwagon out of ignorance, gullibility or (for our chattering class) a desire to score political points.
NSSF’s reputation was so badly battered. As always happens, it provided Museveni with the justification to change management. Yet Museveni is not going to appoint anyone competent but someone loyal to him. Therefore the result of any changes is not going to be the optimal one the public wanted i.e. competent management. It will be the political one i.e. subjecting NSSF to the whims of the president.
I am very sceptical of many of the fights against corruption in Uganda because corruption is the grease that turns the wheels of our politics. The grand don of corruption in Uganda is the president himself. If anyone sought to fight it, they need to begin with him. Short of that, we are deceiving ourselves. That is why I am always reluctant to expend my energy fighting a minister who, when fired, is replaced by yet another corrupt minister. The reader should now understand why I have not written an article on why I think Ezra Suruma and Mbabazi should be fired. Recycling thieves in government cannot be a formula for creating accountability.
I have met few Ugandans who appreciate the crisis in NSSF in the context of our nation’s political economy. Over the last ten years, the Fund’s portfolio has grown from under Shs 200 billion to over Shs 1.3 trillion in a country with total revenues of Shs 3.6 trillion per year. It is probably the only institution that can easily sign a land-purchase cheque of Shs 20 billion. Were this cheque to go to someone who can finance the opposition, Museveni’s candidacy can suffer a severe beating at the polls.
I was therefore not surprised by Museveni’s prolonged silence during the saga. I am sure he was trying to internalise the real meaning of NSSF in Uganda’s politics. His reaction to it would aim at two things: First, he would ensure that the next manager is a political cadre directly loyal to him ‘ a Noble Mayombo of sorts. He or she would ensure that all decisions at NSSF protect Museveni’s political interests. NSSF would only buy land from a seller who is amenable to Museveni’s political interests.
Secondly, Museveni realised that NSSF has a lot of money that can be used to advance his politics. For years, Museveni has restrained himself on putting his fingers in NSSF coffers. Now he is going to. The next managers he appoints will be guys who can use the Fund’s money to promote the president’s campaign and even build a headquarters for the NRM.
So we have come full circle again: a genuine debate on accountability being used as an opportunity to extend Museveni’s personal control over institutions previously independent of him. It began with the police in 1999. As Justice Julia Sebutinde attacked police officers, she won the admiration of the public. I was lonely in criticising her. When the dust settled, Museveni used the weakened reputation of the police to appoint an army general to manage it. Now he has the police under his thumb.
Then he came to Uganda Revenue Authority (URA). Again, Sebutinde made headlines and won public acclaim. I was again lonely in warning that Sebutinde was laying a foundation for State House takeover of URA. When dust settled, Allen Kajina was appointed to head URA. Although she has proved to be a competent manager, her primary goal is to advance and protect the interests of Museveni over and above those of Uganda. Please watch who the next managing director of NSSF is going to be.