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Uganda’s ageing cabinet

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi & Mubatsi Asinja Habati

With the average age of the top ministers at 70 years, what is the future for the country?

When then 38-year old Moses Ali was in 1977 named finance minister by then-president Idi Amin and charged with revamping a free-falling economy, current Education and Sports Minister Jessica Alupo, was a three-year old playing in the mud in her village in Katakwi, eastern Uganda.

Minister of Public Service Henry Kajura, then 43, was a seasoned public servant as chairman and managing director of the Uganda Commercial Bank, after stints in the top management of the Bank of Uganda and the East African Development Bank.

Last week, when the long-term crisis in Uganda’s education sector exploded into another teacher strike, these three members of President Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet were required to resolve the issue.

The teachers were protesting against poor pay, lack of meals for pupils in public schools, and a general decline in the quality of graduates, amongst other ills that plague the education sector. The strike was timed for the critical time as schools prepared to start end-of-term and mock exams.

The elderly Kajura, now 78, as usual kept his response short, stating that government had no money to raise teachers’ pay any higher than the 5% increase provided in the 2012/13 budget, which fell far short of the 100% increase demanded by the teachers.

Short of explanations, Alupo followed the path her superiors had beaten: teach or be sacked, she barked at the teachers.

When the matter comes to the floor of Parliament, Third Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of Government Business Gen. Moses Ali, is likely to lead the government side. The prediction is that no radical reforms will come out of that team. It is hard to say if it is because they just have no reform ideas. But a big part of it could be blamed on the age mix of the cabinet pool from which they draw their ideas.

The average age of Uganda’s 28 cabinet ministers, including President Yoweri Museveni, is 62 years. Of these, 20 are older than the public service retirement age limit of 60 years. This is a grotesque representation for a country as young as Uganda, where 77% of the population of 34 million is below 30 years and half is below 15. Only 16% of Ugandans are above 60. The natural leaders of a population so young should be no older than 50. Yet the opposite is true.

This contradiction does not appear only in comparison to Uganda’s population, but also to other countries.

The average age of neighbouring Kenya is 59 years. Uganda’s is also much higher than Britain’s at 53, despite that country’s much older general population, with the British on average living 30 years longer than a Ugandan who dies relatively young, at 53 years.

While the British cabinet has one septuagenarian, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke (72), Uganda has five septuagenarians. Kajura is 78, Agriculture Minister Tress Buchanayandi is 75 and Moses Ali is 74. Disaster Preparedness Minister Stephen Mallinga and Vice President Edward Ssekandi are both 70.

At 68, President Yoweri Museveni seems relatively young compared to many in his cabinet. Indeed some have argued that the reason Museveni keeps old people in cabinet is to make himself look and feel younger.

“It makes it harder to see him [Museveni] as old when there are ministers who are 80 years,” said an NRM Member of Parliament who preferred not to be named.

Uganda has only three cabinet ministers below 50: Alupo (39), Health Minister Christine Ondoa (45) and Local Government Minister Adolph Mwesige (47). Five others are in their fifties.

As President Museveni’s government comes under increasing criticism over inefficiency and a severe lack of imagination, the age factor is being highlighted every time cameras have caught members of cabinet deep asleep during official functions like the State of the Nation Address or Parliament debates. Critics say such ministers, physically and mentally weakened by age, cannot possibly be relied upon to transform the country.

A glass ceiling

The situation is no different regarding other public servants. Ambassadors Ibrahim Mukiibi (Tanzania), Katenta Apuuli (Belgium), Deo Rwabita (Italy), P.K. Kamunanwire (US) and Aziz Kasujja (Saudi Arabia) are 75 years and above.

Permanent secretaries like Chris Kassami of the Ministry of Finance have passed the retirement age of 60 years, but continue to serve on rolling contracts.

Julius Onen, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, for example, was first employed in the Foreign Service in 1973, a year before Alupo was born, and became ambassador in 1991. He has been in the public service for 40 years, at least.

An official in the Ministry of Public Service who asked not to be named wondered why a proposal for permanent secretaries to serve a maximum of two five-year contracts has not been implemented.

The official said more than 60% of permanent secretaries are above retirement age. This, he said, means that the civil servants below them are left with more limited opportunities for promotion and career advancement, because there is no room at the top to grow.

“This damages the morale of more junior civil servants as they realise that they have no prospects to grow. It becomes a glass ceiling of sorts,” says Ramathan Ggoobi, a lecturer at Makerere University Business School.

Makerere University’s Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba compares the army to other government departments. Nuwagaba has publicly praised Museveni for “disciplining” the army, which he says is one of the best-functioning government institutions.

One possible explanation for the army’s “success”, Nuwagaba told The Independent, is that it has “evolved over time as its leadership has changed hands”. Generals Elly Tumwine, Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh, Mugisha Muntu, Jeje Odong, James Kazini and now Aronda Nyakayirima, have commanded the army during the 26 years Museveni has been president.

But of all Aronda’s predecessors, only Tumwine maintains an active, albeit peripheral, role in the military, as one of its ten representatives in Parliament. Many other bush war fighters like Jim Muhwezi and Kahinda Otafiire left the army early and joined politics and other vocations, creating room for junior officers to rise to the top.

Unfortunately, Nuwagaba says, this has not been replicated in most other government departments or in politics, leaving younger people impatient for change.

70 years: Average age of the Ugandan cabinet

Name Portfolio Age
Henry Muganwa Kajura 2nd Deputy PM and Public Service 78
Tress Buchanayandi Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries 75
Moses Ali 3rd Deputy PM & Deputy Leader of Government Business 74
Edward Ssekandi Vice President 70
Stephen Mallinga Relief and Disaster Preparedness 70
Yoweri Museveni President 68
Ephraim Kamuntu Tourism and Wildlife 68
Eriya Kategaya 1st Deputy PM and East African Affairs 67
Ruhakana Rugunda Communication & Information Communication Technology 66
Janet Museveni Karamoja 65
Hillary Onek Internal Affairs 65
Amama Mbabazi Prime Minister 64
Sam Kutesa Foreign Affairs 64
Kahinda Otafiire Justice & Constitutional Affairs 63
Maria Kiwanuka Finance, Planning & Economic Development 63
Abraham Byandaala Works 62
Muruli Mukasa Security & Presidency 60
Amelia Kyambadde Trade 56
Maria Mutagamba Water and Environment 61
John Nasasira Government Chief Whip 61
Crispus Kiyonga Defence 60
Karooro Okurut Information and National Guidance 58
Peter Nyombi Attorney General 58
Daudi Migereko Lands, Housing and Urban Development 57
Irene Muloni Energy and Minerals 52
Christine Ondoa Health 45
Adolph Mwesige Local Government 47
Jessica Alupo Education & Sports 39

Old generals vs Young Turks

A retired Makerere University professor says the problem is not all about age per se, but that staying in one job for too long is bound to spark inter-generational conflict and lead to the “inbreeding of ideas” as older people cling to the way things have always been done and the young turks sacrifice sacred cows for innovation.

“When a person has been in a position for more than thirty years, they stop thinking of new ways to do things and will return to the same old formulas they have used before,” the professor told The Independent.

“It becomes worse in Uganda’s case since those in government are not very receptive of alternative ideas.”

The fact that “Museveni has been slow to infuse new blood in the top echelons of government, and instead recycled the same old people each successive cabinet as if there were no younger ones capable of taking those positions”, has only reinforced the apprehension towards new ideas by the generation in power.

One way to explain why Museveni is more likely to trust older people is that  he possibly identifies more with them and shares more with them than he does with the majority of Uganda’s population. Most of these are comrades with whom he fought the battles against the past regimes of Gen.Amin in the 1970, Obote, and the Okello Lutwa in the 1980s.

Over the years, the common experiences, ideals, values, and ambitions that defined their generation appear to have bound them together. His childhood friend, First Deputy Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya attempted to break ranks in 2003 over Museveni’s continued stay in power, but he was sucked back when bread and butter issues set in. Similar challenges appear to be keeping Museveni’s Jurassic cabinet in place.

The professor points to the independence struggle, the fight against Amin and the chaos that followed his ouster, and the guerrilla war of the 1980s, as major events which “define” Museveni and his generation.

Ugandans who are too young to have witnessed and participated in these events, he says, “are less likely to win Museveni’s trust or to trust him to lead them, because they are less influenced by them”.

The 31-year-old Kampala Central MP, Muhammad Nsereko, seems to epitomise the new generation the professor talks about. Nsereko, also NRM’s Kampala Central chairman, has emerged as a source of opposition to Museveni’s rule from within the ruling party. Nsereko and colleagues like Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo, 43, say they have a stand-by team of your leaders prepared to take over from Museveni anytime.

Nsereko two weeks ago broke ranks with Museveni to campaigning for an opposition candidate, MP-elect Mathias Nsubuga, in the Bukoto South constituency. Nsereko told a rally at Nkoni playground; “I can see you are tired but why doesn’t he (Museveni) get tired after 26 years in power?”

Nsereko urged the voters to ask Museveni not to stand again in 2016.

“Museveni’s generation has to hand over power to us as soon as possible,” Nsereko told The Independent.

Groundwork for Museveni’s 2016 re-election is already being laid. At a function in Sheema, western Uganda, on June 30, Museveni was handed a spear and exhorted to stand again in 2016. Although he did not comment on it, Museveni has in the past used such gestures to test the waters of re-election.

Is Museveni the problem?

Nsereko is convinced that if Museveni leaves power, it will become easier to uproot the rest of the old guard. In this proposal he finds support in former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. On his farewell visit to Uganda in 2005, just before he stepped down from the presidency after a 2-year term, Mkapa told a joint press conference with Museveni that he was eager to leave power because “ten years is a long time in the presidency”.

This was at the pinnacle of Museveni’s campaign to remove presidential term limits from the Constitution, which made it possible for him to remain president after 2006. By then, Museveni had already served 19 years in State House.

At the swearing in of cabinet in June 2011, Museveni appeared conscious of the generational challenge facing his administration and said he had appointed a “cross-generational” team.

“The grandparents are here like myself; the parents are here and the grandchildren are also here,” Museveni said at State House, Entebbe.

It must be lonely for State Minister for Youth Ronald Kibuule, 28, the youngest of the “grand children” in the executive team, quite unlike the first cabinet in 1986, when a reformist Museveni appointed people like Kizza Besigye and Kafumbe Mukasa, in their late 20’s and early 30’s, into cabinet.

But Museveni’s team has changed fundamentally since 1986. Only Kahinda Otafiire, Eriya Kategaya, Crispus Kiyonga, Moses Ali and Ruhakana Rugunda remain from the original reform cabinet. The others have left politics, joined the opposition or died.

Age of wisdom

Prof. Edward Kakonge was Museveni’s first minister of Local Government in 1986. Kakonge had been lured away from the Biochemistry lecture room at Makerere University, where he had previously taught his new colleague Kiyonga.

Now UPC national chairman, Kakonge thinks just focusing on the age of politicians and government officials is simplistic. “If an elder has something special to offer,” he says, “he can be kept in cabinet.”

Kakonge says the problem with the old people Museveni has kept in cabinet for long is that they are not there to offer anything special in terms of mentoring or skills. Most of the time, they represent obscure political alliances and constituencies that the president considers essential for the stability and longevity of his regime.

When Moses Ali finished his law studies and was admitted to the bar earlier this year, he said the driving force behind his late return to school was to shake off the tag of “semi-literate”.. Ali has been a constant member of Museveni’s cabinet, save for the five years from 2006 to May 2011 when Museveni dropped him after he lost his East Moyo seat. “Museveni shocked me,” the elder minister said of his ejection from cabinet. He won back his seat in February 2011 and was accordingly reinstated to cabinet.

Those close to Ali say he has come to expect a permanent spot in Museveni’s cabinet, protected by an agreement the President struck with former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. During the bush war, it is said, Gaddafi made Museveni promise to name Ali vice president after he captured power. Gaddafi, who had sent troops to defend Amin during the 1979 war when a combined force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian forces overthrew Amin, wanted Ali to be in a top position due to his being a Muslim.

And then there’s Kajura. Asked why he keeps him in cabinet despite his advanced age, Museveni once described the elderly minister as the “natural leader of Bunyoro”. But some doubt the accuracy of this title.

Kakonge, a fellow son of Bunyoro, says Kajura has much less to offer than is generally believed, and doubts the old man can win a genuine election in Bunyoro, much less pull any significant votes for the President. So why does he keep returning to cabinet, even after Parliament rejected his ministerial appointment arguing that he was too old? Perhaps it is because Kajura is said to have been a key financier of Museveni’s bush war and became his trusted business advisor.

Kakonge says people who have stayed in positions longer have institutional memory and may be a source of stability and continuity. But a key area where the older people in government have failed, he argues, is in not implanting values among the younger generation that should be their natural successors. Kakonge says this is the reason why younger people are more responsible for the rampant corruption in government, which he says was not as widespread before.

What is surprising is that even when Museveni appoints fresh people into key positions, he mostly brings in those of advanced age. Agriculture Minister Buchanayandi, 74, who made his debut into cabinet last year, is one such example.

Ggoobi says it is time for Museveni to appoint more of Kibuule’s contemporaries to senior ministerial positions, as many older people in cabinet and other government departments cannot keep track of the latest developments and need to be replaced.

“I wonder why in this computer age the president insists on keeping people who cannot even learn how to use a computer in key positions,” he says.

Ambassadors are even worse, because older people are increasingly out of place in the hectic life of international diplomacy, especially in the western world where government is increasingly becoming younger.

Ggoobi echoes an old stereotype that older people are bound to resist change and insist on doing things the way they have always known and dismiss younger people as naive.

As unemployment simmered amidst agitation by the youth, Museveni recently suggested that the retirement age for civil servants be trimmed from 60 to 55. The measure, estimates show, would create some 30,000 jobs.

A World Bank report, Africa Development Indicators 2008/09, says unemployment among Uganda’s youth is one of the highest in Africa, with 83 in every 100 people between 15 and 24 years unable to find work.

Perhaps it is time for men like Kajura and Moses Ali to step aside and make room for a younger generation of leaders.

Name Portfolio Age Henry Muganwa Kajura 2ndDeputy PM and Public Service 78 Tress Buchanayandi Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries 75 Moses Ali 3rd Deputy PM & Deputy Leader of Government Business 74 Edward Ssekandi Vice President 70 Stephen Mallinga Relief and Disaster Preparedness 70 Yoweri Museveni President 68 Ephraim Kamuntu Tourism and Wildlife 68 Eriya Kategaya 1stDeputy PM and East African Affairs 67 Ruhakana Rugunda Communication & Information Communication Technology 66 Janet Museveni Karamoja 65 Hillary Onek Internal Affairs 65 Amama Mbabazi Prime Minister 64 Sam Kutesa Foreign Affairs 64 Kahinda Otafiire Justice & Constitutional Affairs 63 Maria Kiwanuka Finance, Planning & Economic Development 63 Abraham Byandaala Works 62 Muruli Mukasa Security & Presidency 60 Amelia Kyambadde Trade 56 Maria Mutagamba Water and Environment 61 John Nasasira Government Chief Whip 61 Crispus Kiyonga Defence 60 Karooro Okurut Information and National Guidance 58 Peter Nyombi Attorney General 58 Daudi Migereko Lands, Housing and Urban Development 57 Irene Muloni Energy and Minerals 52 Christine Ondoa Health 45 Adolph Mwesige Local Government 47 Jessica Alupo Education & Sports 39

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