Tuesday May 31 2011

Is Lt. Alupo punching above her weight?

She once drew a gun on her partner and confronted a fellow legislator on the floor of Parliament and Benon Herbert Oluka now weighs the odds Lt. Jessica Alupo faces in the Education Ministry.

On December 28, 2005, while Gen. Salim Saleh was stealing the limelight during the retirement of seven UPDF officers and two men, a 31-year-old intelligence officer with the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) was also bidding farewell to the army.

Though evidently nervous among top brass retiring generals and other senior army officers, the smartly dressed soldier donning a Lieutenant’s pips, nevertheless, stood out of the largely uniformed crowd. It was easy to see why.

First, the officer clearly looked young – almost as though someone just joining rather than retiring from the army. Second, the officer was a woman.

By the end of the ceremony, the young officer had caught the attention of then Defence Minister Amama Mbabazi.
“What is your name?” he had asked, within earshot of this writer.
“Lt. Jessica Alupo, sir,” she responded.
“What do you intend to do now?”
“I am going into politics.”
“Representing which party?”
“Very good. Good luck.”

It is difficult to know how much Lt. Alupo’s chance acquaintance with the man who had been her boss in the Defence Ministry and would soon become her boss in the ruling party had on her meteoric rise in a political career spanning just six years. But her appointment last week by President Museveni – apparently in consultation with his new Prime Minister Mbabazi–as Minister of Education makes Lt. Alupo, now aged 37, one of the fastest rising politicians in the ruling NRM.

Since her February 2006 election to Parliament as Woman MP for Katakwi District, Lt. Alupo has enjoyed a meteoric rise. She first served as deputy chairperson of the Defence and Internal Affairs Committee in the eighth Parliament before her appointment as Minister for Youth and Children’s Affairs.

While Lt. Alupo’s elevation to a senior Cabinet position is an indicator of the confidence President Museveni has come to have in her, it also raises question of her capacity to do the job in a ministry where she will be supervising some of the country’s most educated citizens.

At a time when President Museveni largely appointed professionals as political supervisors of ministries where they have technical experience, Lt. Alupo seems to have once again found herself in a position where she will be punching above her weight – and against the odds.

The combat persona
Not that it seems to be a problem for her. Having earlier chosen a career path that many women would not have given second thoughts to, Lt. Alupo has cultivated the image of a tough cookie who does not back down from a challenge – sometimes literally.

In July 2007, when Bokora MP Patrick Apuun referred to her as apese (girl) during a meeting, an angry Lt. Alupo had to be restrained by at least three other MPs from physically confronting her male colleague.
Then in June 2008, police had to intervene in a domestic scuffle between Lt. Alupo and her partner Innocent Tukashaba, a security official, after the couple reportedly drew guns on each other at their home in Kisaasi, a Kampala suburb.

However, Lt. Alupo, who is currently pursuing a Masters degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at Makerere University, seems to be making a conscious effort to shed her combative self for the more stately approach to leadership.

And she will need it. Lt. Alupo will head a ministry where all her three Cabinet juniors–along with the permanent secretary and several technocrats–are older than her. The junior ministers are Dr John Chrysestom Muyingo, 51, (Higher Education), Dr Kamanda Bataringaya, 52, (Primary Education) and Charles Bakabulindi, 52, (Sports).

He vision
In an interview with Daily Monitor on Sunday, Lt. Alupo said she considers the age difference in her portfolio a blessing in disguise.
“I know I am very young,” she said. “But it is a blessing to me because that means I will be able to work with them to produce results in the most amicable way possible. Being a senior minister is just being a team leader so I will be a team leader leading a team that is very knowledgeable.”

Lt. Alupo has already taken to understanding her role, saying she has asked for the structure of the Ministry. She says she will then read the policies covering each area of education so that she can assess how they can be used to achieve the plans laid out in the NRM manifesto.

According to Lt. Alupo, her re-designation to Education provides her with an opportunity to solve some of the biggest problems facing the youth and children, who she was serving in her previous portfolio.

“I’ve been serving the youth and the biggest problem is unemployment. I am already asking myself, ‘how can we use the education system in the country to produce job creators?’ How are we going to guide young people to be able to make the right career choices, not just for white collar jobs? How can we interest them in agriculture?” Lt. Alupo asked.

If there is one quality that Lt. Alupo says she will hold her in good stead in her new ministry, it is her singular focus on achieving the goals she is pursuing.

This is a quality that Lt. Alupo says she “borrowed” from Mr Mbabazi – a man who will be hovering around her shoulder and ensure that she performs her duties to satisfaction.