I have read with interest the ongoing debate on Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) and measures being taken in this very vital institution in our nation’s educational system. Allow me to shade some light on this matter.
In early 1990s, it was brought to our attention that the national exams were being printed in London. We held several meetings with the senior management of Uneb as to why this was so, and why exams could not be printed in Uganda.
We were informed that there was no local printing capacity, or enough printing paper in the country, among other shortcomings. After some inquiries, it was established that exams could indeed be printed in Uganda. The paper could be imported, after all England is not renowned as a paper-manufacturing country.
There was capacity at the government printing press in Entebbe and a few other private printing facilities in the country. So a decision by the Ministry of Education was taken that exams be printed locally.
The main reasons were; To save money and the many hours officials used to spend in the UK. Type setting and proofreading the exam papers, to build internal capacity in terms of human resource and printing, to create jobs, to strengthen our own institution and confidence that we too can do such tasks, and hence, build trust and pride in our capacity and people.
Uneb used to hire the cargo section of Uganda Airlines to airlift the exams. I wonder what would be happening today. However, we had some information that some staff were not happy with this decision. We decided to take the bull by the horns and deal with the consequences as they arose.
Indeed, the exams were locally set and there were embarrassing massive leakages. Some told us “we told you”!
We did not want to act on rumours and in haste. By “We”, I mean the team of the then ministers of state, senior officials in the ministry and myself. A commission of inquiry headed by a senior, respected academician, whom I did not know personally, but had been recommended by those in the know, was set up.
Among other things, it found out internal back-stabbing in uneb and lack of determination to act as a team to implement the decision. It recommended the overhaul of the top leadership.
We were in a dilemma. The next exams were due. We had to act. After some consultations, Ms Mpanga, who had worked in the defunct East African Examination Council, recommended Mzee Basil Kiwanuka as chairman and Mr Mathew Bukenya as Secretary. Ms Mpanga was a calm colleague who acted with decorum. We respected her so we acted on her recommendations. Both Mr Kiwanuka and Mr Bukenya were recalled from retirement because of their expertise and competence and appointed in an acting capacity with clear goals of putting Uneb on track, building internal capacity for a permanent team of competent experts to take over.
This was around January 1996. This was after we had discussed with both of them and agreed that the assignment was achievable.
Once again, I personally did not know either of them before. I believe that in building institutions, you do not need to know personally the people you work with as long as there are known criteria for appointment and rules of engagement. In fact, insisting on people you know or those loyal to you, leads to internal in-breeding, inertia, and poor service delivery, as the leader fears to act lest you upset a friend. On the question of exam leakages, they did a commendable job and exams are now locally set.
But it is disheartening that so many years later, Uganda cannot find a suitable man, or woman to lead Uneb. A person who joined Uneb at that time with a Masters degree, let alone those who were already there, is surely well suited to head that institution. Let’s avoid a similar failure, as has been in finding a suitable Chief Justice, from infecting this institution.
Mr Mushega is a former minister of Education.