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The life and mindset of a finance minister

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The life and mindset of a finance minister

Maria Kiwanuka at her home. The first non-politician to hold the finance portfolio, she says she is passionate about returning fiscal discipline to government. Photo by Rebecca Vassie. 

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

Posted  Monday, May 28   2012 at  00:00

In Summary

Reformer? The government hopes that Maria Kiwanuka’s experience at the World Bank and running a private radio station in Kampala can help save the struggling economy.

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Maria Kiwanuka is so protective of her privacy; it took her a year to agree to the interview. And when she finally agrees, we have a back-and-forth over where to hold the interview and whether I can bring along a photographer.

She prefers to hold it in the relative safety of her office on a working day but finally agrees to an hour on a Saturday morning at her home in Kololo, delicately squeezed between a shopping trip at the mall down the road, and other scheduled meetings later in the day.

“I like to go out and shop so I can see the prices for myself, (and) feel what people are feeling,” Ms Kiwanuka says as she settles into a leather settee in her lounge. Save for the police guards at the gate and the maid, there is no evidence of other people at the house, never mind that it is her birthday.

Her husband, Mohan Kiwanuka, a paper and real estate magnate, is famously reclusive. In one family portrait he holds Maria protectively, surrounded by their three teenage boys, whom I believe are their sons. Although she won’t speak about them, one of them, Musisi Kiwanuka, was an honours student in South Africa before enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania.

The house is simple and homely. The lounge, lit by the sun pouring in through the large windows, is dominated by a piano in the corner holding family portraits, awards and mementos. (She doesn’t play it but her sister does).

The house, one of several the Kiwanukas are said to own in the upmarket area, sits on about half an acre but has an air of comfortable domesticity about it, from the warm, wooden parapet floors to the shoes left outside the kitchen.

Ms Kiwanuka has lain on a mid-morning feast for my photographer and me; chicken drumsticks, fruit, homemade queen cakes, but we settle for black coffee.

Many people – including Ms Kiwanuka herself – were surprised at her appointment as Finance Minister last year. Best known for setting up and running Radio One and Radio Two in Kampala, she wasn’t – and still isn’t – a politician or one of the likely contenders.

Tough call
It is a job that President Yoweri Museveni has struggled to fill since the quiet resignation and departure of Gerald Sendaula who served between 1998 and 2005. The academic Ezra Suruma held the job until 2009 when he fell victim to Temangalo land saga and the internal politics at the ministry.

Syda Bbumba, his successor, lasted just two years before she was demoted and then forced to resign over her wheeler-dealings with colourful businessman Hassan Basajjabalaba.

Ms Kiwanuka is an outsider in a ministry that has always been run by insiders. It is a catch-22 position: she has no political constituency to defend and can therefore make unpopular decisions, yet in order to succeed she needs the alliances and cooperation with technocrats who are notoriously corrupt and bureaucratic.

While she might be a stranger to government, Ms Kiwanuka is no stranger to business. Born into a middle-class family, her engineer father helped set up the Public Works Department that built major projects like Entebbe Airport, Bugolobi, Wandegeya and Bukoto flats before he opened up a business consultancy.

The young Maria went to Nakasero Primary School and then to Gayaza High School. After S.4, she tried to drop out and do a secretarial course at Nakawa, then a College of Commerce.

“I was tired of school,” she says. “I was always interested in business.”

She was persuaded to return to Gayaza for her A-levels but refused to do Medicine at Makerere University, choosing instead to read a degree in Commerce.

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