You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them,” is a line from the 1960 novel To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.
But to qualify and quantify a career laden with controversies, accomplishments and a fistful of fights for billion dollar projects, one would quite need the same lens to look at Fred Kabagambe Kaliisa’s career at the Energy ministry.
He always emerged victor; suffice to say it is these manoeuvres, one after another in the 40 years he spent in the ministry that made him develop a thick skin.
Too much of anything is always bad though. The recent ping-pong between him, Energy minister Irene Muloni and others on one side versus the Uganda Electricity Generation Company Ltd (UEGCL) team led by its [former] board chairman Stephen Isabalija – who was made Kaliisa’s successor as PS – got to the nerves of the appointing authority, according to insider accounts.
Kaliisa was subsequently retired, or ‘dropped’ in the shuffles for permanent secretaries in early November. His detractors prefer the latter phrase as some form delight in the fact that a man respected home and away, powerful and egotistical, could be removed from a coveted position he held for 19 years.
Kaliisa started in 1976 as a mining geologist but metamorphosed to overseeing the petroleum industry in its infant days during the Obote II government and later to electricity—from building dams to kick starting the rural electrification project.
Upon graduation from Makerere University with a bachelor’s degree in Geology in 1976, a young Kaliisa was immediately sucked in the ministry under the Department of Geological Survey and Mines up to 1982.
While there, he led a team that, among others, discovered and evaluated the Kibuuku gypsum deposit in Semliki Area, the dolomitic marble deposits in Moyo, a poly-metallic ore deposit in Mugabuzi and appraised the Sukulu phosphate deposit in eastern Uganda.
Some of the mineral discoveries made during his time as PS were seated on his office table and seem like a museum for minerals.
He later went back to school for a post-graduate diploma in Mineral Exploration from the University of Mining and Metallurgy in Leoben, Austria, in 1980, then a master’s in Petroleum Geology from the University of Aberdeen in UK, and also studied Management Economics at Duke University, USA in 1992.
Born to the late Francis Kaliisa and Maria Kasasa Kaliisa in Hoima District, he went to St Aloysius Primary School and St Edwards Secondary School in Kibaale District; Makerere College School for his high school certificate and then Makerere University.
His father died on October 18, 1985 while he was away in neighbouring DR Congo, negotiating a bilateral framework on how to explore the shared oil basin—the Albertine Graben and by the time he returned he had already been buried.
Having cut a niche in earth working engineering between 1983 and 1984, Kaliisa was elevated to project coordinator of the petroleum exploration and promotion project to undertake aerial magnetic surveys in the Albertine Graben to identify major basins and whether there was enough potentiality for hydro-carbons (oil and gas).
With a team of Ugandans that had been sent abroad for further studies in petroleum studies, the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department (PEPD) that recently transformed into the Petroleum Directorate was established and he led as first commissioner until 1994 when he was elevated to the position of director Energy and Mineral Development in the ministry, then known as Ministry of Natural Resources until 1997.
With grasp of the oil sector, he led negotiations for Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs) with all the international oil companies. They include the nine licences currently held by UK’s Tullow Oil, France’s Total and China’s Cnooc.
But does he miss the job already? Not exactly, he says. “You only miss something when you put your all but never achieved or delivered on the targets.”
“What most people actually forget is that I was due for retirement about six years ago, but I was kept on renewable contracts. I have played my part as well, diligently served my country for 40 years and six months.”
“I was lucky to have served for 40 years, there are not so many people,” the 65-year-old father of three notes.
After receiving an honorary degree of Doctorate of Philosophy in Humanities in November 2014, Kaliisa was retained as senior presidential adviser on oil and gas.
“When you hold such a position and especially where you oversee projects involving huge sums [of money], there has to be issues here and there,” Dr Kaliisa says.
The first storm of controversy started building up in 1998 and consequently hit in 2003 over the proposed construction of a dam at the Bujagali Falls when the international power giant AES walked away.
A group of MPs had written to the project funders (World Bank) alleging that former Energy minister Richard Kaijuka pocketed a $10,000 bribe. The project was revived in 2005 and construction started in 2007.
As dust was settling on Bujagali, the ministry under the stewardship of Ms Muloni in 2004 was in the process of negotiating a 25-year concession with a hitherto known Umeme to take over the distribution arm of Uganda’s electricity following enactment of the Electricity Act in 1999.
The Act saw reforms in the sector, including the splitting of Uganda Electricity Board into three; UEGCL, Uganda Electricity Transmission Company (UETCL) and Uganda Electricity Distribution Company Ltd.
Unsatisfied by Umeme’s performance in 2012, a parliamentary ad hoc committee was constituted to look into its performance and probably revocation of their licence.
A report documenting Umeme’s incompetence in service delivery in relation to their contractual obligations was tabled in Parliament, and for which MPs wanted him interdicted.
Some of the clauses in the agreement with Umeme suggested that if government was to terminate the power distributor, it would have to fork out at least Shs371 billion payable within 91 days or else attract additional 20 per cent per annum as buyout.
Reminiscing on the situation, Dr Kaliisa says: “I think the MPs missed the whole point that the issues raised had been extracted from another person’s report that had an agenda against Umeme, but none of them was clever to look there. They put so much focus on the person (me). They hated me so much and completely forgot about the issue.”
“At the time the negotiations with Umeme were taking place in 2005, I cannot say I was not involved because I was the head (PS), and the team led by Muloni, (Paul) Mubiru, (Elias) Kiyemba that went to Washington to negotiate the concession had to be protected. They were my people, how could I have left them to that mob justice?”
The Umeme spectacle put aside, every time he appeared before Parliament over accountability issues; it was always bad blood brewing. MPs always accused him of being arrogant and dishonourable to them.
Similarly, he was accused of the same in many circles in government. The tipping point was this year when he defied the President’s directives to hand over powers of administration of the 600Mw Karuma dam and 183Mw Isimba dam to UEGCL and UETCL.
Asked about this level of arrogance, he laughs hard: “You see, if you don’t know but want to come to show that you know, and don’t want to listen and understand; how else can I treat you? Sometimes people deserve to be put in their place.”
“Take, for example, during the oil debate. Everyone who woke up and knew how to pronounce the word oil thought they had become experts, how do you deal with such people?”
Having left a mark in the Energy sector after 40 years of service, Kaliisa has now retired to farming in his home district.
As a gesture in appreciation of his contribution to Bunyoro Kingdom, Omukama Solomon Iguru Gafabusa bestowed on him the title mujwarakondo (lord) which is given to those who have either brought wealth or defended the kingdom.