In his re-election manifesto, President Museveni promised that his government would build a primary school in every parish to reduce the distance pupils walk to school; he pledged a technical institute in each constituency, more classrooms and teachers’ houses to achieve a 50:1 pupils-to-classroom and pupils-to-teacher thresholds.
Mr Museveni on the strength of this and other promises won a fresh mandate with 61 per cent in the February 2016 election, but he is now confronted with the challenge to translate them into reality within the next five years.
The President was aware accomplishing his additional commitments to increase the budget for scholastic materials, establishing a semi-autonomous entity for schools’ inspection and introducing a continuous primary education assessment examination and integrating the results in the final marks would require more able hands at the helm of the Education ministry than before.
And he did not look far, turning to his household, for the answer. Announcing the new Cabinet he billed will catapult Uganda into a middle-income economy by 2020, the President tapped his wife Janet and assigned her as Education minister to superintend its Shs2.2 trillion budget, the third-highest of national budget allocations.
She assumed the new duty yesterday, but her first day at work was overshadowed by a security lockdown, drowning her prepared message for reform and new ways of doing things for results.
The ruling NRM, known prior by other political nomenclature, has ruled Uganda for 31 years and has, in spite of drawbacks, earned praise for introducing free primary and secondary as well as post-primary education.
However, erosion of quality for the convenience of higher enrolment persists. Studies show low literacy levels, for instance, among UPE graduates.
The ministry is also grappling with corruption, absenteeism and low staffing, disjointed supervision and administration structure.
So is the First Lady, a former Karamoja Affairs minister, the panacea?
Will she deliver on President Museveni’s promise to build a technical institute in every constituency, provide free scholastic materials and sanitary pads to pupils to improve learning and retain girls at schools?
Ms Museveni’s first degree, obtained at Makerere University, is in Education, theoretically meaning that she is at home in the new Cabinet slot. She took over office yesterday from Major (rtd) Jessica Alupo.
State House explains
According to Mr Moses Byaruhanga, the presidential adviser on political affairs, and sources close to State House, the First Lady was given the Education ministry because of its significance and the prospect that her charm would engender required reforms.
“She is hard working [and] most of the challenges in service delivery are based on poor supervision and not lack of money,” said Mr Byaruhanga, adding: “I have no doubt that the First Lady will do good work in the education sector as her hard work and determination to achieve results in all that she lays her hands on. She has succeeded in Karamoja and her achievements are visible.”
Others disagree. Retired Supreme Court judge George Kanyeihamba a former cabinet minister in Museveni’s government who has now fallen out of favour, said Education is a “wrong docket” for the First Lady to superintend because of her “forgiving heart as a born-again Christian”.
He said: “She should have gone to [the] Ethics and Integrity ministry; her forgiving nature will come in and thieves will not be punished. But we pray that she changes her methods of work.”
Because she is at the centre of power and closest to the President, many Ugandans consider the First Lady as wielding the necessary clout to move things and attract resources.
Mr Nicholas Opiyo, a lawyer and policy analyst, subscribes to this school of thought.
“The President’s wife’s mission is a moral and religious crusade over and above all else,” he said, discounting the new minister’s ability to solve the sector’s teething problems.
“The policy issues are things she may need a lot of help in to cope and appreciate,” Mr Opiyo said, adding: “She (Janet) is neither a competent educationist nor a stellar academic. What she does though is bring attention and possibly resources to any place she goes. The education sector will get the financial backing it badly needs.”
According to the coordinator Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy, Mr Crispy Kaheru and other watchdogs, the Education ministry is a central for Uganda to leap into the middle-income bracket, justifying the massive investment in the sector over the last two decades.
“Deploying the First Lady to this Ministry of Education is like putting your most effective fighter at the battlefront,” Mr Kaheru said, adding: “Her stint as a minister for Karamoja demonstrated that she is not only hard-working but also has capacity to move resources. Therefore, she will definitely move the requisite resources to the ministry.”
A director at the Education ministry, who requested not to be named for fear of reprimand, said there is no clarity on what the district or the centre controls in as far as administration and supervision of the education sector is concerned.
Having been riddled with a lot of scandals (ghost teachers, ghost pupils, and non-existent schools), it seems the First Lady’s job is cut out and the country will be watching for her glow as for her tumble.
Security seals off ministry
First Lady Janet Museveni announced her arrival as the new Education Minister with blanket security deployment, sealing off of roads surrounding the ministry headquarters and a prohibition of journalists from private media to cover the hand-over event.
It was, to paraphrase President Museveni’s 1986 inaugural speech, more than a mere change of guards --- in this case from (rtd) Major Jessica Alupo to Ms Janet --- but a fundamental change preceded by the ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Dr Rose Nassali, putting all senior staff on notice that it would no longer be business as usual with the new political leadership.
In a meeting last Friday, the PS, according to a source who requested for anonymity to speak freely, warned directors and commissioners against absconding from work, interdicting or transferring teachers in breach of procedure and demanded an improved schools’ inspection.
The layers of that uncertainty began peeling at day break yesterday when security forces closed off parts of Parliamentary Avenue and King George VI Way, belting the ministry headquarters at Embassy House, with motorists piling in gridlocked traffic on alternative routes.
Inside and secure, the First Lady spoke in her characteristic soft voice and calmness, calling for unity among staff and team work, according to people who attended the event.
She was at Embassy House by 9.30am, half-an-hour before the scheduled hand-over, signaling a new era of proper time management in a ministry cultured by laissez-faire technocrats.
The heavily armed guards yesterday allowed no one to enter the ministry headquarters until the First Lady departed.
Ms Museveni, a source told this newspaper after its journalists were blocked by her guards, spoke in a motherly way and promised to stretch out her arms to everybody.
The script of new ways of doing things was written over the past fortnight, although Education ministry officials began seeing ominous signs and became nervous once President Museveni in the new Cabinet named his wife their line minister.
Except for the PS and the ministers, all Education ministry employees were yesterday blocked from accessing their offices with cellphone handsets or other electronic gadgets and officers were told to find elsewhere to park vehicles.
Everyone acted promptly and yesterday’s leadership transition happened without a hitch. Ms Janet reportedly detailed outgone State Minister for Higher Education Tickodri-Togboa to write a working paper based on his proposals in the farewell speech highlighting the need to overhaul the entire education curriculum, prioritising both sciences and humanities, emphasising skills over paper qualification and regulation of degree programmes at universities.
A few weeks ago, MPs on the Appointments Committee questioned the First Lady on whether her security detail would not scare away teachers. She then reportedly responded that she would create an enabling environment for teachers to interact with her, in spite of her security detail, but did not specify how.
A senior official last evening wondered what will happen when Ms Museveni starts sitting at the ministry headquarters the whole day.
“We deal with teachers who travel long distances to sort out their issues like registration. But when they find such an inconvenience, it will not be fair...,” the official said.