The life and mindset of a finance minister

Monday May 28 2012

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

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.

While at Makerere she moonlighted as a make-up artiste at a beauty parlour in the city. After university, she joined Bank of Uganda on a graduate trainee scheme and was attached to the commercial banks supervision department before she was shipped off to the London Business School.

“It was mama’s chequebook,” she says when asked if she won a scholarship, “and I thought it was going to be a two-year holiday” but London was intense “and very different from Makerere”.

Towards the end of her master’s degree at LBS, the World Bank held a recruitment fair and Maria was one of two scholars picked from the UK to join the bank that year. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is in charge of Africa at the World Bank and who almost became its top executive recently, was in the lot selected out of the UK the year before.

Ms Kiwanuka, as she’d become then, (she resolutely refuses to discuss her husband or her family throughout the interview) spent almost a decade at the World Bank, working as a policy analyst and advising on bank projects in Africa (including Uganda) and Asia, before deciding to return home.

A music fan, mainly of 70s and 80s music, she set up Radio One with a promise of ‘Great Songs, Great Memories’ because none of the other radios at the time, Capital and Sanyu FM, spoke to people of her generation.

She ran the radio with an iron fist but she was also a good spotter of talent (for instance, Philip Besiimire, CEO of MTN Swaziland, and Richard Kavuma, Editor of the Observer newspaper both started out giving traffic reports on the radio)

She was very hands-on, she admits, and intensely competitive. Whenever there was a problem with the radio mast, she’d drive there and “show solidarity” with the engineers even if she wasn’t really needed.

She still listens to Radio One in her car but Ms Kiwanuka now spends more time in meetings or on planes than listening to her radio.

The meetings are unrelenting, she says, as one of her two mobile phones constantly goes off, never mind that it is a Saturday morning. The next day, she is due to drive to Rwakitura for a meeting with the President, then it is off to some foreign meeting.

Where many fight to get into Cabinet for perks like business-class plane rides, Ms Kiwanuka has had to downgrade from the occasional first-class to the government-regulation business class on foreign trips.

But she is not complaining.

“Uganda has been good to me,” she says, “it’s not been a sacrifice.”

When she speaks about agriculture, she becomes more animated, clearly relieved that the questions about her family and private life – the questions, she says, that are “trying to climb over the wall of her privacy” – are over.

Bringing a business ethic to bureaucrats
Ms Kiwanuka wants to bring a business ethic to government, spending money in productive areas like agriculture, infrastructure, and progressive reforms.

“We have a potential solution [to slowing economic growth] by becoming a bread basket for the region,” she says. “But we must prioritise and invest in the right areas.

“We must work for the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Economic growth is projected to drop to its lowest rate in almost two decades; inflation remains high at 21 per cent and there is an unemployment crisis among the youths. Fixing the economy is going to be much harder than anything Ms Kiwanuka has ever done. And she knows it, pointing out that over the last 10 years the country spent more than it could afford.

Can she achieve more production and less patronage in government? Her second Budget Speech (the first she’s been fully responsible for) is due in two weeks and will offer the best evidence of her efforts.

No free lunch
She is alive to the politics – the government, after all, needs to be re-elected, she says, – but also speaks with frustration about the politicking that has delayed the Youth Venture Capital Fund.

“Once you get politics into business, it dies,” Ms Kiwanuka says ruefully. She is hoping to create “a mindset shift” within government through prioritisation, accountability and enforcement.

“There is no free lunch,” she says. “To enjoy the niceties, you need to grow the purse.”

Once, many years ago, Maria’s father turned down a request by her young brother for some toy, saying he did not have money. Pointing to his father’s chequebook, the young boy contested the claim, saying as long as there remained leaves in the book, there was money.

Ms Kiwanuka now finds herself with one admittedly large chequebook, but even larger bills to pay.

“Do we cut money from education to spend on salaries? Or health? Those are some of the tough questions we need to ask.”

And the end of the interview she gets into her pristine white Mercedes Benz to run errands around town. She does not use her official car for private journeys and she gives her driver time off at the weekend so she can drive herself.

Grabbing a bunch of keys, she drives out to her office, to put in some work ahead of her meeting with the President. If anyone can drive the economy out of its current slump, it will have to be an outsider like Ms Kiwanuka – but only if those on the inside are willing to shift gears and change their mindsets.

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