What you need to know:
Mutebile was always ready to take the hard decisions, no matter how ruthless, since it had to be done. The same hard decisions that ushered Uganda into a neo-liberal economy in the 1990’s to-date.
In June 2011, Uganda faced a crisis. After an expensive election, inflation soared and the Uganda Shilling took a beating against the US Dollar. Inside the corridors of Bank of Uganda (BoU), it was crisis mode. Prof. Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, the Governor Bank of Uganda (BoU) was livid.
Mutebile had led Uganda’s economic reforms in the 1990’s when at the Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development (MoFPED). Whereas those reforms brought stability, they brought a sour taste in the people’s mouths as civil servants lost jobs in the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs). It was a price to pay for the long term gains for the economy. It brought about a period of economic growth of over 7 percent.
So, in 2011 all these gains were being eroded by high inflation and some people were taking advantage. “I have the capacity to burn their fingers,” Mutebile said in June 2011 as he warned speculators in the foreign exchange market that were contributing to the depreciation of the shilling. Mutebile was ready to intervene in the market to stem the depreciation. This perhaps was a hallmark of Mutebile’s decisiveness. He was always ready to take the hard decisions, no matter how ruthless, since it had to be done. The same hard decisions that ushered Uganda into a neo-liberal economy in the 1990’s to-date.
Attending press conferences organised by BoU, Mutebile’s statements were often brief and to the point. He detested journalists that did not research before asking questions no matter the media house. At one press conference, a journalist asked a close-ended question. Mutebile answered with a “no”. That was not enough of a response for the journalist to use in the news report. What saved the journalist was another reporter asking the same question but with an open ended approach. You didn’t have to be smart to engage Mutebile. You needed to have done your research before opening your mouth. Even as his health took a toll on him, he had the occasional humor as he responded to questions he felt were out of place.
Often argued is that Mutebile cowed to President Museveni on several occasions in decisions that were questionable. The excessive “printing of money” through issuance of Treasury bills and bonds for the 2011 elections, allowing the withdrawal of $750 million to purchase fighter jets, and approving suspicious $142 million payments to Basajjabalaba’s Haba Group. He has been criticised for not standing his ground. For a fact, he did stand his ground.
However, he was also a pragmatist that understood the political economy. Still, the markets loved him. In several reports by international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) often expressed confidence in the BoU for managing monetary policy effectively.
As he became frail, some noted that he had lost control of the BoU. This was more pronounced in the 2019 Katuntu Committee proceedings investigating the BoU closure of commercial banks since the 2000’s. From the proceedings, it appeared like he had lost control of the bank to his subordinates. The closure and liquidation of Crane Bank in 2016 brought all this to light. This perhaps is one of his biggest failings as BoU didn’t speak with one voice.
Some say he should have retired, which perhaps he should have prior to the 2016 elections. He stayed on. Mutebile believed he still had an active role to play in contributing to Uganda’s economic growth and continued reforms, despite his weakening health. He was no pushover. He brought stability within the BoU. In 2021, he could have also walked away after the expiry of his contract but still he accepted the challenge, even though BoU was going through its own transition.
He bows at as an economic reformer that is inscribed in Uganda’s current economic journey.
The author is a journalist.