Months later, we hark back to Mutebile, Economic Tribe & Co.

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • For me, though, the lasting imprint of Emmanuel and the now diminished tribe of liberal economists at the Ministry of Finance is outside the corridors of government and the central bank.

It will soon be three months since the former Bank of Uganda governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile passed on, and his replacement has not yet been named as of the time of writing this.

That might be a good sign, suggesting the search for a candidate of equal measure is far and wide, or it could be a bad sign, indicating the factions that orbit around the Ugandan Presidency are deadlocked over which of their bad candidates should take the job.

Whichever way, Tumusiime-Mutebile, who went on to become the longest-serving central bank governor in Africa, will be a tough act to follow. Emmanuel was not an easy man to like. His bluntness, brashness, and intellectual arrogance rubbed many the wrong way. He accumulated a lot of enemies along the way although, in my view, for the right reasons.

Many people disliked Tumusiime-Mutebile for the liberal economic policies he pushed starting while he was Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, which they believed disadvantaged Ugandan businesses and privileged foreign ones; for championing what they alleged were World Bank/IMF policies that impoverished millions and made a few rich; and his refusal to prop up the shilling and enable Ugandan businesses to buy foreign exchange cheaply at a rigged rate. In this, he was lumped together with his successor Keith Muhakanizi, and they came bogeymen for the anti-neoliberal camp and Ugandan national capitalists. It’s a good – and even healthy - thing for people to dislike you because of your intellectual and philosophical persuasion, rather than because of your ethnicity.

If they challenge you vigorously, new and better ideas, knowledge, and understanding will sometimes emerge from the clash.

In the fury, it is important not to lose sight of what the neo-liberal cast at Finance and Bank of Uganda achieved under Tumusiime-Mutebile. While inequality has risen, it is also true that under their watch Uganda recorded one of the most dramatic drops in poverty over two decades ever posted in a developing economy. In 1993, 56.4 per cent of Ugandans were below the national poverty line, but that had decreased to 19.7 per cent by 2013. That is still high and has inched up in recent years, but it is an achievement worth the historical record.

For me, though, the lasting imprint of Emmanuel and the now diminished tribe of liberal economists at the Ministry of Finance is outside the corridors of government and the central bank.

I spoke directly and argued a lot with Emmanuel when The Monitor was still on Dewinton Road before it moved in its prosperity age to its own digs in the Industrial Area.  A lot of those conversations took place outside at the entrance of our office. He would tell the receptionist to call me, and I would come down. Occasionally, Wafula Oguttu, who was less persuaded of the merits of a freewheeling economic liberalisation than I was, would pass by and they would have a good-natured squabble and tease each other. Emmanuel would tell Wafula he didn’t understand economics, and Waf would chide him as a sell-out to the World Bank.

After our chat, he would drive away, or go to Sardinia Restaurant, and Masala Delight which offered a range of South Asian dishes.

At that time Dewinton represented something important to Emmanuel. Sardinia was the longest continuously operating restaurant in Kampala and owned by bi-racial Ugandans. Many of today’s Kampalans might find it hard to comprehend, but Masala was the first such restaurant in Kampala in nearly 30 years. It was a statement of the emerging cosmopolitanism of the city, and disruption of Kampala’s culinary provincialism. And there was The Monitor, the first such independent media enterprise by Ugandans.

Dewinton embodied possibility, cosmopolitanism, and the glory of the hustle. Emmanuel would often say, pointing to the traffic along the street and cool fellows going into Masala, “look at these people. They just need the government to get out of their way and they will make themselves and this country rich.”

In short, they believed in Ugandans and their enterprise. They became the first cohort of bureaucrats to stake their careers on it. They enabled a large part of the free enterprise Uganda we see today; he, Muhakanizi, folks like Michael Opagi at Privatisation Unit, Mary Muduli in the Budget office, Emmanuel Nyirinkindi on utility sector reform, Louis Kasekende, and others.

A friend, a Ugandan journalist who works for an international media outlet, returned from South Sudan recently. She wrote me; “I went to the famous Konyokonyo Market. Virtually not a single South Sudanese in sight. All traders, boda bodas, gadi gadi men, are Ugandans. All the fruit and vegetable is Ugandan. You’d think you were in Kalerwe Market”. Tumusiime-Mutebile and his economic tribe saw, understood the spirit that drives those Ugandans in Konyokonyo, and gambled on it. It took guts.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.