NSSF is today’s meal. Byarugaba is the first course

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Byarugaba, clever as he is,  never understood and thus broke the first rule of the parastatal sector in Uganda – never be spectacularly successful.

My friend Richard Byarugaba, the in-between or outgoing Uganda National Social Security Fund CEO, is a brilliant business manager. Like many of us, he has his failings, nor  does he qualify to be beatified as a saint, but you can’t deny him the prize for one of his generation’s most imaginative Ugandan CEOs.
Today NSSF, with trillions of workers’ shillings in its coffers, thanks to some of the best investment decisions inside and outside Uganda, is easily the most successful state-created institution standing - and in big trouble. The vultures are circling.

A cash-strapped government is raiding it for Sh1 trillion to fund big ticket but largely unproductive activities. The parent Labour Ministry has sunk its claws into it, seeking at least Shs600 billion to fund unproductive activities too. It is being pressured to dole out billions of shillings to fund nebulous modernisation of agriculture and “value addition” activities.
Of course, once every 40 years, a miracle happens in Uganda. It might happen, and this workers’ money could create some economic magic and be repaid with interest to NSSF. Most likely, if common history is anything to go by, the end of NSSF as we know it is neigh. Another generational robbery is about to pass.

How did we get here? For starters, it is the timing. Both local (corruption, political polarisation, transition uncertainties, regime anaemia due to withering political longevity et al.) and international forces (Covid, global financial slowdown, food inflation made worse by the Russian invasion of Ukraine) have left the government seriously out of pocket. The NSSF’s trillions are the only pot left in town.
Secondly, Byarugaba, clever as he is,  never understood and thus broke the first rule of the parastatal sector in Uganda – never be spectacularly successful. In what would have been his crowning moment, Byarubaba, too, has become proof of that old saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

And then he broke the third rule. If you are spectacularly successful, never ever leave a penny unaccounted for. Now that it seems he did, it is being weaponised against him and the workers’ savings. In another African country where the same traditions apply in Uganda, I have a friend who did wonders with a government-donor-funded programme. The numbers didn’t add up when the receipts were turned in on a tiny training project. They were just $10 (Shs37,000) short. He put it down to a clerical error, and offered to pay it out of his wallet since it was the price of a takeaway cup of coffee at his favourite cafe.
A smart Byarugaba-like fellow, he too failed to see that the issue was not about the $10. It was with the nearly $1 million he had built up in the fund. 
The vultures wanted it. They kicked him out over the $10, put in their man, and cleaned it out.

Fourthly, he was at the crossroads of an official Ugandan malaise. When it comes to public enterprises, we are a country that can’t chew and walk at the same time. We obsess with one thing at a time; whether it is the promise of vanilla, Kiira Motor’s electric cars, coffee, the Entebbe Expressway, Uganda Airlines, or the new River Nile bridge (you can add to the list), it is one thing at a time. Either that single thing is portrayed as the saviour that will catapult the country to global hegemony or as what will doom it. Whichever way it cuts, it is one thing at a time. Right now, we can’t chew NSSF and also walk. We stop until we are done chewing, and then we will walk. Byarugaba is the first course of the meal.
None of the above is what we wanted to write about, though. We wanted to go into some history. Kenya’s NSSF was established in 1965. Uganda’s was established in 1985 - 20 years later. The National Social Security Fund Act (No. 8 of 1985) was adopted on June 13, 1985. The Milton Obote-led UPC government was overthrown on July 27, 1985. The NSSF was the last “reconstruction” act of Obote II.

It, therefore, didn’t take off until after President Yoweri Museveni and the NRM came to power in January 1986. And then, it took Bidandi Ssali, who was the minister of Labour, to make it a reality. He appointed a reform inquiry that laid down the current NSSF rule book. The majority of the people behind it were intellectuals from the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) stable, of which he had been Secretary-General and Museveni President.
The UPM social-democratic tradition deeply informed the architecture of the NSSF. Without the last-gasp effort of the old UPC in 1985 and the Bidandi-UPM swan song of 1986-1987, perhaps we wouldn’t have the NSSF because it wasn’t in the core of  “NRM proper”. The fate of the NSSF today was written in the stars 37 years ago.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3