A year after Mutebile’s passing, whose economy is it anyway?

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • How much of the current runaway corruption can we attribute to sending thousands of civil servants into the crocodile-infested river of early retirement and having their replacements watch the water turn blood-red with the pain of penury?

In life, former Central Bank governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile was heralded as one of the leading intellectual lights of the NRA/M government. First at the Treasury, and later at Bank of Uganda, he was one of the architects and builders of the economy over the past four decades.

In death, he provides an epitaph for the examination of the economy he built. Last week’s Mutebile memorial lecture was the first public opportunity.

First, some context. To some, the NRA/M’s attempts at barter trade soon after taking power were a testament to its earlier socialist and Marxist ideologies. Hindsight now shows that it was, at best, economic naivety, inexperienced statecraft, and a lack of political maturity.

The impending implosion of socialism was so apparent that even the Obote II government had swung to the right in an attempt to breathe life into the war-torn economy. The NRA had also stripped itself of its socialist sloganeering long before it began cavorting with Tiny Rowland and his ilk even before the Nairobi Peace Talks.

Bartering maize for transformers might have been one way to side-step the acute lack of foreign exchange, but it was always going to end in failure as an economic policy.

The pivot to capitalism was inevitable and, in an economy starved of foreign direct investment for more than a decade of war and political instability, necessary. The decision policy makers like Mutebile faced wasn’t whether to open up the economy, but how far and how quickly.

Another question that ought to have been asked, but which does not appear to have preoccupied the minds of the policy makers was, for whom should the economy work? This omission appears surprising, given the political grievances it had fed in the colonial-era trader riots in Buganda, as well as the post-independence expulsion of foreigners, most prominently of the Asians in 1972.

The liberalisation and privatisation policy that Mutebile helped execute has delivered one of the longest streaks of year-on-year economic growth. Yet there was, at his memorial lecture, and in contemporary public discourse, a sense of disillusionment.

Government plans to revamp Uganda Telecom and to renationalise the power dams and national distribution network drip with seller’s remorse. Social welfare programmes such as cash handouts to the elderly and vulnerable, or to parish groups are a repudiation of large parts of the structural adjustment programme.

The injection of eye-watering sums of money into the national carrier, Uganda Airlines, is, for instance, an expensive acknowledgment that private sector-led economic growth was a useful but insufficient tool for transforming the economy.

Controlling inflation helped bring the economy to an even keel, but did the obsession with keeping it below five percent undermine wage and overall economic growth? Privatisation brought capital and skills into key sectors of the economy, but could that aim have been met without the state retaining some interest in previously state-owned enterprises as Kenya appears to have done profitably?

How much of the current runaway corruption can we attribute to sending thousands of civil servants into the crocodile-infested river of early retirement and having their replacements watch the water turn blood-red with the pain of penury?

It would be unfair to lay all the blame at the feet of policy designers like Mutebile. Corruption and cronyism within the top echelons of the political elite made it a difficult stain to get rid of. And responsibility for the decision not to list many of the companies that had been earmarked lay elsewhere.

Yet it is hard not to reflect on the fact that Mutebile, like many other top government officials before and after him, passed away in a private hospital in a foreign country because none of the hospitals in Uganda was deemed good enough to treat him.

This is particularly hard to take when one considers that Uganda once had one of the best healthcare systems in sub-Saharan Africa. What is the point of building an economy, whether led by the private or public sector, if it can’t so much as treat its sick? Whose economy is it, anyway?

One could say that the failure to appoint a new Central Bank governor a year after Mutebile’s passing points to the difficulty of finding a suitable replacement for a man who towered over the economy. But one could also argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that Mutebile’s position as the leading regime technocrat said more about his peers than it did about him.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter.
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Twitter: @Kalinaki