Irene Kaggwa brought in the soft skills at UCC

Emilly C. Maractho (PhD)

What you need to know:

  • “Her greatest contribution is perhaps normalising meaningful engagement with various stakeholders.’’

It is official. Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has got a new boss, Mr. George William Nyombi Thembo. Congratulations are in order to him. New appointments can bring surprises. Surprised or not you must work with what you’ve got, making the most of what is on your plate. And God knows, UCC needed a substantive head. Time will reveal what industry fortunes are with this appointment.

But this is not about the new ED. This is about the ED we have known for the last few years, the director for Engineering and Communication Infrastructure at UCC, Irene Kaggwa.
Many actors were surprised by the advert for an executive director in September. They had sort of assumed that after all these years, it would be an easy sail for Ms Kaggwa to be confirmed in the position as substantive. She had done well, or so they thought.

Sometimes the Kaggwa years feels like so many uneventful years for the industry. Not much drama. No closing this or that television station, suspending this or the other journalist, and many such dramatic things that sometimes appear to emerge from regulators of the sector. 

Ms Kaggwa mastered the use of what we know as soft skills, and made a difference at UCC. People have pointed out to a number of good things she has done in her acting capacity, and one wonders how much more she could have done if she had been substantive. 
Her greatest contribution is perhaps, normalising meaningful engagement with various stakeholders, and facilitating a descent level of conversation, when there were potential stalemates. Her soft skills, for an engineer, were remarkable. 

This is not to say engineers only think numbers. It turns out, most people who study and work with machines (in charge of infrastructure etc), tend to have a ‘hard skill’ mindset.
Adam Grant, a remarkable writer, tells the story of how the term soft skills came to be used. In his book Hidden Potential, he writes about how character skills like proactivity and determination have been dismissed as ‘soft skills,’ an unfortunate thing in his view.

The story, according to Grant, is that psychologists in the 1960s were tasked to expand the US Army training beyond a narrow focus on operating tanks and guns and had zeroed on the importance of human skills like leadership and teamwork capabilities, and labelled these, ‘soft skills.’ The tank and gun skills were referred to as ‘hard skills’ because they involved working with weapons made from steel and ammunition. Even then, the soft skills were what the soldiers really needed to succeed at their other roles. Many organisations today, recognise this with the emphasis put on culture and organisational leadership.

In our field, we think because many female journalists are drawn to or are assigned to tell the ‘soft stories’ of education, health, family and religion, they are weak and not strong enough to tell the ‘hard stories’ that we know as politics, the economy, security and technology etcetera. An unfortunate situation too. But life is teaching us these days, about what matters. Soft skills matter a great deal. They change mindsets. They make you want to give of yourself to an organisation. They make you cooperate. And Irene Kaggwa got many actors to cooperate.

The next five years of Mr Nyombi Thembo at UCC, with an election coming up that is likely to bring us more anxiety, is a must watch for media and communication actors. They have to hope, that his years of experience will translate into some dividends for a sector that is both promising and plagued with pitfalls of all kinds. 

The ICTs are a moving target, evolving each day. It remains to be seen, how much of the ICT potential for national transformation will be harnessed. New technologies, with all their potential, only makes sense if their regulation unlocks that potential. In many countries, regulation overreach works more, to ensure technology remains a hidden potential, afraid of its dark side. 

When I suggested, a few days to the elections in 2021, at a conference in Nairobi that there was a high likelihood that the Internet would be shut down in the coming days, some people thought I was crazy. Who shuts down the Internet in this day and age? And of course, it came to pass. Even I had hoped that I was crazy. But when you have observed these things long enough in Uganda, they become fairly predictable. 

Just as her predecessor claimed to have received a call in 2016 over social media, it is possible Ms Kaggwa received that call too. We can let her be, and remember her tenure as one of those productive seasons, and meaningful relationship with industry actors. We wait to see what kind of call the incoming ED will receive in 2026 and how he works towards the elections. One hopes, some of the gains made will be made solid and move us to the next mile.

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       [email protected]