Tumusiime Mutebile was the real deal

Author: Muniini K. Mulera. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • He bore his physical illness with dignity and courage. His sharp intellect compensated for his weakened physique. I always left him better informed than I was when I walked into his presence.

Dear Tingasiga: His name was Emmanuel Kirenga Baryabota Tumusiime Mutebile. Some called him The Governor. Others called him Professor. And others called him Doctor. I called him Tumusiime.

And he always answered to that name, one I called him when I became pulled into his orbit in 1965 or 1966. Kabaare, our hometown, was a most exciting place to be in the 1960s. School holidays brought home boys and girls from Uganda’s great high schools of the day.

We were young and ambitious. Our social interactions were warm and energizing. Those of us with an early interest in politics and world affairs gravitated to a group that often met at a place called Ekisimenti. This was a raised brickand-concrete slab in a small, beautiful park located next to Carvalho’s shop, at the junction of Main Street and Coryndon Road.

Ekisimenti served as an assembly point for the intellectually needy, me among them, and those endowed with brains that would not have needed assistance from Google. Among the latter were Fred Mpangaana Mirekiniga, Ruhakana Rugunda, Michael (Shaka) Ssali, Kisimba Masiko, Matwire, Geoff rey Kaamusingize, Jonathan Monday wa Muzaarirehe, Pamina Mutanga, James and John Birihanze and Tumusiime mwene Mutebile.

Handsome, with a very warm smile and captivating eloquence, Tumusiime helped interpret the news that came to us via the Uganda Argus and, later, The People newspaper. Though I hardly understood what he and others were talking about, I felt that I was part of a vibrant movement, a new tribe if you will, of young people who were intellectually living beyond the formal classroom.

In the impromptu debates at that colloquium, Tumusiime, then a student at Kigezi College, Butobere, was among a handful of individuals that towered above others because of their intellect and their mastery of the English language. I suspect that part of my attraction to him was his friendly manner, devoid of the impatience of some of our seniors. He was an environmentally friendly young man, with a natural ability to recruit followers without effort.

When I started high school in 1967, the long bus rides to and from Kampala provided ample opportunities to travel with the brainy people who were my seniors.

Among them was Tumusiime Mutebile, in Senior 5 at Makerere College School. With Tumusiime and his kind on board, the bus would become a mobile colloquium, with people dissecting weighty matters while we sat silent, imbibing what we could, marveling at our kin discussing and offering solutions to the racist problems in Rhodesia, the civil war in Nigeria, the Arab Israeli conflict, the civil rights struggle in the USA, and a war in a place called Vietnam that took me years to figure out.

By 1970, Mutebile and Ruhakana Rugunda, now at Makerere University, were the unelected leaders of the students from Kigyezi. When Mutebile stood for election as students’ guild president in 1971, we naturally rooted for him. He defeated Elly Karuhanga, an equally charismatic and attractive candidate, in a very exciting and hard-fought contest.

Truth be told, Mutebile was one of those people who would have been very hard to beat in any contest then, and even in the years that followed. In the 1990s, Mutebile smiled when I asked him why he had chosen the civil service instead of competitive politics.

When I shared with him my personal dream contest between him and Ruhakana Rugunda for Kabale Municipality, he laughed and shared with me his reasons why he had decided to leave that seat to our old friend and coworker. I would have remained completely neutral in that contest, I assured him. We laughed again.

Yes, Tumusiime’s laughter was one of his endearing characteristics. Though he did not suffer fools gladly, he was a soft-hearted and very kind man whose rise to the top of Uganda’s financial sector never constrained his social and emotional accessibility.

He was loved by the people of Kabaare and Kigyezi because he was genuinely one of us. Mutebile was generous with his personal money and gave a lot of it to Kigyezi with a view to uplifting the education and economic standards of his kinsmen.

Mutebile was one of the founders and most committed members of the International Community of Banyakigezi (ICOB). In the coming days, the Board of ICOB will address his critical role in that organisation.

I am supremely underqualified to answer two important questions about Tumusiime. First, what is his legacy? For 35, he has midwifed an overhaul of Uganda’s fiscal and economic policies. What has been their impact during his lifetime? What is their projected impact on Uganda in 20 and 50 years from now?

Second, how did Mutebile successfully serve five governments (Binaisa, Muwanga, Obote, Okello and Museveni) in a country whose rulers were prone to revenge and vindictiveness?

These are important questions worthy of thorough interrogation by objective scholars and observers. What I know is that Mutebile was a very intelligent professional with a sophistication that enabled him to tread a very thorny path through the corridors of power in an essentially dysfunctional state.

His advantage was that he had a high degree of integrity and was very dedicated to his job and his country. Our encounters in his last years were as delightful as those in our youth. He bore his physical illness with dignity and courage. His sharp intellect compensated for his weakened physique.

I always left him better informed than I was when I walked into his presence. Part of the credit goes to his beloved wife Betty whose love, energy, and grace with which she shared his journey enabled him to fight a very long battle with poor health, even as he served his country with distinction.

We honour her and lift her up to the Lord for His grace and comfort at this difficult moment. I believe that in his last days, Tumusiime knew he had climbed the great Mount Muhabura, had reached its peak, had looked back at his country below, and had smiled with contentment and gratitude.

Like the rest of us, he had his weaknesses and faults. However, he was an exceptional man. He rose to the top of his career and occupied a seat at the highest table of the land, yet he never forgot his roots. He operated in the world of international finance, yet he was at home in community service. Mutebile was the real deal. We shall miss him.

Mulera is a medical doctor.
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