2009, I was together with other journalists crammed into the Ministry of Finance boardroom, to witness a handover of the leadership of the ministry from one minister to another. As a sign that the occasion was pretty serious a sign up sheet for names was passed around. Outside the room (or was it at the back) some cold sodas and water bottles were lined up. Whenever I encounter a scene with “soft drinks” being served for journalists I sense that someone is trying to make a point.
Before Dr.Ezra Suruma arrived together with the new Minister Hon. Hajat Syda Namirembe Bhumba, a few technical bigwigs, the guys who actually run the show in the Ministry were having a hearty conversation.
I pulled out my notebook, my ears prickled because it had been rumored that Dr Suruma was deeply resented by the powerful technocrati in this powerful ministry. One version of this story was that the old economist was “slow”. Days would pass before his signature would be appended on some document forcing the paperpusher gang to sit on their hands and offer explanations to the government’s various donors.
“ Ministers come and go. We stay” was what someone said as the techies laughed away.
Enter the bespectacled Suruma who looks more of a university lecturer than a Minister followed by Hon. Bhumba, bedecked in some colorful outfit. These scenes stayed with me not because the tehnocrats versus the politicos is a favorite stab from the comedy “ Yes Minister ” but because Suruma gave his successor such good advise. Had she taken notes maybe she would still be a Minister today.
Suruma warned her to be conscious of the weight and responsibility of signing documents. He said the paper pushers at the Ministry would wait till one was tired to create a wind of urgency concealing some problem. We all listened while Bhumba with a slight glitter in her eyes and bristling in her new clothes made some ministerial statement about her intentions.
Suruma’s rigidity ( or maybe even integrity) maybe explains why he did not last as a Minister. Bhumba was a natural politician with a constituency seat in Nakaseke while Suruma was an ideologue in a party where personal relations and clique-ism had long replaced merit and ideas. He was ex-officio without a constituency sit.
One conclusion about the choice of Syda Bhumba as Minister was that she was a “yes” woman and formed the other side of the coin of the type of appointee whose life span tended to be longer. If you compare Ms Bhumba to say Uganda’s longest serving Works Minister Hon John Nasasira, her reported inability to say no to the President was marched by the latter’s comradeship with the man at State House. Her appointment did not require competence while his competence did not come at the expense of his loyalty. I suspect Dr. Suruma to be one who kept his own counsel, a terrible quality to have as a Minister.
These comparisons are important today for many reasons but lets start with the one’s concerning Uganda’s oil sector. The Ministry of Energy has tabled two upstream bills that are due to be debated. Prior to their introduction the government signed the pioneer oil development deal with a consortium of companies led by the UK based Tullow Oil. As he explained his reasons for the signing the President said he had “ordered” the Minister in charge Irene Muloni (who incidentally is holding a brief of Energy which Bhumba once held with disastrous consequences for the energy sector) to go ahead and sign.
If you read my previous post you will see that the circumstances were not all bad. However the notion that a Minister is simply a vessel for the Executive could clearly lead down a different path as well.
The two oil bills (there is a third, slightly better bill known as the Finance Bill) have one prominent flaw. They give the Minister (meaning the minister in charge of petroleum activities) the power of an Arab Sheikh over the oil sector. Indeed if, taking the example of Bhumba and Muloni, one can replace the Minister envisioned in the law with the word President; all based on the track record of the present political leadership, a clearer picture of the implications emerge.
Without additional checks it is safe to assume that the Minister’s role or will is that of the President and bearing that the decision of any Ugandan President may be good or bad, such a decision, under the present law, would fly without much resistance.
Perhaps in the future, if the law is not changed or the political culture of “Presidentialism” is not reversed, maybe a Minister like Suruma (who recalls his days in office in an interview with my colleague Tabu Butagira here) may be “mistakenly” appointed. Then maybe some pushback may arise as such a man takes his time signing papers and delays kowtowing to the demands of the technocrati who serve without term limits in these offices.
It is however safe to say that such a time should never come and Mps debating the present bills should look to the recent history of cabinet and government to impose better controls within the legislation itself. This aught to include greater checks and balances in the discretion of the decision-makers in the sector, its institutions and their relationship to state house and parliament.
Over the last 10 weeks I have been involved in pre-analysis of the bills, which like many laws and new institutions are analysed by external experts. Here are three such reviews from Professor Jenik Radon and his students at Columbia University, the charity Global Witness and the campaign Platform based in the UK.
All three (and there are several others) point to technical flaws like weak environmental protection, unclear language and anti-transparency. However many a Ugandan will recognize the political theatre within which these laws unchanged will operate. One of Uganda government’s systemic flaws traditionally has been that regulators are ruled over by the regulated. Even strong laws therefore tend to have limitations. However a weak piece of legislation without clear, concise language limiting discretion of those exercising power and important responsibility will be a field day for politicians now and in the future.
We can return to the nitty-gritty of the laws in the coming weeks and I encourage those with views to help debate them here. Last week I was speaking on a panel at the Stanford Association for International Development annual conference. It’s a student led organization.
Our keynote speaker was none other than John Githongo famous for trying to keep greedy Kenyan politicians off the national cookie jars. A later panel featured Francis Fukuyama with whom I was engaged in readings on state-building as a Knight Fellow here (class of 2010/11).
One of the points that Fukuyama made was that patronage the kind that is rife allover criticisms of how African governments work (or don’t) was a “near universal” condition of early democracies. In other words it is nothing to be surprised about.
He went ahead to argue that the development of “Weberian institutions” (modern institutions which are blind to the sort of color that patronage organizes) was the consequence not of institutions but of politics. This is an important point to me because many governance initiatives especially Ugandan ones have been organized into Ugandan politics by a consensus of donors and development partners.
I only raise this because I am arguing that better laws in the oil sector are an important investment and citing expert opinion from abroad. However if only politics and not technical fixes settle these things why bother now with such a technical fix as a good law. After all if you have been to Kampala no one respects the law on seatbelts, helmets or even smoking in public? Fukuyama’s argument that it takes social mobilization of groups to see through certain types of compliance may be eons away.
Perhaps. I think that “predatory corruption” (in the words of Githongo, the eating of the vampire kind) is already organizing politics into a strong constituency for better management of public affairs. I would rather that when Ugandans seek compliance, a law is there for provide cover than not.