TABAN NDURU: The President and his fisherwomen, and men!

Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja issues a mosquito net to one of the market vendors at Kalerwe

Apologies, first and foremost; this column took leave just about three and a half years ago, mainly for selfish reasons. An intensive tour of duty beyond these shores made it impossible for the column to appear again.

This was made all the more complicated, at the time, by the closure of this newspaper and the incarceration of all its directors and top editors, as November 2017 came to a close. That the Red Pepper survived this disruption speaks to its resilience and that of its founders in the first place.

As a country, we should already be beyond the rather savage closure of newspapers and other media organizations, and carting off proprietors and editors into jail. There are a plethora of civilized methods of resolving conflicts with people we disagree with. Is that not why the bush war was started in February 1981?

My time out ended in May this year, and I got packed exactly on the morning of 24th May 2021 as former Speaker, Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, was being ousted from the powerful position of Speakership. The events leading up to that Monday morning were eventful, as President Museveni ensured that his man, Jacob Lokori Oulanyah, took the coveted job.

Mama Bukedea, Anita Among, easily took the Deputy Speakership, after the President pulled danger man Thomas Tayebwa out of the race that very morning. Kadaga had become quite powerful as Speaker, as the job comes with a huge budget and considerable control over MPs. Oulanyah will be powerful but within limits because without his master in support, the story would certainly have been different altogether.

Kadaga was wiser to take the lower position of Deputy Premier and Minister of East African Affairs. This ensures that she enjoys her retirement benefits as Deputy Speaker and then-Speaker in peace. Additionally, she retains a cabinet portfolio and will continue to be looked after at public expense. A quarter of a loaf is better than none. Brilliant! And at 65, everyone’s best years are behind them anyway.

With the position of Speaker and Deputy Speaker sorted, came the cabinet. Jessica Rose Apel Alupo took the vice presidency. I wonder whether anyone was surprised by this. In contemporary Uganda, the position of VP has in later years become simply ceremonial.

It is not clear to me what serious job Alupo’s predecessor was actually doing. In the early years of the NRM, the VP used to have an extra ministry added; so the late Dr. Kisekka and his immediate successor, Dr. Specioza Wandira-Kazibwe had additional ministries, presumably to keep them busy. As Agriculture Minister, Dr Kazibwe got issues when the valley dams’ saga came up and if I recall correctly, she just remained VP post the saga. 

Her successor, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, did not have a ministry to superintend over but reportedly took his job quite seriously, tucking a national crusade about upland rice growing. So he toured the country, promoting his pet rice project. It is reported he would call area army and police commanders to greet him while on his upcountry trips to promote his rice business. He did not last long in the position.

Edward Ssekandi went in with much greater humility and lasted ten years. I reckon this VP job will be easier for Jessica Alupo than the headache she endured as education minister from 2011-2016.

Only Amanya Mushega has been equal to the task of education minister since 1986 anyway, and you could also add the late Prof. Apolo Nsibambi who was there for a rather short stint. The rest have found that ministry complicated.

However, the president raised serious eyebrows with the appointment of Robinah Nabbanja as Prime Minister. Her appointment reminded us of the elevation of the late George Cosmas Adyebo to the same position in 1991. Nabbanja came to fame as an RDC and later as a vocal MP, but without saying anything spectacular.

As a layperson sandwiched between two doctor ministers and a technical PS, she appeared lost as a State Minister for Health (General Duties), especially as the coronavirus pandemic entered Uganda and required the kind of expertise the minister of state did not have. Indeed one wonders what Anifa Kawooya Bangirana, another surprise pick, is going to do as a replacement for Nabbanja in Wandegeya.

Nabbanja’s appointment and that of a few others was such a surprise that the President himself referred to his cabinet as that of fishermen, biblically. But the challenges of Nabbanja start with her appointment (my lawyer friend often tells me that the problems of a British lawyer begin with a victory in court!).  First, government business at that high level has become complicated and rather academic with reports and other documents to read and internalize. Giving out mosquito nets and Posho is a negligible part of the job of PM.

Indeed the brilliant Amama Mbabazi found it easier. Now you can imagine Nabbanja in Parliament ranged against the Abdu Katuntus and Leader of Opposition, Mathias Mpuuga. Nabbanja must also navigate the tricky business of providing leadership to people in government that are much more senior to her inexperience and competence; Kadaga, Lumumba, Kasaija, Otafiire, Muhwezi.

Maybe her boss will be calling her senior colleagues from time to time and reminding them about respecting the Prime Minister. We have been here before; a number of senior ministers used to ignore the late Adyebo.  Nabbanja also takes over at a bad time with Covid wreaking havoc on the country. Her half-thought through a package of UGX100,000 to vulnerable people has already raised more questions than answers and is likely to be messy. As the top fisherwoman of this cabinet, PM Nabbanja needs payers.

QUICK QUIP: This column congratulates our First Lady, Mrs. Janet Kataaha Museveni, upon her re-appointment as Minister of Education and Sports. There is so much that needs to be done in that ministry so she will perhaps start from where she left off when cabinet was dissolved earlier in the year.

However, her re-appointment cements a precedent in our body politic; that the office of the First Lady is now part of cabinet unless and until there is an unequivocal constitutional prohibition. Indeed if I became president myself, and God forbid, I would appoint my wife vice president.

That makes delegation geographically easy when I am away, yes? The problem of course is that if as president I took on a second and third wife (unlike the current president who is disciplined), then I may have to appoint them too. Now ladies and gentlemen, imagine if a certain Mwesigwa Rukutana (is he still in parliament?) became president of Uganda!

LEST-I-FORGET: The Red Pepper celebrated 20 years of existence this year. It looks like yesterday when RP came to us on the streets. My belated congratulations! It is not easy to run a private, indigenous newspaper in our times in this small economy. The vagaries have been many; economic hardships, closures, arson (the factory was burnt down at some point), threats to human life and dignity with imprisonment and prosecutions, among others. Dr. Richard Tusiime and his colleagues have done a tremendous job, keeping the RP afloat. We wish you many more years ahead.

ONE-FOR-THE-ROAD: Covid-19 is going to turn this country upside-down and a lot more needs to be done to stop it in its tracks. The government did well to lockdown for 42 days recently but lockdowns are not a cure. There is a need to scale up vaccination, which is still low by any standards. There is also a need to increase public awareness and education among the population about SOPs and individual alertness. Resources need to be channelled into enhancing our medical and related facilities. The economy, particularly small businesses, must be revived. It was shocking to me that Ugandans, including medical personnel, have been dying because of the absence of oxygen! We risk falling back into the 20th century!

Lastly, on this matter, this public health challenge is, or ought to be, honestly bipartisan. Can the government reach out to other people on the other side of the political aisle with knowledge on these matters and pick their brain too. I found Dr. Kiiza Besigye and Dr. Abed Bwanika, for instance, are quite knowledgeable on issues related to this pandemic. Maybe it is time a national forum on this matter was established or revived (whatever the case) to harness their ideas too. Our heartfelt condolences to those who have lost dear ones. May the souls of the deceased rest in peace.

May God strengthen those nursing the sick, and bless the efforts of our medical personnel.

I can also be reached at: [email protected]

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