The president’s choice of ministers and what it tells us about the factors that shape the character of cabinet
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | President Yoweri Museveni’s recent cabinet has excited a lot of debate. Many pundits question its competence to manage the country and lead it to the proverbial middle income status. Yet I don’t think that is the main aim of cabinet. In a poor, backward almost fictional nation-state like Uganda, the main role of cabinet is nation building, not technical and economic management. Hence, the most critical issue is whether the cabinet represents the different social groups that make up the polity called Uganda. These social groups are ethnic, demographic, religious and increasingly gender.
Our country is highly diverse with over 40 different linguistic groups and counting. It was created over 100 years ago by the British who cobbled together these ethnic groups together to form Uganda. Many of these groups were hostile and in competition with each other, or indifferent to each other or even in cooperation. The British did not rule Uganda was one nation-state but in a decentralized form as a collection of many ethnicities. After independence, the biggest challenge has been how to create a common national consciousness among this diverse collection of ethnic groups. And of course we also have our religious, demographic and gender groups.
Ugandans, like other people in other poor countries, are obsessed with cabinet. For most of them, it is not what a minister (or cabinet) does but what he/she represents in their imagination that is important. Cabinet represents the seat of national power and resource distribution. So, every ethnic group wants to see its son or daughter in cabinet. In their imagination, the presence of one of their own in cabinet means their inclusion in power. This gives them a sense of belonging to the nation. Thus, the most important issue about cabinet is: is it nationally representative of the different social groups that constitute the polity called Uganda? If yes, then the president would have done the right thing in our specific context.
The second aim of cabinet for any president or ruling party is derived from the first and is whether it builds an effective electoral coalition. Each cabinet minister from a given community must have delivered and therefore should be able to deliver their co-ethnics to the president and the ruling party at the next election. In selecting ministers, any reasonable president must ask whether each one of them that he/she picks exercises enough influence in their ethnic community to command a large following. Any leader in a poor country like Uganda who doesn’t think this way and appoint cabinet accordingly will not rule for long.
For Museveni specifically, there are also other considerations he makes in selecting cabinet. He has old loyalties to reward such as “historicals.” These are comrades he fought with over many years and feels they should retain some seats in cabinet. Then he has friends and relatives to placate. Of course, technical and leadership competences are not necessarily mutually exclusive with these considerations of identity. However, sometimes they conflict. Where competence and national representation conflict, the latter wins. This is because voters do not necessarily reward politicians with reelection for performance in their jobs. Rather they reward them for presenting themselves as champions of their communities.
Therefore, the ability of a minister to run a ministry efficiently and effectively is not really as important as we think. If the minister can satisfy the psychological need for belonging in a given constituency – ethnic, religious, demographic or gender – without even performing well at their job, such a minister is a great asset. If they can deliver the votes of their social group, that makes them even more valuable. If they can do the technical work, that adds to the merit. Ultimately therefore technical or managerial competence comes last – and is indeed overrated.
It is here that the issue of the new prime minister designate rears its ugly head. The choice of prime minister, Robinah Nabanja, is a little known entity. Since she was selected, she has been a subject of much derision on social media. Videos of her have where she speaks bluntly in a way that Ugandans relate to “villagers” have gone viral. The videos show her dressed shabbily, acting without much social sophistication and sitting on the grass ignoring chairs. Critics claims that being short, fat and ugly, she lacks the “pedigree” to be a prime minister. Her supporters including the president have said she is new and fresh and is likely to make an effective manager.
It is here that Museveni has contradicted the main selling point in his campaign against Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. Museveni and his handlers asked Ugandans to elect him because he has experience in governing the country, and has pedigree. They argued that Bobi Wine was young, inexperienced musician who lacked the pedigree to lead the country. Why then does the president and his acolytes now throw this qualification when it comes to the choice of prime minister? I had been disappointed by some of my intellectual friends who voted for Bobi Wine but this makes me pause and reflect.
Besides it is not what leaders do that matters most. It is what they represent. Uganda needs a prime minister who represents our national aspirations. We want to be a modern sophisticated country. Therefore, we need a prime minister who has pedigree; one who, where he/she goes to conferences abroad makes the country proud by their looks, dress code and by their articulation of issues. I am sure there are many Ugandans with such a profile who are also competent to manage the machinery of government. Indeed, this is what Museveni has previously done with the appointment as prime minister such figures as Kintu Musoke, Prof. Apollo Nsibambi, Amama Mbabazi and Ruhakana Rugunda.
Of course it is possible that Nabanja could prove to be much more than the caricatures of her we have seen in the videos circulating on social media. She may turnout to be competent in running the machinery of government, perhaps exhibit sophistication and worldliness and pedigree. But there is little in her background to show that such a promise is likely. On the contrary, the little of her management style that I have seen has been like that of former Tanzanian president, John Magufuli.
In one video she visits a hospital and finds people in a queue. Without first understanding what is happening she intimidates the guards and hospital staff to let them into the hospital apparently because crowding outside risks spreading covid. One wonders how letting such a large mass of people enter the hospital wards without even sanitizing reduces the risk. I hope that my superficial view of her is wrong because future generations will be happy that I was wrong.