Uganda bids farewell to respected central bank governor

Africa has produced a number of outstanding central bank governors over the decades, people who have blown away the cobwebs in dusty and sleepy institutions, infused discipline and efficiency into often sprawling and sluggish central banks, or, through forethought and decisive action, bailed out economies on the brink of collapse .

In this magnificent collection, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile (January 27, 1949 – January 23, 2022) stood out like a glittering star – a diamond among rubies. He was the longest-serving of all African central bankers and almost certainly the most influential in shaping his country’s economy.

Resistance to Idi Amin

He first gained national prominence as President of the Student Guild at Makerere University in Kampala. That was during the tumultuous period of the early 1970s, when Idi Amin, who had deposed President-elect Milton Obote, was becoming increasingly tyrannical and unhinged. Out of the blue, Amin issued a dictate giving all Asians, citizen or not, three months to leave the country.

In the international frenzy that followed, Mutebile, as a student leader, was asked for his opinion on live radio. He unequivocally condemned Amin’s decision, signing his death warrant. Somehow, by disguising himself as a proven Asian, he managed to get the last flight out of the country to the UK, thus escaping Amin’s clutches.

Faced with a new challenge in Britain, he set out for a completely foreign country and discovered the snags and humiliations of racism and life in exile. He continued his education at Durham University, where he studied economics and political science, and then went to Balliol College, Oxford.

He returned to East Africa and joined Dar es Salaam University as a lecturer while working on his PhD in economics.

The solution finder

Meanwhile, Uganda was going through another series of convulsions. Idi Amin fled to Saudi Arabia after losing a war with Tanzania, and his successors Yusuf Lule and Godfrey Binaisa did not last long in office. Milton Obote returned to the presidency, initiating a vicious ethnic conflict. He, in turn, was ousted in another military coup and replaced by General Tito Okello.

With the country crumbling by the day, Ugandans heaved a sigh of relief when Yoweri Museveni, who had waged a long guerrilla struggle against Idi Amin, entered Kampala and scattered the remnants of Okello’s army. He took over the presidency and promised stability and security to the desperate population.

At this point, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile came into his own. Not content to watch events from the relative safety of the University of Dar es Salaam, he offered his knowledge of high-level economics as well as his in-depth analysis of the structures, weaknesses and strengths of the country’s economic foundation to whoever was at the time leadership of Uganda was responsible.

While the political leadership was embroiled in a bitter struggle for survival, intrigue and counter-intrigue, a small group of civil servants and occasional ministers tried to keep the government machinery running.

A colleague of Mutebile’s at the time would tell me years later that Emmanuel was a very welcome addition to the severely understaffed and underpaid clique of civil servants. “He had a twinkle in his eyes like he’d found the perfect target. He was very enthusiastic and encouraged us. He believed that for every problem a solution could be found.”

Mutebile’s courageous defiance of Amin benefited him both among his peers and in the political class, and his Durham and Oxford education propelled him through all the departments in which he worked from 1979 to 1986, when Yoweri Museveni took the reins .

His positions ranged from Assistant Assistant Secretary to the President at the State House, to Undersecretary at the Department of Planning in 1981, to senior economist at the department, and then chief economist in 1984. In 1992, he became permanent secretary of the newly merged Department of Finance, Planning and Economic Development .

Crucial reform plan

In a warm obituary in the financial timesSir Paul Collier, British economist and author of Bottom billion – who worked and remained friends with Mutebile for 30 years – describes the meeting between Museveni and Mutebile:

“When the new president found Tumusiime-Mutebile, once a classmate turned chief economist at the planning ministry, he immediately ordered him to stem rampant inflation by revaluing the official exchange rate. Tumusiime-Mutebile patiently explained why this ordinary piece of economic illiteracy wouldn’t work, only to be overruled by his cocky new boss…

“It was only when confronted with an accelerating economic crisis in 1992 that Museveni realized that important economic policies had to be left to Tumusiime-Mutebile, who was appointed permanent secretary of a newly combined Ministry of Finance and Planning. There the economist launched a crucial reform program – he invited me to work with him.”

Sir Paul goes on to say that the partnership between the economist and the military leader-turned-president “resulted in a series of well-executed decisions that helped a burgeoning private sector capitalize on a coffee boom. It also laid the foundation for a dynamic economy.”

A deeply felt loss for Africa

Since then, Uganda’s economy has taken many twists and turns and Museveni has remained firmly at the helm. Constantly by his side, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile shaped, directed and guided the country’s economy as it navigated the difficult currents and whirlpools of our time.

With Tumusiime-Mutebile gone, Museveni will have a hard time finding a replacement for someone he once described as “irrepressible.” Ugandans will feel the loss badly because as long as he sat at his desk at the central bank, there was always a feeling that no matter how bad the economy was, there was someone who could handle it.

His loss will also be felt across Africa as a whole, as he was a much admired role model for other government bankers and finance ministers – and all who met him will mourn the death of what is perhaps Africa’s greatest central bank governor.

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