Uganda says goodbye to respected central bank governor

Bank of Uganda governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, who passed away at the age of 72 in January, was respected at home and abroad for his stewardship of the economy.

Africa has produced a crop of outstanding central bank governors over the decades, people who have blown away the cobwebs in dusty and somnolent institutions, injected discipline and efficiency in often sprawling and sluggish central banks, or by dint of foresight and decisive action, have rescued economies that were on the brink of going under. 

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

Opposition to Idi Amin

He first came to national prominence while president of the students’ guild at Makerere University, Kampala. This was during the tumultuous period in the early 1970s when Idi Amin, who had deposed the elected President Milton Obote, was becoming increasingly tyrannical and unhinged. Amin, out of the blue, issued a diktat giving all Asians, citizens or not, three months to leave the country.

In the international hue and cry that followed, Mutebile, as the student leader, was asked for his opinion on live radio. He condemned Amin’s decision in no uncertain manner and in the process signed his death warrant. Somehow, by disguising himself as an expelled Asian, he managed to get the last flight out of the country to the UK and thus escaped Amin’s clutches.

In the UK, he faced a fresh challenge, making his way in a totally alien country and discovering the barbs and degradation of racism and life in exile. He continued his education at Durham University where he read economics and government and then went to Balliol College, Oxford.

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

The solution-finder

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

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

This was when Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile came into his own. Not satisfied with watching events from the relative safety of the University of Dar es Salaam, he offered his knowledge of high-level economics as well as his deeply considered analysis of the structures, the weaknesses and the strengths of the economic bedrock of the country to whoever was in charge of running Uganda at the time.

While the political leadership was locked in a tooth-and-nail struggle for survival and plotting and counter-plotting, a small band of civil servants and the occasional minister tried to keep the machinery of government functioning.

One of Mutebile’s colleagues from those times was to tell me years later that Emmanuel was a very welcome addition to the severely understaffed and underpaid coterie of civil servants. “He had a sparkle in his eyes, as if he had found the perfect destination. He was very enthusiastic and cheered us up. He believed a solution for all problems could be found.”

Mutebile’s brave stand against Amin stood him in good stead among his colleagues as well as the political class and his Durham and Oxford education elevated him within all the departments he worked in from 1979 to 1986, when Yoweri Museveni took hold of the reins.

His positions ranged from deputy principal secretary to the president at State House, to undersecretary in the Ministry of Planning in 1981, senior economist at the ministry and then chief economist in 1984. In 1992, he was appointed permanent secretary to the newly combined Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.

Decisive reform plan

In a warm obituary in the Financial Times, Sir Paul Collier, the British economist and author of the The Bottom Billion – who worked with and remained friends with Mutebile for 30 years – describes the meeting between Museveni and Mutebile:

“Finding Tumusiime-Mutebile, once a fellow student, now chief economist at the ministry of planning, the new President promptly ordered him to stop rampant inflation by revaluing the official exchange rate. Tumusiime-Mutebile patiently explained why this common piece of economic illiteracy would not work, only to be overruled by his overconfident new boss…

“Only when faced by an accelerating economic crisis in 1992 did Museveni realise that key economic policies must be left to Tumusiime-Mutebile, who was raised to permanent secretary of a newly combined ministry of finance and planning. There, the economist launched a decisive reform programme – he invited me to work with him.”

Sir Paul then goes on to say that the partnership between the economist and the military leader turned president resulted “in a series of well-implemented decisions that helped a nascent private sector to take advantage of a coffee-boom. It also laid the foundations of a vibrant economy.”

A keenly felt loss for Africa

Since then Uganda’s economy has taken many twists and turns and Museveni has remained firmly at the helm. Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile was constantly at his side, shaping, guiding and directing the economy of the country as it navigated the difficult currents and eddies of our times. 

With Tumusiime-Mutebile gone, Museveni will be hard-pressed to find a replacement for someone he once called “irrepressible”. Ugandans will feel the loss keenly because as long as he was at his desk in the central bank, there was always a feeling that however bad the economic situation was, there was somebody there who could handle it. 

Africa as a whole will also feel his loss as he was a well-admired role model for other government bankers and finance ministers – and all who met him will regret the passing of perhaps Africa’s greatest central bank governor.