Uganda: The unsurprising appointment of Ggoobi to fix the economy

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 30 July 2021 22:29, updated on Sunday, 1 August 2021 04:22

Ramathan Ggoobi Photo from Facebook

Ramathan Ggoobi, an economist at Makerere University, was recently appointed as Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Finance and Treasury. Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni sees Ggoobi as the one best suited to fight corruption at the ministry and address the country's economic challenges. He's also the economic advisor to Museveni's younger brother Salim Saleh.

In the past two months, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni appointed a new cabinet, and for the first time in history, a female vice president and female prime minister. He shuffled top army brass and appointed new permanent secretaries who are chief technocrats in ministries. The government is now fully constituted.

When Museveni appointed new permanent secretaries on 15 July, Ramathan Ggoobi, an economist at Makerere University was a surprise pick on the list. He was appointed to serve as permanent secretary in the finance ministry and secretary to the treasury – the top most office in that level of the civil service. These are two combined offices: Ggoobi will be in charge of economic planning for the nation and expenditure of available revenue.

But the unsurprising bit about Ggoobi’s appointment is that he has been an economic advisor to Museveni’s young brother Salim Saleh, who is the commander of the Operation Wealth Creation, an army-led government programme that is fighting poverty. He was also a member of a committee that drafted Museveni’s 2021-26 manifesto titled ‘Securing your future’. Thus, he will be implementing a manifesto that he partly crafted.

Before Museveni announced the cabinet changes last month, a local paper said the president was going to tap Ggoobi for the finance ministry portfolio based on the recommendation of Salim Saleh, though Museveni maintained Matia Kasaija who has been holding the position since 2016.

Keith Muhakanizi, Ggoobi’s predecessor, had been at the finance ministry for almost four decades, occupying the position of deputy or (full) permanent secretary and secretary to treasury for almost two decades.

When the pandemic hit last year, Muhakanizi had a fierce disagreement with Saleh who recommended the reallocation of $1.4bn of the national budget, describing it as wasteful expenditure. Saleh had Ggoobi on his side as he faced off with Muhakanizi and other technocrats.

This story made many Ugandans believe that it’s Saleh who ousted Muhakanizi to install his man, Ggoobi.

Challenges, what Ggoobi think of them

A regular face in Uganda’s media, Ggoobi has in past years discussed Uganda’s problems and offered what he perceives to be the best solutions.

Corruption: The immediate challenge he will need to take on is corruption. The president in May said: “Corruption starts at the ministry of finance where projects are designed with extras, adding things that are not supposed to be there.” Ggoobi recently revealed that during the drafting of Museveni’s manifesto last year, they discussed at length and “it was agreed that beginning with this term (next five years), there should be minimum human contact in doing work. We must ensure that we implement e-government and e-procurement.”

Economic growth that isn’t growth: The economy grew by 3% during the 2020/21 financial year; but due to the pandemic, this was lower than the 6.5% growth that had been projected. As the pandemic surges again – Ugandans have been in a six-week total lock down, where movement is not allowed except for essential workers – it could dash hopes of an early recovery. But the main challenge has been that even as the economy grows, it does not lead to per capita income growth.

Giving a classroom-like demonstration, Ggoobi – in his first appearance on a state owned television after his appointment on 21 July – came with a slide presentation that had charts explaining the country’s problem. Uganda’s economy has increased by about $10bn in the past decade, according to World Bank data. But income per capita has slightly gone down from $819 in 2010 to $794 in 2019.

When Ggoobi finally assumes office, he will be faced with the challenge of putting ideas he has churned out over the years into action.

“The GDP has grown very fast especially in recent years. But people’s incomes are not changing. This means [as] much as growth is necessary, it’s not sufficient in taking Uganda to the level where we want to be, achieving middle income status,” Ggoobi says.

According to him, the problem is the high concentration of labour in agriculture which employs 72% of Ugandans. “This over-concentration of people in agriculture is economics which doesn’t work. Without getting people out of agriculture, forget getting people out of poverty.”

Good policies, not implemented: Perhaps the major challenge Ggoobi has pointed out is that governments craft good policies which are never implemented. “NRM/NRA has written very good papers over the years, the challenge has always been the quality of implementation,” he said in May. Ggoobi cited a study he authored in 2019 titled ‘From Paper to Practice: Implementation of Uganda’s Industrialisation Agenda‘. Implementation, he argued, is hampered by weak decision-making in ministries, departments and agencies, derailing kick-starting of projects that could transform Uganda.

Accountability without results: Ggoobi argues that Ugandans love paper accountability without visible results: that they praise government officials who account for money on paper and crucify those who produce visible results but fall short of paper accountability. In a tweet after his appointment, Ggoobi said he “believes in economics that works and hates accountability without results.”

From rhetoric to action

When Ggoobi finally assumes office, he will be faced with the challenge of putting ideas he has churned out over the years into action. Paul Corti, a senior research fellow at Economic Policy Research Center,  says the new treasurer has passion, vision and potential, but Ugandans need to manage their expectations of him. “Whether he will succeed, no one knows,” he says. Corti thinks he [Ggoobi] should focus on consolidating gains made in past years rather than kicking off radical changes.

Fighting graft will be a daunting task for Ggoobi, says Cissy Kabaga, executive director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda. Corruption in Uganda is driven by “powerful syndicates” that sit higher up in the echelon of power. “We should give him [the] benefit of doubt,” she says.

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