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Stephen Isabalijja

Comment: Isabalijja firing- Is it a crisis of technical work force?

In what can be seen as single-minded seriousness on his pet subject of infrastructure development in the country, President Yoweri Museveni summarily axed the Permanent Secretary of the Energy & Mineral Development Ministry. Dr. Stephen Isabalijja was just 10 months into his first three-year contract.

A permanent secretary in Uganda is the CEO of a government Ministry, with full financial and technical accountability responsibility. The energy sector for the last three fiscal years in a row has received the second biggest allocation of the national budget, only second to roads.

Dr. Isabalijja, a former Vice Chancellor of the privately owned Victoria University, was hired in November 2016, having served as on a non-executive role of chairperson of the board of the Uganda Electricity Generation Company Ltd (UEGCL). He was one of the new crop of permanent secretaries picked from outside traditional government service that were expected to breathe new life and business-like practice into strategic government departments.

This cohort new PSs include Benon Mutambi until recently the executive director of the Uganda Electricity Regulatory Authority (who was appointed PS, Ministry of Internal Affairs), Dr. Diana Atwine (appointed as PS to Health), Vincent Bagiire, an IT geek and former Member of Parliament (appointed to IT Ministry).

Dr. Isabalijja’s sacking is instructive because it points to a developing crisis of competent, experienced manpower with proven integrity to deliver high quality infrastructure projects-especially oil, gas and energy. President Museveni is known to be patient with mistake-making officials, ostensibly giving them time to learn and reform. For this reason no Permanent Secretary has been fired in recent times by the President mid-way, not least at the beginning of his contract. Poor performing and corrupt officials have always been left to serve out their contracts, until they are not renewable anymore.

The only recent case of a Permanent Secretary in distress with the president was Jimmy Lwamafa formerly of the Ministry of Public Service, who is currently battling embezzlement cases in Courts of Law. Lwamafa’s contract was at its tail end by the time the Law caught up with him. Other PSs whose contract were not renewed in the last reshuffle, but had been long serving include Stephen Kagoda (formerly in Internal Affairs), James Mugume (formerly of Foreign Affairs)- all of whom had had accountability related battles with government oversight organs, but still had their contract renewed from time to time.

The rapid response that Museveni demonstrated in Isabalijja’s dismissal perhaps points to the importance and the essence of time in having the right decisions and actions taken in the fast evolving situation in the Ministry that is responsible for executing the country’s huge oil and electricity (energy) projects. Isabalija’s continued tenure of office could have potentially derailed the progress the sector is making.

In his search for new skilled, competent blood with integrity to run strategic sectors in the economy, this development will probably send a signal to the president that not all that glitters from the outside is gold. Yet at the same time, he may be out of options within the traditional public service, a group he publically spurns.

Isabalija’s case is also instructive because the man he succeeded in the Ministry, Fred Kabagambe Kalisa has been in the docket for over 20 years. Kalisa is the man who explored Uganda’s oil sector and drove its development to the current state of readiness to get the oil out of the ground. Although he has had bad mentions around his name and wealth, he was also known to be highly qualified, experienced, exposed particularly in the oil sector. His expertise seemed to have paled his demeanours.

Besides his lack of technical expertise in oil and energy, and his apparently ill-informed obstinacy towards learning, Isabalija was most likely out of his sails in a Ministry that is highly technical and specialised.

What this probably means is that, to keep his infrastructure projects on course, Museveni needs to do more reconnaissance to procure safe pairs of hands in his key and strategic sectors to ensure stability to bring projects to full course, in time. Isabalija’s short tenure could be a pointer to Uganda’s current manpower crisis on technical industry that needs skilled, experienced, expert managers, with integrity who are able to marshal the now highly trained mid-level cadre in technical ministries who tend to undermine the non-technical but politically appointed s

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