Keith Muhakanizi: The Last of Uganda’s Modern Economic Architects

  • by Rodney Mponye
  • April 18, 2023

When Emmanuel Tumusiime Mutebile died early last year, Keith Muhakanizi was one of those widely suggested among those likely to become new governor Bank of Uganda.

To those with that view, it would have been good to see the accomplished economic strategist replace his former ministry of Finance compatriot as the government’s chief monetary policy advisor and custodian of the national purse.

It didn’t and will not happen, following his own demise about 15 months later, at a hospital in Milan, Italy where he was being treated for cancer, according to family sources.

Muhakanizi, 64, who until his death, was the permanent secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), left a stronger legacy as a technocrat in the ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, which has more or less thrived on the policies that he, Mutebile and the former PS/ST Chris Kassami (RIP) established.

As a young government economic technocrat, he, together with the other two, was at the centre of the negotiations for the country’s economic reforms with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), aimed at putting the dilapidated economy back on track at the turn of the 90s.

The IMF and World Bank have since termed successful the structural adjustment programs that set the pace for the liberalisation of the economy, privatisation and divestiture of state agencies, which led to inflows of aid from international lenders and donors.

Muhakanizi was also in the leading role in the negotiations for credit relief when the IMF and World Bank launched the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative meant to bail out poor and debt-stricken countries. Uganda was the first country to be declared eligible and benefited from a $700m debt write-off in 1998, and in 2000, it reached the “completion point” under the Enhanced HIPC Initiative, being eligible for a credit relief of up to $2 billion.

Other reforms credited to him include the creation of the National Development Plan (NDP) and the Public Finance Management Act of 2015, which sought to address key gaps identified in PFM legislation.

The law strengthened accountability and transparency in the use of public resources through increased parliamentary oversight over the executive, and restored credibility and predictability of the national budget, according to the Civil Society Advocacy Group (CSBAG).

During his tenure as PS/ST, Muhakanizi was always opposed to high borrowing rates and supplementary budgets, a position he shared with Mutebile. He argued that with strict budget discipline, there would be minimal need for borrowing.

He also advocated for more concessionary borrowing as opposed to commercial, arguing that the debt-to-GDP ratio should be limited to below 50 per cent. He left it at around 45 per cent before rising to 52 per cent two years later.

His tough stance on some economic issues including borrowing, supplementary budgets and the creation of new districts usually set him against the executive, including President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

Former state minister for Finance, Mwesigwa Rukutana in tribute says Muhakanizi was the only person he knew who could publicly oppose the president provided he believed in his own view.

“Most People, including me at first, thought Keith was an arrogant, defiant man because of these qualities. Once he thought he was right, he could date anyone,” says Rukutana, who was once his supervisor.

“In my 30 years of political life, Keith is the only government official I ever saw, so many times, telling the president to his face; “Your excellency, we cannot do that”, or even interrupting him in speech,” he says. He, however, describes him as harbouring “a humble, obedient and advisable servant.”

However, some policies accredited to Muhakanizi have also faced criticism. The economic liberalisation and privatisation policies were criticised for creating new challenges including a class of middlemen who “poached” on the earnings of primary producers like farmers.

They were also blamed for what is dubbed “over-privatisation” because some entities and services should have remained in the hands of the government especially to cater for a disadvantaged poor group.

Recently Museveni said he shouldn’t have followed Mutebile and Muhakanizi’s advice to sell Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) against the advice of its former managing director Prof Ezra Suruma.

Muhakanizi also faced criticism when he opposed a 2019 directive by President Museveni that state minister Evelyn Anite commissions an audit of the then-ailing Uganda Telecom Ltd (UTL). The standoff with Anite was resolved when the Auditor General took over the process.

Muhakanizi later explained that he was not opposed to auditing the company, but that he could not allow Anite to appoint the auditor. In 2016, Muhakanizi and Finance minister Matia Kasaija were accused of seeking personal benefits when they waived tariffs on imports of unprocessed rice.

At a more personal level, Muhakanizi was accused of grabbing land and evicting over 100 people from 500 acres in the Lyantonde district in 2006. He advised the affected people to go to court if they felt he had illegally taken their land.

Muhakanizi was chairman of several boards including the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC), East African Development Bank (EADB) and Housing Finance Bank (HFB) as well as sitting on the board of the Bank of Uganda. When he joined OPM as the chief technocrat, Muhakanizi promised transformation, discipline and results.

“Keith assured us that he would stand up for and defend any technical staff who was doing the right thing and following the law, but that he would never protect wrongdoing from or by anyone. With that charge, we knew that a new era had arrived at OPM,” says Julius Mucunguzi, recently, the head of communications.

“On work, he often told us that work is equal to force X distance, and said, a number of us were applying a lot of force, but moving no distance, and that as such, there was no work being done– advising that we should focus on both effort and results,” adds Mucunguzi.

On his health, the PS made his staff aware that he was not doing well, but that nevertheless, he was ready to work.

“We knew, and he told us that he was unwell and would routinely go for treatment, but every moment we had with Keith was a moment of great learning and growth. It is sad that he has gone, but I must say that he lived a full  impactful life.”