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Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, 1949-2022

Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, governor of the Central Bank of Uganda, was a towering figure. Not only was he central to his nation’s economic revival from the tragedy of the first decades of Independence but, by his power of example, to the gradual recovery of other countries in the region.

Tumusiime-Mutebile, who has died aged 72, was a fine economist, but his crowning abilities were personal courage and leadership. He spoke truth to power and, through charismatic leadership, inspired his staff to manage the complex challenges needed for a fragile society to escape mass poverty with integrity and skill.

Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile was born in 1949 in Kabale district, Uganda. He studied at the University of Makerere and was still a student there in 1972 when the increasingly unstable military dictator Idi Amin announced the immediate expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community from the country.

As the president of the university student’s union, a position of national significance through which he was interviewed live on the national radio, he condemned Amin’s decision. It was an extraordinarily brave move by the young man, who knew that speaking out amounted to his death warrant. With verve and ingenuity, he contrived to flee the country on the last flight to London, disguised as a woman.

In the UK he was able to finish his education, first at Durham University, where he studied Economics and Politics, and then at Balliol College, Oxford, before returning to east Africa to complete his doctorate at the University of Dar es Salaam.

He found the same courage in his encounter with today’s president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. Museveni had led an insurgent group that seized the capital in 1986. 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.

He was fond of telling the story, laughing, of how he replied: “Yes Mr President, but will you permit me to remind you when you have to reverse it that I told you it was wrong”. It is credit to Museveni that he did not treat this remark as insubordination, and his subsequent decision to reverse the policy was a first step on a tough journey for both men.

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.

He was just in time: by 1994 his formidable partnership with the president had 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. He instigated brief and action-oriented meetings that built a habitat for business, facing down the rural romanticism of some donors.

By 2002 he had built a formidable team that had the confidence, competence and motivation to tackle the economic challenges. Reflecting on the experience later, he noted that at first the issues had been technically easy, but politically and organisationally almost insuperable. A decade later, they had become technically complex but in other respects more straightforward. He could safely move to build an independent central bank. In the context of African autocracies, this was seldom attempted and even less frequently credible.

He remained as central bank governor until his death, becoming an anchor of public confidence and a mentor for his peers in the region. For the past 12 years, I have hosted Africa’s central bank governors in Oxford, at the Crockett Round Table. There, he radiated courage and wise counsel laced with a quick wit and gentle humour that set the tone for debate. Over the 30 years we worked together we became dear friends.

Tumusiime-Mutebile’s death from Covid-19 should haunt the conscience of a negligent international community, which has left much of Africa unvaccinated against the pandemic, and its business sector plunged into recession.

His legacy is that by design he left an institution that abounds in qualified future governors. As a rare man of greatness, he is irreplaceable.

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