Janet Museveni’s No-Win Situation as Education Minister in Uganda

Uganda/ April 11, 2017/By:Daniel Kalinaki/Source: All Africa

Why has there been so much truculent criticism of First Lady Janet Museveni since she became Education minister? This question, which your columnist has pondered for many months, is easy to answer but difficult to explain.

The Banana Republic-esque optics, of a president and his wife sitting together in cabinet, are certainly damning. But Janet has been in cabinet for 10 years and, in the first of her two parliamentary race wins, in 2006, had the highest number of votes of any MP countrywide.

Her decade in cabinet, albeit in a provincial role, has put some executive knowledge and managerial nous under her belt – and she is far from the least qualified minister.

Questions about her failure to carry out teaching practice, a key requirement for her first degree, in Education, are not new; in any case better them than the allegations of outright forgery of academic credentials levelled against many other public officials.

One might say that it has to do with the crumbling state of the education sector but these problems, deep-seated as they are, are neither new nor peculiar to it. The health and agriculture sectors, for instance, are in similar dire straits but few people can name the line ministers.

Even Ms Museveni’s well-publicised public utterances do not tell the whole story. Her concerns about school children on overcrowded boda bodas; long school hours or infamously asking poor parents to buy food flasks have a heart-warming naiveté about them – but they are not the worst we’ve heard in a country where a minister can justify rape and keep their cabinet post.

First, it seems that Ms Museveni has not leveraged her political capital in the time she has been in the Education ministry. Being the wife of the President is an optical handicap but the access can also be a practical asset. Instead of bemoaning the lack of money for sanitary pads, for instance, Ms Museveni could have pushed Parliament and the President to help the most-in-need girls in the short-term and incentives for local manufacturing capacity in the medium term.

Yet one suspects that Ms Museveni can say the right things, promote the right policies, and still, invariably, invite invectives. Even the best government would struggle to remain popular after 30 years in power – now imagine how hard it is if, as a recent report by the charity Oxfam pointed out, in those years the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer.

It is hard for people you’ve never shared a wooden bench with in a crowded hospital, or waited with you outside a headmaster’s office while looking for a place, to believe it when you say you share their pain.

I give the minister the benefit of the doubt when she says she wants to reform the public education system but for an entire generation it feels like closing the kraal gate long after the cows have escaped considering that many of their contemporaries born to the privileged fighting class have been educated in expensive schools abroad, many at taxpayer’s expense?

It seems, therefore, in a rather counter-intuitive manner, that Janet was appointed to cabinet 20 years too late. If she had been appointed minister in 1996 when President Museveni was at his most popular and had a new constitution he had not yet tampered with, it would have raised fewer eyebrows and allowed her to get her hands dirty and develop her own political capital.

Her concern about the welfare of children, for instance, would have fed into the design of the UPE programme, which kicked off soon after the election. When schools and sports fields were being relocated to make way for hotels, Ms Museveni could have been the voice of reason. Twenty years later, and her best intentions not withstanding, it feels like a doctor has been sent to a patient who needs a priest.

That is what one can call Janet’s ‘Museveni dilemma’. To overcome suspicions of dynastic intent (or even justify them!) and stop being the lightning conductor for criticism of the Museveni family, she has to force through reforms that undo the patronage and corruption that have kept the system in power for 30 years. But to do so risks unplugging the patient’s life support equipment.

Janet’s naiveté – in the kindest sense of the word – is her greatest strength, for she can question and challenge many flaws that we’ve come to consider normal in our education system. It is also her greatest weakness, for how could she not have seen or known when the rain started beating the rest of us?

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.



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