23 July 2010

Uganda: NSSF Offers Byarugaba Biggest Test of His Career

Richard Byarugaba has run some tough races in his life, including the London Marathon, but the race to turn around the National Social Security Fund is the biggest test of his career.

In many ways, the NSSF job should be one to kill for, and is one that many candidates - 33 in this case - were dying for. With assets of over $700 million, a lot of it in cash or liquid instruments, NSSF is the financial elephant in town and whoever runs it is one of the most powerful individuals in the country.

Biggest strength

However, the NSSF's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. With billions in monthly net revenue, the Fund has often been a sitting duck for comprador businessmen and politicians seeking a cut off its investments.

Its last two MDs, David Jamwa and Leonard Mpuuma, were sacked for well-intentioned investments in real estate which were plagued by middlemen seeking their pounds of flesh and politicians peddling their influence.

The vultures that circle the NSSF have traditionally been able to get away with stripping flesh off a live animal because the Fund is controlled by politicians (previously Labour, and now Finance minister) who do not contribute to it but appoint its board and top management.

The workers, who contribute to the Fund, have had their expectations dragged so low by years of below-inflation interest and painful bureaucracy to access their savings that they are simply relieved to get some money, any amount really, when they retire even though some unscrupulous politici ans and businessmen have made eye-popping deals.

Mr Byarugaba faces four challenges; keeping the vultures at bay, making the NSSF more accessible and transparent to its members, reviewing its investment plan to ensure that it has enough aggression to beat inflation but enough caution not to lose money, and finally deal with the Fund's staff dissonance that is, in many ways, also responsible for its internal inconsistencies.

In many ways, Mr Byarugaba could not have come in at a better time. Workers have more representatives to the new NSSF board and the Temangalo scandal has increased the risk of political interference for both politicians and managers.

For all their faults - and there were plenty - the previous NSSF management had started making reforms to make the Fund more efficient and make it easier for members to track their savings and collect on retirement. Mr Byarugaba will find many initiatives that only need execution and supervision.

The new MD will, however, find that the biggest threat to NSSF - a law breaking up its monopoly over the pensions sector - might be its saviour. Once workers can move their pensions to other firms, NSSF will have to become more efficient and pay a consistently higher interest rate in order to keep its members.

Mr Byarugaba knows enough about pleasing shareholders; he made the Nile Bank owners (and himself) a tidy sum in selling the bank to Barclays for a princely sum of $23 million (approximately Shs52 billion at current Shs2,260 EX).

Ultimately, the biggest test for Mr Byarugaba will be personal. His predecessors at the NSSF are either facing charges or discredited and almost unemployable. If he serves two three-year terms, Mr Byarugaba, 49, can retire rich and comfortable at 55.

After an illustrious career in the banking industry, this new assignment will determine whether Mr Byarugaba has a great future ahead of him, or behind him.

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