4 November 2012

Uganda: Nantaba Takes Office Amid Curious Glances

From the moment she stepped into the boardroom at the ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development offices to the time she left, Idah Nantaba, the new minister of state for Lands, was the centre of attraction.

Dressed in a black top with a matching dress, she arrived with little pomp, accompanied by a plain-clothes bodyguard who was carrying her handbag. Minutes later, as Gabindadde Musoke, the permanent secretary in the ministry, delivered his opening remarks, Nantaba found time to do some texting on her phone and to chat with Rosemary Najjemba, the MP for Gomba county, who was also taking office as minister of state for Urban Development.

In the meantime, tea girls kept pacing up and down the corridor, giggling and whispering to each other as they ferried tea flasks and samosas into the boardroom. There are no prizes for guessing whom they were talking about. Senior officials and journalists too were not left out of the drama.

Sarah Kulata, the commissioner in charge of land registration, could not help but steal glances at Nantaba as though she was some alien from Mars. As all this unfolded, Nantaba, sporting her trademark plaited hair, was very much part of the action.

At one point when the camera flashes became too many for her liking, she gestured to a photojournalist with a facial expression that begged him to stop. When he did not relent, she warned him with her index figure, accompanied with a big smile that belied her seriousness. Nantaba officially took office on Friday and, judging, from the reception accorded to her on the first day, interesting -- or intriguing -- times lie ahead for those who will regularly interact with her.

She is now defined by the controversy that surrounded her approval as minister and her no-holds-barred manner of speaking that has soured her relationship with some leaders in Kayunga, where she is the woman MP. Yet, as a minister, she will have to weigh her actions and work closely with the technocrats -- at least that is what her predecessor, Sarah Opendi (now minister of state for Primary Healthcare) advised.

"You have to take things slowly. If someone comes to your office with a complaint, investigate thoroughly before you take action," Opendi counselled. She advised Nantaba to acquaint herself well with the Land Act and work closely with other staff.

When Nantaba stood up to give her remarks, everyone was attentive. For the first couple of minutes of delivering her written speech, she hardly made eye contact with the audience. Later, however, she gained confidence and began to sound like someone that had worked in the ministry for some time -- even speaking off-cuff.

"We must be mindful of our actions, because they might end up ruining people's lives," she said without batting an eyelid, warning officials in the ministry against dealing in shady land deals that lead to the suffering of people.

As she spoke, some of the staff took notes, perhaps illustrating how seriously they had taken her message. Others, however, just stared at her, probably making little sense of what she was saying. Either way, all were visibly awestruck by their new boss.

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