Over the last 20 years, Bank of Uganda's annual Joseph Mubiru Memorial Lecture has been a key highlight on Uganda's economic calendar - attracting the la crème of Uganda's economic and political class and an audience of comprising thousands of enthusiastic members of the public.
This year, the event, held at the Serena Hotel Conference Centre on August 2, was no exception - the hall, as well as the overflow tent were filled to capacity. In his lecture, Trevor Manuel, the acclaimed South African minister for the National Planning Commission, might have outlined his points in a staccato tone, but by the end of the event, there were more incoherent questions and more impassioned rejoinders to his presentation than he might have planned for.
Under the theme, "Unlocking Africa's growth potential - Aligning decision-making to implementation and delivery," Manuel sought to set the tone of the lecture on a positive note by alluding to what he termed Africa's "stellar" and "solid" economic performance and a ten-year "boom" against the backdrop of a world economy that is now in its sixth year of crisis.
He singled out lower poverty rates, higher school enrolment, bigger infrastructure investment and higher exports volumes and a growing share of foreign direct investment, improving governance and a sound approach to macroeconomic management as some of the attributes of this success. Many though, did not share his optimism, instead heaping the blame on politicians and foreigners for Africa's problems.
Indeed, Manuel appeared to read the minds of thousands of his listeners by asking if Africa could sustain the positive trends and to be able to pull millions of impoverished citizens along as beneficiaries of the wealth.
His prescription for expanding and modernizing economies for future success was two pronged - invest in industrialisation and the human capital. Yet, it's on that front, unfortunately, that Africa continues to lag behind her continental counterparts - such as the Americas, Europe and Asia.
Indeed, despite the "stellar growth" Manuel hinted on, other continents are way ahead of Africa on many fronts. What do they do differently than Africa? Manuel appeared to point a finger on their effective links between decision-making and implementation and delivery - a notion that many in the audience including the main discussant Dr Sarah N. Ssewanyana of the Economic Policy Research Centre, and Dr Augustus Nuwagaba, a Makerere University Economics don, would concur with.
The other notion that somehow appeared to take his audience by surprise not least those who preferred to blame Africa's woes on God and foreigners, was his assertion that, "We are Africans by birth and, also, by choice."
While discussing the lecture, Ssewanyana suggested that one of the main aspects of Africa's growth is that there is a wide gap between planning and implementation and the growth has not been inclusive - marked with a widening chasm of inequalities and vulnerabilities in the population. Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka, shared this view, warning that if the growth is not inclusive then it won't be sustainable and if not sustainable then it couldn't be inclusive.
Manuel however, called for a renewed perspective among Africans, which must start with new approaches to sovereignty, to African unity and where Africans want their continent to be in the global arena.
"We must recognise these essentials because if we do not, we will be picked off by those who are only interested in what they can extract from us, at the lowest cost, and this will leave our people impoverished," he argued, adding that Africans must identify their strengths, address their weaknesses, understand their position and prioritise the most difficult challenges if their full potential is to be unleashed.
One of the weaknesses, which many in the audience strongly concurred with, was the "importance of getting the politics right," which he said, "talks to our ability to establish functioning and transparent systems of democracy and accountability." This, he added, was crucial because it builds political legitimacy among the rulers, trust among the citizens and confidence in international investors.
"We need to be able to address, as a continent, the origins and impact of conflict and instability," he added. "We have to ensure the accountability of our institutions of governance in order to build the trust of our citizens, and importantly, of the global investment community."
He described "functioning institutions of governance" as an "obvious requirement" for sustaining economic growth and development. However, he also pointed to the need to produce human capital with the skills required for a 21st century economy and to broaden the knowledge base at higher institutions of learning.
Additionally, the need for a healthy population is as urgent as the imperative to address maternal mortality and infant mortality. Africa, he suggested, should not continue to lag behind other continents in investing in health services infrastructure and the production of pharmaceuticals.
Manuel also spent a considerable amount of time explaining the importance of forming Regional Economic Communities, which he described as a "bridge" we must build. He particularly singled out the East African Community - comprising Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda - which he said represents significant progress towards true integration.
That only one small regional block has registered some success was a shame according to Manuel given that since the early 1980s the OAU's Lagos Plan of action was adopted as a major step towards economic integration by creating free trade areas, customs unions, a single market, a central bank, a common currency and eventually a monetary union.
What now remains he said, was moving "beyond the satisfaction of signing protocols, treaties and statements of intent" to moving assiduously to ensure that content develops to maximise the advantages that flow from larger and organised markets. "By strengthening the REC's and holding them accountable, we will expand intra-African trade, and thus reduce the costs of doing business -especially by Africans with Africans," he said.
This also calls for more focus on infrastructure development and more so as the deficit for infrastructure services including energy, transportation, ICT, water supply, and urban infrastructure has not kept pace with the population growth.
However, he was of the view that injecting money to fill the infrastructure gap was not the sole problem as the core issues are more of institutional in nature. Improving the capacity and efficiency of institutions responsible for developing and managing infrastructure, he said equally crucial.
Citing the Chinese model, Manuel suggested that creating "durable" institutions could enable more meaningful and progressively sustainable transformation even in the agriculture sector. "We can learn a lot from the Chinese, but we must be prepared to take risks and innovate through experimentation," he said.
As Uganda moves closer to the oil production stage, Manuel was of the view that diversification - a strategic move away from reliance on the extractive industry, was vital to ensuring sustainable development.
"Commodities will not last forever. Yes, we have to exploit them, but we must do so while expanding other capabilities and including small business in our development plans," he said.
Indeed, the future looks bright for Africa but Manuel was of the view that there is no automatic route to bliss as it demands hard work, strategic planning and detailed measurement. Citing examples from East Asia, Brazil and China, he called for a capable and developmental State, which he said plays a pivotal role in getting us where we want to be.
"We need leadership, and we need a push for faster and further institutional reforms," he said.
Ssewanyana, agreed that the three key perspectives to unlocking Africa's potential were efficient and effective decision making, implementation and service delivery. However, she said good politics; strong and effective institutions and cordial State - society relations do matter if results are to be realized on a sustainable basis.
She said in most African countries, decision making powers remain concentrated among few individuals, which would not be a problem if these few individuals remained patriotic, innovative, long-term oriented (looking beyond regime survival) and pushing for inclusive growth.
"Otherwise, this creates capture by powerful interest groups, reduces on checks and balances and slows down implementation," she said, adding that while Uganda has exemplary plans on paper, implementation has been dismal due to lack of funds and "self-interest," yet other countries that have copied and pasted our plans have gone ahead to implement them with astounding results.
Dr Nuwagaba caused laughter when he said what Africa needs is not effective governments because they have been hugely effective in a negative sense, but an effective citizenry to hold them accountable.