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Ssemogerere, the ex-boxing champion who did politics like a priest

To congratulate Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere on his 90th birth anniversary, Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago bought him an imposing green chair. To Lukwago, as he said at the function, he had to compensate Ssemogerere for two times Ssemogerere could have become president of Uganda but didn’t.

Over his long career, Ssemogerere came to be admired as a man who pursued values-based politics, a champion of nonviolence, honesty, tolerance, integrity, rule of law and democracy.

At the birthday celebration last Friday, all those who got the opportunity to speak – Kizza Besigye, Mugisha Muntu, Lukwago, former legislator John Kawanga, Kenneth Kakande, Abed Bwanika, Nyanzi Sentamu, former MP Babirye Kabanda, among others – revolved around those same issues.

“Of all Ugandan politicians I have observed, those who are still alive and those who are dead, including all of you here, Dr Ssemogerere is my favourite,” said Buganda Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga, who repeated the statement thrice as he urged the politicians who were present to pay attention to it.

Mayiga stressed that politics is not a game and ‘is as serious as a heart attack’, and that Ssemogerere is one of the very few Ugandan politicians who understand this.

Explaining his bias towards Ssemogerere, Mayiga said of what the nonagenarian embodies: “You have to have values, then whatever happens, happens. You must have ideals and you must stand by them, for better or for worse. There are good politicians, and Dr Ssemogerere here is an example of those. Being trustworthy gives you inner peace.”

When the Archbishop of Kampala, Paul Ssemogerere, spoke after leading the thanksgiving mass, he drew the attention of the crowd to the presence of former Finance Minister Gerald Sendaula, who is related to Ssemogerere by marriage. The Archbishop, who referred to his senior namesake as ‘’taata’ throughout his speech, told an often recounted story from those years when Ssemogerere was a minister under Museveni.

The Archbishop said he learnt from Ssemogerere’s assistant that whenever the minister returned from abroad, he would give the assistant the left-over per diem money in an envelope to return to the Treasury, which Ssemogerere’s in-law Sendaula supervised.

 

At the time, the Archbishop said, he was already a priest but was aware that there were matters within the Ssemogerere household that needed funding though he wouldn’t dare ask the minister to instead send the money home for use.

“If I did, I am sure he would have told me to quit priesthood and become a thief. He taught us integrity,” Archbishop said of his uncle.

On bearing no ill will against anyone, the Archbishop said of Ssemogerere: “His enemies don’t exist. But if they are there, I know they cannot harm him because they know he is incapable of harming anyone.”

The Archbishop then told a story from 1996, shortly after the presidential election which Dr Ssemogerere had lost to Museveni amidst acrimony. When the politician wanted to travel abroad, he asked the Archbishop, who was then a priest at Christ the King Church in Kampala, to drive him to the airport. The priest confessed that he had voted for his uncle, and he was still upset about the manner of the loss.

On reaching the airport, the Archbishop said, he was shocked to see Ssemogerere go to the VIP Lounge, where ‘the people he had lost to were’. The priest thought the natural human reaction would be for Ssemogerere not to mix and talk with ‘those people’, but that his uncle went about things as if nothing had happened, conversing and laughing with the people the Archbishop did not name.

During his political career, Ssemogerere was attacked by mobs in the 1960s, detained without trial for at least two years, and, he believes, survived at least two stage-managed accidents. He was also exiled during Amin’s time. I addition, he lost two presidential elections in acrimonious circumstances.

That may sound like too much adversity, but the man who went through it just exuded inner peace and rejected any suggestions of resorting to violence in pursuit of political power, most notably after the 1980 election.

Former Masaka Municipality MP John Kawanga, another relative of Ssemogerere’s recounted how his elder brother inspired him to pursue education. Ssemogerere was head prefect at St. Mary’s College Kisubi, where he also played lawn tennis and engaged in boxing, in which he emerged as a national champion in the lighter categories.

But when Ssemogerere eventually joined politics, the competitive verve that had seen him dispatch pugilists to the canvas gave way to unspeakable gentility. The only things he took from sport into the rest of his life are fair play and being a stickler for rules.

But when Ssemogerere eventually joined politics, the competitive verve that had seen him dispatch pugilists to the canvas gave way to unspeakable gentility. The only things he took from sport into the rest of his life are fair play and being a stickler for rules.

A career spent in search of reconciliation

Ssemogerere has been at the centre of two major reconciliations; one in 1980 and another in 1996.

In the lead up to independence in 1962, the fight for who would take over from the colonialists was intense, and within Buganda it brought the monarchists who backed Kabaka Mutesa II into direct confrontation with Benedicto Kiwanuka, a republican.

Kiwanuka, a lawyer, led the Democratic Party (DP), which was largely seen as a party for the Catholics and fancied its chances against the Protestant-dominated Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), which Milton Obote led then. Kiwanuka’s DP had edged the 1961 pre-independence election and Kiwanuka had become Chief Minister, and it appeared that he would be the first man to lead Uganda after independence.

But Kiwanuka’s chances were scuttled by the entry into the fray of the monarchists led by Mutesa II, under the political grouping they called Kabaka Yekka (KY), which allied with Obote’s UPC to defeat DP in the 1962 polls. The Buganda monarchy was, as it still is, Protestant-led, and the politics of the time led them to ally with their fellow protestants in UPC against the Catholics of DP. This gave Obote the opportunity to become the independence prime minister, with Mutesa II becoming titular head of state, assuming the title of president in addition to remaining the Kabaka.

Tensions ran so high within Buganda, with Kiwanuka accused of being insubordinate towards the Kabaka, his king, while Kiwanuka’s backers faulted the monarch of siding with a non-Muganda (Obote) against his own subject. The youthful Ssemogerere was caught up in the politics of the time, and as political assistant to Kiwanuka, he was targeted. One day in the 1960s, Ssemogerere was cornered by a rowdy crowd as he returned to his home in Nkumba along Kampala-Entebbe road, and was almost lynched. He was, as was his leader Kiwanuka, accused of working against the interests of Buganda Kingdom and being disloyal to the Kabaka.

But the Obote-Mutesa alliance would turn sour a few years after independence, leading to the attack on Mutesa’s Palace in Mengo by government soldiers under the instructions of Obote in 1966. Mutesa fought his way out of the palace and fled into exile in Britain, where he died in 1969, while back home, the soldier who Obote had sent to command the attack on Mutesa’s palace – Idi Amin – used the same guns to depose Obote in 1971 and set up his own rule.

The immediate post-independence politics of the 1960s had left little room for Kiwanuka and Ssemogerere to shine. Ssemogerere, who had been a member of the Uganda Legislative Council during the brief time Kiwanuka had been chief minister, couldn’t keep his seat in 1962 because KY would automatically take the seats in Buganda. Kiwanuka, too, did not vie for a parliamentary seat in 1962, and therefore upon his party losing to the UPC/KY alliance, he wouldn’t take a seat in parliament. This opened the way for Basil Bataringaya, the Mbarara legislator who had been elected secretary general of DP and was therefore the most senior party member in parliament, to assume the leadership of the opposition in the house.

Bataringaya often clashed with Kiwanuka and attempted to influence the top leadership of the party to replace his party leader. When the attempt failed, Bataringaya crossed the floor and joined the ruling UPC, taking along five other DP legislators. Things just got worse in the years that followed, and in 1972, after Amin had deposed Obote, the military ruler orchestrated the disappearance and assassination of Kiwanuka, who was Chief Justice of the country at the time. With Kiwanuka gone without a trace, Ssemogerere became leader of DP in 1972. Political parties were proscribed, however, and any attempt to oppose Amin from within Uganda was akin to committing suicide. Ssemogerere escaped to exile in the United States.

After Amin was overthrown by a combined force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers in 1979, Ssemogerere returned to play a role in the brief governments that followed, and remobilised the DP base in preparation for the 1980 election. This remobilisation entailed one of the most important reconciliations Ssemogerere was involved in, bridging the gap between his party and the Buganda base and cultural leadership, which had been scattered by the banning of kingdoms.

From then on, DP – the party of Benedicto Kiwanuka that in the early 1960s had been viewed as harbouring intentions of destroying the Buganda Kingdom and was frozen out of Buganda in the 1962 election – came to be labelled a predominantly Buganda party. When Ssemogerere eventually retired from leading the party in 2005, the charge that was often thrown at him was that he led a party that predominantly belonged to Baganda Catholics. He would often retort by citing members of his executive like Reina Kafiire and Mariano Drametu who hailed from other parts of the country.

At the time of the 1980 elections, of course, the kingdoms were still banned – which Obote had done in 1966-7 – and the choice for the majority Baganda in the 1980 elections would definitely not be Obote. But even then, it was not obvious that the Baganda had to turn to Ssemogerere’s DP. Also in the fray was Jehoash Mayanja-Nkangi and his Conservative Party, whose ideas were more tilted in favour of restoring kingdoms, and who could have easily wooed the Baganda since he had been Buganda’s Katikkiro at the time of the attack on Mutesa’s palace.

By the time of the 1980 election, Ssemogerere was ready to renew the rivalry with Obote and UPC which his mentor – Kiwanuka – had set off in the early 1960s.

Obote laid direct claim to the war that had deposed Amin, with a unit that was loyal to him – Kikosi Maalum under the command of Oyite-Ojok and Tito Okello – playing a role in the fighting. Ssemogerere, a pacifist who always refused to resort to war as a way of furthering his politics, had been in exile in the United States, and Obote would tease him for that during the campaigns for the 1980 elections, asking his most potent opponent where his Generals were.

Ssemogerere, a pacifist who always refused to resort to war as a way of furthering his politics, had been in exile in the United States, and Obote would tease him for that during the campaigns for the 1980 elections, asking his most potent opponent where his Generals were.

Ssemogerere indeed didn’t have Generals to back his shot at the presidency, and perhaps didn’t think he needed any. But the other candidate in the same race who laid claim to a fighting force was Yoweri Museveni, whose Fronasa fighters had also participated in the 1979 war against Amin, and threatened to wage another war if the election was deemed rigged in favour of Obote.

In the end, the controversy was around Ssemogerere and Obote, with many claims the former’s victory was stolen in favour of the latter. Ssemogerere told this writer three years ago that Vincent Ssekkono, who was the secretary to the Electoral Commission, telephoned him to voice his congratulations upon winning the election, only for Paulo Muwanga, who was the head of the Military Commission under whose auspices the election was organised, took over the mandate of the electoral body and declared that he would be the one to announce the results.

Ssekkono ended up in exile and in the end, Obote’s UPC was declared to have won 75 seats, Ssemogerere’s DP 50 seats, and Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement one seat. Mayanja-Nkangi’s CP didn’t win a single seat.

Museveni, going by what he kept saying throughout the campaigns, seemed to have had his mind made up to wage war and have a stab at power, and his effort was helped by a number of those who had supported Ssemogerere in the election but were frustrated that their preferred candidate chose to accept the result of what he considered to be a rigged election amidst protests, and was ready to take up his seat as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. Ssemogerere stuck to his guns and resisted pressure to join the armed rebellion by many of his fellow party leaders during a meeting held at what is known as Pope Paul Memorial Hotel in Lubaga.

As the war raged in what came to be called the Luweero Triangle, the Obote government declared a state of emergency in many parts of Buganda and unleashed a reign of terror on the citizens as it tried to weed out rebel collaborators and contain the insurgency. Many of those who fell victim to the army’s brutality and arbitrary arrests at the time had supported Ssemogerere during the 1980 election.  Ssemogerere, as Leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for Internal Affairs, applied himself as a link to the powerful Vice President Paulo Muwanga, who was also minister of Defence, and used that relationship to persuade the government to release a number of detainees. Even at that difficult time when Obote’s government faced war on a number of fronts, Ssemogerere still felt the best way out was dialogue.

Things deteriorated further and Obote’s government was eventually overthrown by a section of soldiers led by Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello, who briefly established a military government between July 1985 and January 1986 when Museveni overthrew them. Ssemogerere was appointed minister of Internal Affairs in the government of the Okellos, and he took it up. He says he always picked the ministry of Internal Affairs deliberately, so that he would try and use his authority to do something about killings, arbitrary arrests and suchlike. It is the same docket under which he also first served immediately after Museveni took captured power in 1996.

During the short-lived rule of the Okellos, Ssemogerere was a key member of the Nairobi peace talks, which led to the signing of an agreement between Museveni and the Okellos’ government that would have ended the fighting. But, of course, the fighting didn’t stop, and Museveni captured power. During the final weeks of Museveni’s assault on Kampala, Ssemogerere kept at his Lubaga home, where Winnie Byanyima, who was a member of Museveni’s team in the bush, arrived as an emissary to deliver a message inviting Ssemogerere to meet up with her commander, who at the time was holed up at Nabbingo, a quiet township along Kampala-Masaka highway.

Ssemogerere would proceed to serve in Museveni’s government for nearly 10 years but then broke away after disagreeing with Museveni’s stance on matters like the opening up of the political space to multiparty politics during the constitution making process.

Ssemogerere challenged Museveni during the 1996 election, and in the lead up to that election reconciled with the UPC base, most notably Cecilia Ogwal, who held his hand as he campaigned in what was hitherto UPC territory, especially in the north and east. Since that time, Ssemogerere refers to Ogwal as ‘my sister’.

The UPC had acrimoniously taken power ahead of DP in 1962 and 1980, with Ssemogerere being a prominent player on the losing side on both occasions. But there he was – in 1995-6 – crisscrossing the country with Cecilia Ogwal and other UPC members. After Ogwal took him through UPC territory, Ssemogerere stuck with her throughout Buganda, an area that dreaded UPC at the time.

To take advantage of the situation, Museveni’s team came up with a late propaganda line, telling the voters in Buganda that Ssemogerere had sealed a deal to return to hand over the presidency to Obote, who was exiled in Zambia at the time. They alleged that Obote had travelled to Kenya and was already near to the Uganda border as the election neared.

Ssemogerere’s mantra during his 1996 presidential charge was ‘national reconciliation without revenge’. He already had UPC on his side and he promised Ugandans that he would seek a peaceful resolution of the Lords Resistance Army/Joseph Kony war should he win the presidency. That was about the height of the Kony war.

As Foreign Affairs minister under Museveni, Ssemogerere played some part in the talks that led to the abolition of Apartheid and introduction of majority rule in South Africa, and takes particular interest in the German political system, including the transformation from Nazism under Adolf Hitler.

Ssemogerere’s mantra during his 1996 presidential charge was ‘national reconciliation without revenge’.

He believes experiences like these provide good examples that Uganda can emulate, and despite being opposed to Museveni’s rule, he tends to use every available platform to try and pass a message to the president. Whenever he addresses Museveni, he says the president should realise that it is not only in the interest of the country, but it also Museveni’s own interest and then interest of his family to ensure that power changes peacefully.

At his 90th birthday celebration, Ssemogerere stressed the importance of nonviolent conduct of politics and among the things he picked out to comment on was a comment by the National Unity Platform’s Nyanzi that they are pursuing peaceful change of government.

Ssemogerere has been championing an intuitive dubbed ‘unity in diversity’, which brings together democracy-seeking organisations and individuals with the view of agreeing on minimum standards for political completion. Nonviolence is one of the values that the initiative seeks to propagate. Ssemogerere started this initiative after Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II honoured him for exemplary service in politics in 2019.

The veteran politician viewed the Kabaka’s award to him as a call to serve. And when his 90th birthday celebration attracted many people who extolled him for a job well done, Ssemogerere, who during the thanks giving mass had helped his wife, Dr Germina Ssemogerere, to walk up to the alter, again said that was another call to serve. If there is any initiative that requires him to give of whatever he has, Ssemogerere pledged to do the needful.

He spoke with a sense of regret over the things he struggled for but he feels have not been achieved yet, particularly in the fields of politics, rule of law and observance of human rights.

But on a personal level, Ssemogerere was able to look back with gratitude.

‘I have nothing more to ask of God,” Ssemogerere said as he concluded his speech at the celebration of his 90th birthday on Friday February 11, 2022 at his home in Lubaga, Kampala.

‘I have nothing more to ask of God,” Ssemogerere said as he concluded his speech at the celebration of his 90th birthday on Friday February 11, 2022 at his home in Lubaga, Kampala.

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