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Paul Ssemogerere’s epitaph: A rebel with hope and perseverance

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Paul Ssemogerere’s epitaph: A rebel with hope and perseverance

Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere was a rebel. The soft, smiling type, with an easily underestimated resolve. The under-appreciated hero because his conquests did not include blood and human corpses. 


There was a time when I did not appreciate Ssemogerere’s politics. Why, I wondered, would a man who claimed to have won a presidential election in 1980, join a parliament controlled by those who had stolen his victory? Why would he not join the armed rebellion in Luwero? Why join that disaster of a government led by Tito Okello Lutwa and Bazilio Okello in 1985? Why join the Museveni government in 1986 whose violent methods of capturing power he had disagreed with?


My disagreement with Ssemogerere was informed by my support for armed rebellion against dictatorship. I was one of those who honestly believed that the non-violent option was a pipedream in a country where military rule had become the national tradition. The violent men who captured power from the people after the December 1980 election could only be dislodged with the force of arms. So, I quickly cast lots with the armed rebels, led by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. The rest is history. 


It took me nearly two decades to be completely disabused of that foolishness, and to recognise that there was no such thing as a “people’s resistance,” “people’s revolution,” “the gun as a path to freedom,” and such fantasies that were merchandised by men with hidden agendas. 


When I learned that Ssemogerere was a candidate for the country’s presidency in 1996, I took leave from work and flew to Uganda, at my own expense and financial loss, to campaign for Museveni Kaguta. It was during that time that I came face to face with the hollowness of the democratic claims of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and its leaders. I was witness to bribery of many potential voters. A plastic mug (ekikopo) and a few hundred shillings were sufficient arguments in favour of my leader. Deception was king. Truth was foolishness. 


When I protested and condemned the violence against Ssemogerere and his team during his campaign swing through Rukungiri, Bugisu, Karamoja, Toro and Makerere, I was called a “kipinga” (reactionary) by NRM leaders that I had hitherto mistaken for civilised democrats and fighters for human rights. Two senior NRM leaders, both with military ranks, told me there was no way they would allow Ssemogerere to take power. My democratic idealism was shredded with the dismissive remark: “You have lived in Canada too long.”  Museveni himself confirmed that he would never hand power to Ssemogerere and Cecilia Ogwal.


I was present at a meeting with Museveni in the Kabaare District Council Chamber in April 1996, where I witnessed a degree of sycophancy that left me completely despondent. That was the night that local leader after leader stood up and informed Museveni that in their sub counties, his support was “ijana ku ijana” (100 percent.)   Not even one person bothered or dared to raise serious concerns about their desperately poor fellow citizens. The president smiled. The party faithful applauded. I wept inside. 


Ssemogerere soldiered on. Museveni was declared the winner. The eve of his inauguration as president in May 1996 found me in Entebbe. My drive to Kampala took hours because the highway was completely blocked by throngs of the destitute and other dwellers in the socio-economic margins, assembled to welcome visiting heads of state, in Uganda to witness Museveni’s second inauguration as president.  The masses chanted “No change! Why change?” 


Like other motorists, I had to honk as a sign of support for Museveni for the crowd to let me pass. It was a sight even more depressing than the “ijana ku ijana” episode in Kabaare. The poor and marginalised were ululating and singing praises while we, the economically advantaged, watched with incredulity from the comfort of our air-conditioned cars. The continued mockery of Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” by Africa’s post-colonial rulers was on full display.


It was after 1996 that I began to study Ssemogerere and to actively listen to him. His imprisonment by Obote in 1969 had not left him too embittered to interact with him. A photograph of the two men in conversation in 1980 is a visual reminder of the hope for restoration of civilised dialogue that appeared after the overthrow of Field Marshal Idi Amin. Ssemogerere’s commitment to peaceful change, and his middle-ground, accommodative politics began to make sense. By the end of the 1990s, my divorce from the NRM was complete, and my respect for Ssemogerere had markedly risen. 


To be sure, Ssemogerere’s claim to democratic practice was not always as clean as one would have wanted it. When Yusufu Lule, the exiled first post-Amin president, indicated an interest in returning to Uganda to seek the presidency of DP, Ssemogerere, the interim party chairman, appeared to be lukewarm about the former president’s plan.


On June 18, 1980, the day that Lule was expected to fly in from Nairobi, Ssemogerere found himself on “urgent party business” in Fort Portal. Evidently the urgent party business did not require the presence of DP Interim Secretary General Francis Wazarwahi-Bwengye. So, the latter was delegated to receive the former president. Whereas Lule’s return to Uganda was blocked by the Military Commission of Paulo Muwanga, Museveni and Okello Lutwa, we did not hear loud protests from Ssemogerere. 


In the event, Ssemogerere became the elected president-general of DP, stood for the presidency of Uganda in December 1980, almost certainly won the election, and became leader of the official opposition.


He would remain the leader of DP for 25 years, not exactly a good credential for one who lamented power monopoly by his opponents. If memory serves me well, when Wazarwahi-Bwengye showed interest in leading the party, complete with an attempt to register DP in May 2003 under the new Political Organisations Act, 2002, Ssemogerere reportedly advised him to “form his own party.”  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a record of that report, so I cannot swear by my memory’s offering. I would greatly value an affirmation or evidence-based refutation of this detail. 


On the other hand, Ssemogerere, who had joined the leadership team of the five-year-old Democratic Party in 1959, continued its tradition of non-dynastic politics. In its 68-year history, the DP has had six elected leaders – Joseph Kasolo (1954-56), Matayo Mugwanya (1956-58), Benedicto Kiwanuka (1958-69), Paulo Kawanga Ssemogerere (1980 – 2005), John Sebaana Kizito (2005-2010), and Norbert Mao (2010-present) - none of them biologically related.


This is in sharp contrast with the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) whose identity was merged with that of Apolo Milton Obote, its founding president. Obote, who ruled UPC for 45 years, was succeeded as leader by his wife Miria Kalule Obote. Her son, Jimmy Akena Obote, attempted to succeed her as party leader in 2010. He was defeated by Olara Otunnu. The latter, viewed as a meddlesome outsider, endured a troubled leadership until he was ousted by the Obotes in 2015. Akena Obote remains the official leader of a party that one must remind oneself that it still exists. 


Of course, the ruling NRM is Museveni’s private organization. Notwithstanding the pretend arrangement that gave nominal leadership to Yusufu Lule (1981-85), the NRM has been ruled by Museveni since its formation on June 8, 1981. More than 40 years later, preparations are under way to hand its leadership to Museveni’s son. 


The story of Ssemogerere’s public life awaits thorough interrogation and scholarly analysis by an objective historian. To me, he was a man whose politics appeared to match the motto of DP - Truth and Justice – and its party colours -green for hope and white for perseverance. That would be the perfect epitaph for this man who never gave up, even at ninety years of age.


© Muniini K. Mulera

(Photo: Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, borrowed from Karoli Ssemogerere's Facebook wall.)

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