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Topher Twesigye: Ugandan diplomat with a politically incorrect identity

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Topher Twesigye: Ugandan diplomat with a politically incorrect identity

 In many countries, Topher Twesigye would have been a household name, an honoured and celebrated intellectual and leader of his people. In Uganda, most readers of this column probably have no idea who he was. Easily one of the brightest and most patriotic citizens, Twesigye’s star was thrown off its rightful trajectory because of our country’s troubled and often unaccommodating politics. The United Kingdom, where he spent over two decades in exile, reaped where it had not sown. His homeland missed the dividends of its investment in his nurturing and education.


Speaking of Twesigye in the past tense is still unbearable. The news of his death on Thursday August 10 is yet to feel real. Yes, we knew that he had struggled for two years with the unforgiving consequences of a brain haemorrhage which disabled this once celebrated athlete. Yes, he had passed his allotted time of three score plus ten. Yet the news was still deeply saddening and difficult to take. 


As one resigns oneself to the reality of Twesigye’s death, one takes stock of his life with the question: what happened to this fine and gifted gentleman whose early life had ticked all the boxes of one destined to rise to the top echelons of Uganda’s leadership?  Born in 1946 in Nyakishenyi sub-county of colonial Rukiga County in Kigyezi, Twesigye started his formal education at Nyakisorooza Primary School in Nyakishenyi, then entered Kigezi High School in 1961 for junior secondary education, followed by six years at King’s College, Budo (1963-68) where he excelled in class, on the sports field and in formal debates. 


He was admitted to the University of East Africa at Makerere in July 1969, where he read political science and political economy under Prof. Ali A. Mazrui. Among his classmates were Peter Anyang Ny’ongo, a former Kenyan cabinet minister, now governor of Kisumu County, Kenya; James Oporia Ekwaro, a former Ugandan ambassador to China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia (1979-83) and, later, a scholar and teacher of international development at University College, London; and Joshua Baitwa Mugyenyi, a former university lecturer and, later, Secretary of the Bank of Uganda.  Twesigye lost the election for the Makerere Student’s Guild presidency in late 1970 to his classmate Oporia Ekwaro. He graduated in March 1972. By then the university had become Makerere University, Kampala. 


Twesigye joined Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embarking on a promising career in the diplomatic service. He served in the Uganda Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, before leaving for postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics in 1976. He obtained a master’s degree and a PhD. He stayed in London and became a political and human rights activist, focusing on the dictatorship of Uganda’s Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada. 


Dr. Edmund Katiiti Bisherurwa of Pretoria, South Africa remembers that Twesigye was a leader in the Ugandan community in the UK, especially among the students. “He lobbied the British Government and international bodies for scholarships for Ugandan refugees,” Bisherurwa told me. In response to those efforts, many students received scholarships that saw them through undergraduate and postgraduate programs. 


“He used his location in Central London at the University of London to coordinate meetings and activities in the Anti-Amin movement,” Bisherurwa recalled. “He coordinated with activists like Ugandan-born Ben Matoogo and Kenyan-born South African Peter Gerald Hain, who organised protest activities like going to Stansted airport to spray red paint on Uganda Airlines aeroplanes.” 


Dr. Geoffrey Mukasa Mukwaya of Connecticut, USA recalls that Twesigye was universally liked by Old Budonians and was also very popular among the Ugandan diaspora in the United Kingdom. “I was intrigued by how he melded his Christian faith with his activism,” Mukwaya observed. “He excelled at networking and got on very well with the British in the UK, just as he had done at King’s College Budo.”


Twesigye, together with Simon Kabuzi, Dan Kajumba, George Wilson Kanyeihamba, T. Tomusange and Paul Wangola, founded the UK-based Uganda Group for Human Rights in 1977. The fall of the Amin regime enabled him to return home, where he rejoined the diplomatic service. However, his fortunes changed again in 1986 following Yoweri Museveni’s ascension to power. Twesigye’s diplomatic posting as minister counsellor in New York (I think) was summarily revoked. And so, a career diplomat fell victim to politics. Uganda lost the networking skills of one of her best brains and natural diplomats. 


He soon began his second exile in the United Kingdom, his patriotism for his homeland undented, and his spirit of generosity and caring towards fellow Ugandans intact. His work as an administrator at the University of London shared time and space with his political activism, and engagement with the Ugandan community in London. He was among the founders of what became the Community of Banyakigezi in the UK.  


My personal introduction to Twesigye was in mid-1966, when he had returned to Kigezi High School during the unscheduled closure of King’s College, Budo following the political/military strife that had led to Kabaka Mutesa’s second exile. When I joined Budo the following year, Twesigye, a resident of Mutesa House, was one of the senior students that showed me kindness and intentionally helped me and my fellow njukas (newcomers) to adjust to life in secondary school. Many of us admired him not only because he was a very friendly and kind person, but also because he was an excellent debater, and an outstanding athlete. He excelled in the 440-yard hurdles, and his image in full flight remains indelible in my mind. 


Dr. James Kikira Mugisha of Vancouver Canada, who was one year ahead of him at Kigezi High School, at Budo, and at Makerere, remembers Twesigye as a “friendly person, a great political debater, who was very hardworking, driven and competitive.”  This is a theme repeated to me by several people in the last few days. 


When I last met him in Uganda in July 2013, by which time he was teaching at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, little had changed about Twesigye’s capacity for piercing comment on political and social issues. However, I noted evident and understandable sadness about his dashed hopes for a genuinely free country, for which he had done a lot in his earlier years. I did not need to ask him what he thought of colleagues who had erased his name from the history of a political struggle in which he had played a vanguard role. I certainly did not need to ask him how he felt about his involuntary absence from the centre of leadership. We both understood that while he had the potential and the credentials to ascend to high office in Uganda, he lacked the correct political identity card to let him in. 


Twesigye was an intellectually comfortable person, a quality we hope he successfully imparted to his many students. Yet one cannot but feel that both Twesigye and Uganda lost the opportunity to utilise him for the greater good for which he was superbly suited. He was the type of person that a country which valued education, experience and alternative views would have snapped up. 


Twesigye was a courageous man. He endured a disrupted life because of our country’s sick politics. He faced the loss of two adult daughters within two years of each other. He bore the burden and pain of his final illness. He left this world with an intact reputation, and numerous admirers and grateful people whose lives he touched. We mourn with his wife Flavia, his surviving daughter and son, and his extended family. The great athlete has crossed the finish line with well-earned applause. 


© Muniini K. Mulera

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