Wednesday May 25 2011

Bukenya: Fall of a political mahogany


By Richard Wanambwa


An accomplished farmer with an undying love for swimming, Gilbert Balibasekka Bukenya was born on May 8, 1949, in Lwantama village, in Busiro County, Wakiso District, about 30 kilometres northwest of Kampala.

If not spectacular, his career has been as colourful as was his rapid rise to the second highest political position in the land. At his most controversial, he once was photographed in a witchdoctor’s shrine ‘consulting the gods’.

It has been almost 15 years of working the networks, getting embroiled in social and political scandals, as well as dropping off hints about his unspoken aspirations for even greater heights.
Educated by the Brothers of Christian Instruction order at St. Savio Primary School, Kisubi, St. Mary’s College Kisubi, St. Edward Secondary School, Bukuumi, and St. Henry’s College Kitovu, his upbringing in Catholic-founded schools may partly explain his closeness with the institution which has almost throughout been an important constituency for him.

Academic giant
He attended Makerere University School of Medicine in the 1970s where he graduated with a Bachelors of Human Medicine and Surgery and later worked briefly as a Medical Officer at Mbale Hospital up to 1982 when he left for Papua New Guinea.

Abroad, he obtained the following degrees: Master of Science, Doctor of Science and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), specialising in public health. More than a decade later, he returned to Uganda and was appointed dean of Makerere University Medical School, a position he held between 1994 until 1996. His political ambitions were not apparent then even though he arrived when the new Constitution was being written -a period of great political activity.

It was in 1996 that he entered politics and was elected Member of Parliament for Busiro North constituency. He would win the chairmanship of the ruling NRM parliamentary caucus where he worked closely with a man he says influenced his return.

Prof. Bukenya says it was after he talked to former Speaker of Parliament, the late James Wapakhabulo, who also worked in Papua New Guinea, that he made the decision to return home.
He also credits Senior Presidential Assistant on Political Affairs, Moses Byaruhanga, for mentorship.
During this period, through his happy-go-lucky manner, Prof. Bukenya helped smooth over some of the cracks which appeared to be widening between President Museveni and other historical leaders of the NRM. He also served as chairman of the ruling NRM party in the Buganda region.

Prof. Bukenya subsequently became Minister of State for Trade and Industry before being elevated to Minister for the Presidency. He became Vice President in 2003 replacing Dr Specioza Kazibwe who at the time was grappling with a failed marriage and corruption accusations arising out of the valley dams saga.

Last year, he ran for Secretary General of the ruling NRM but lost by a wide margin to the incumbent Amama Mbabazi – a loss many attribute to the fact that he was never really part of the establishment and was indeed considered an interloper in certain circles.

In 2005, Dr Bukenya surprised political watchers when he suddenly alleged that the government was being controlled by a mafia clique. In an interview with the then Managing Director of this paper, Conrad Nkutu, he said the mafia was plotting his downfall. He pointed the finger at Cabinet colleagues Amama Mbabazi, Hope Mwesige, and Sam Kutesa.

As the shock waves following his accusation reverberated around political circles, Prof. Bukenya, always the shrewd operator, turned around and denied giving such an interview. At a staged photo opportunity, the Vice President appeared with the very Cabinet colleagues he had accused at a press conference to denounce his own allegations. Then he referred to himself as an unassailable tropical hard wood-Mahogany. This would not be the last time he manipulated the press for his own ends – several times winning another lease of political life each time the President appeared ready to drop him with carefully choreographed media demonstrations of his supposed popularity.

Prof. Bukenya then focused his political energies on promoting upland rice (NERICA), spending weeks on end touring the country and building vast networks in the process. Regime insiders now say that this, alongside the reported fact that he was holding night meetings with senior army officers, got him into trouble.

Political watchers will have observed that the vice president was, at the time, feeling very insecure as his growing visibility -- popularity and closeness to the powerful Catholic Church in Uganda – was being deemed to pose a political threat to senior establishment figures.

It was about this time that his political star began to wane. That star had shone bright largely because of his reported smooth-talking and mobilisation skills. It is this skill which partly attracted the President to him way back in 2003 after Dr Kazibwe was disgraced and thrown out of office in a Cabinet reshuffle.

For many ordinary Ugandans, Prof. Bukenya’s political name will forever be remembered in same breath as his at times tasteless associations with a string of women and an unabashed love for the nightlife. Jamilah Nakku is one such woman whose reported involvement with the VP almost wrecked his career.

The stench of dirty money has also not been far from him. He was named in an unsavoury story involving the purchase of a house from National Social Security Fund at a cheaper rate than its market value. He remains one of the key suspects in the Shs500 billion 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting procurement corruption debacle. He is married to Dr Margaret Bukenya, a former classmate at Makerere Medical School.