Janet Museveni opens up on love, family and politics
They often appear detached as a pair while in public, casting the authoritative look of tough leaders.
But behind the pristine and heavily-guarded gates to State House, Mr Yoweri Museveni and Ms Janet Kataha live like an ordinary African couple, lavishing and chiding their children.
Love too flows in loads, Ms Janet Museveni told the Network Africa programme on the BBC, the British public broadcaster, in a special African First Ladies’ interview, aired yesterday.
“My husband was one of my childhood friends,” she said when asked if hers was love on first sight. “I knew him when I was younger; so, when we met as adults, we were really no strangers.”
The pair, together with Jennifer Nkunda, the late wife to Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, trekked kilometres on dirt road to Kyamate Primary School, now in Ntungamo District.
“Our village was a typical African village and every woman was a mother to every child and I loved that. It was such a beautiful time,” said Ms Kataha, unimpressed by Ugandan youths’ desire to imbibe Western way of life.
Publicly, the First Lady appears reticent and calm. Associates say, in spite of the vast power that she wields, Ms Kataha has remained the dignified ‘Munyankore’ wife – letting Mr Museveni play the family head in the traditional sense.
But how did the pair, after several years of living – perhaps joking and annoying one another - as platonic friends then drown in love?
The feelings of intimacy surged some 750 or so kilometres away in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and it was nearly accidental, according to Mr Museveni.
The future President, then a guerilla under Front for National Salvation Army (Fronasa) rebel outfit, was sneaking to Uganda from Tanzania when he bumped into John Wycliffe Kazzora at Hilton Hotel in Nairobi.
At the time, Ms Kataha stayed with her cousin Kazzora, a respected and wealthy lawyer, who fled to Nairobi following the murder, in 1972, of Uganda’s former Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka. Suspected state security operatives had also raided the attorney’s Kampala office, killing a young lawyer in his chambers.
Courier to lover
The Kenyan government, at the prodding of late President Idi Amin, forced out Kazzora who had agreed to work with the Musevenis to topple the dictatorial regime in Kampala. The good that came out of this otherwise saddening ejection was that it set the stage for Mr Museveni and Miss Kataha to upgrade their emotional feelings – fall in love.
“Kazzora [when he left Nairobi] nominated Janet to work as a courier between himself and me,” President Museveni writes in his autobiography. “After a little while, I decided that the liaison officer should handle other matters. Janet and I were married in August 1973 and our first child, Muhoozi [Kainerugaba], was born on April 24, 1974 ...”
Asked in the BBC interview how she juggles as a First Lady, wife, Member of Parliament for Ruhama Constituency and State Minister for Karamoja Affairs, mother and grandmother, the First Lady said: “I am lucky to have a family that is very supportive. They all throw their [weight] around me and back my work. I go out [to work] with their blessing and I am very happy to have that support from my family.
Observers and friends, however, offer other insights to explain Janet Kataha’s success as a wife and politician.
“She is a strong character and tough mother and makes her wishes strongly felt,” says Mr Timothy Kalyegira, a veteran journalist who has interviewed more than 100 people, including members of the First Family, for a planned biography of President Museveni.
“She is an influential person and power broker,” says Mr Kalyegira, “I think she is one of the most powerful First Ladies on the African continent today.”
Such was not the luminous summit Ms Kataha envisaged in life even as her launched the five-year National Resistance Army (NRA) guerilla war in the Luweero jungles that eventually brought him to power in 1986.
Exile life in Sweden, as her husband fought in the bushes, was so tough that becoming a First Lady, even for a day, never crossed her mind.
“No. That could not be part of even my wildest dream,” she told the BBC. “At that time, what was topmost in my mind were questions like; will we ever get a chance to get home again? Or would my husband even survive the bush to be able to see a free Uganda?”
After 20 years of playing the behind-the-scene power broker, Ms Kataha, against the counsel of her husband, thrust herself into the volatile, active world of politics and won the Ruhama parliamentary slot.
Her appointment by the husband to Cabinet drew criticism that Mr Museveni, whose son Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba is now commander of the elite Special Forces, is running Uganda like a family business.
Matters are not helped that many of the President’s blood relatives, including his younger brother, Gen. Salim Saleh, the senior presidential adviser on Defence, hold key government positions in a country where unemployment is widespread.
Asked in the interview on the monopolistic way in which the Musevenis are perceived to be managing Uganda, Ms Kataha snapped: “I know that that is rubbish. I am sorry to say this, because he doesn’t. If there is anybody who takes trouble to do everything by the law, it is my husband.”
“He has not stayed without their (Ugandans’) mandate. Every time he is [required] to go back to ask for their support [and] they give it willingly. That signals to the world that it is the Ugandans that want him.”
After seizing power through a coup in January 1986, Mr Museveni has won three elections; in 1996, 2001 and again 2006, although the Supreme Court ruled twice that the last two ballots were marred with irregularities, among them vote rigging.
“I think he has done a very good job,” Ms Kataha says of his husband, dismissing media critics against him as “maddening”.
The other attribute of the First Lady, according to Mr Kalyegira, is that she’s very protective of her family. In 2005, when former US Ambassador to Uganda Johnnie Carson, now the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, in a commentary article published by the Boston Globe criticised Mr Museveni as seeking to be life President like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Kataha hit back with equal vitriol.
She is one person, who according to Mr Kalyegira, the First daughters and son hold in high esteem for influencing their dad to reverse certain decisions owing to her “tough stance”.
Such is the woman whom President Museveni said he knew in 1958 and got to love and later marry after several years of not seeing one another following merry childhood times.
“At the time we were living in Kurasini, a suburb of Dar es Salaam, and we were so short of funds that our electricity had been cut off because of non-payment of the bill,” Mr Museveni writes in Sowing the Mustard Seed of their family’s hardship after the birth of their son.
“In fact we were not able to have it restored until Muhoozi was three months old. You should have seen him jump and laugh when the lights first came on!”
Getting a job, which he did as an Economics teacher at Moshi Cooperative College in 1974, was the only way to stop “my new young family from starving”, Mr Museveni writes.
Uganda’s top most couple has had their highs and lows but the love that sparked in the early 190s has bound them together. To their credit, all their daughters have had glamorous weddings, reinforcing to the Ugandan community the essence of settled marriage life.