Museveni’s childhood friend goes to rest
Posted Monday, March 4 2013 at 02:00
Fallen First Deputy Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya shared a 40-year friendship with President Museveni.
Such are childhood friendships that many never measure up to anything. They blossom in the innocent excitement of infancy but often fizzle and die away when maturity and all its burdens set in.
A few childhood friendships, however, defy this natural rise-and-fall trajectory. They instead increase in magnitude and intensity of bond, gathering common value systems long the way. History will judge the life of Eriya Tukahirwa Kategaya, a seasoned politician and qualified lawyer, through the eyes of the latter form of childhood friendships. His was a life defined by his relationship with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986.
The two were acquainted in 1953, as pupils at Kyamate Primary School, in Ntungamo District. This acquaintanceship grew into a stronger bond of friendship when the two met again in Mbarara High School and again at Ntare School. Through university in Dar-es-Salaam, exiles in Kenya and in Tanzania, the armed struggle, through to capturing power and efforts at creating a functional state and economy, it continued to grow in leaps and bounds.
Like all friendships, there were bumps in the road, in this case a fundamental disagreement on political ethics and value systems when Museveni orchestrated the amendment of the Constitution in order to run for re-election in 2006.
Stunned by the volte-face, Kategaya spoke out and immediately paid the price when he was fired from Cabinet. In the end he came off as the innocent half of a friendship, the idealist who learned the hard way that scholars of political hardball and realism like Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli were right after all – in politics, virtue does not win; shrewd political manipulation does.
Mr Kategaya died on Saturday evening at Nairobi Hospital of a condition known as thrombosis, or a blood clot. By the time of his passing, he was Uganda’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs. His death brings to an end a career, which, save for the three years he was thrown out of Cabinet, was spent working and fighting for his country in one form or other.
Kategaya had an outstanding and unmistakable sense of injustice. He smelt it a mile away and turned his nose to it almost immediately. This side of his character was already showing itself in high school at Ntare when during the mid-1960s, then Prime Minister, Dr Apollo Milton Obote, fired and arrested five cabinet ministers and later suspended the Constitution.
Kategaya, with friends who included Mr Museveni, marched up to the Prime Minister of Ankole, James Kahigirizi’s office, demanding to know what he would do to oppose Dr Obote. Mr Kahigirizi told them to “take it easy”, and that sunk their morale with disappointment.
Despite this drive, he chose to study law and became a political activist, two fields not known to make a case for genuine justice. This contrast was no better illustrated than in 2003, when his 40-year-old friendship with Mr Museveni, drove off the cliff and plunged into the abyss.
Mr Museveni chose to seek re-election and to change the Constitution to make this possible. Kategaya found this a fundamental betrayal of the original values on which their political movement, started in high school decades earlier, was based. He did not hide his disappointment. “I have realised that the more one stays in power, the more one is insulated from reality,” he told a Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (Pafo) meeting on May 8, 2003. “The trappings of state apparatus tend to make one live unrealistic existence,” he added.
In an interview with the New Vision on May 18, 2004, he said: “What I am opposed to is the culture of not wanting to go away. All along I trusted President Museveni whenever we agreed on what to do but the kisanja [re-election-by-all-means] project has shaken my faith and trust in leaders...It seems the survival instinct overrides everything else.”
Right then, it seemed, Kategaya’s bubble of political idealism was brutally burst. He seemed to be realising, too late, that one could either choose to have selfless service or politics, but not both.
The result of this very public falling out was a very ungracious sacking from cabinet on May 23, 2003. Gone was all the status and prestige African cabinet ministers are known to wield like a government SUV with police escorts. The next three years were spent in near-oblivion, a time during which he attempted to revive his law practice.
It was during this time that he published his memoirs, Impassioned for Freedom (2006). The book clearly charted the journey that he and Yoweri Museveni had taken through school, war, government and on to their moment of disagreement. But six months after this publication, Kategaya was on TV lining up to accept a cabinet position in the very government he accused of being “money-crazy, (and a) mobcracy (leadership by the mob).”
It was the ultimate U-turn. Had Kategaya yielded to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mantra?
Commentary abounded on why Kategaya had chosen to serve a government he had discredited. The most persistent of these was that the three years spent away from a cabinet position to which he had grown accustomed for two decades, left him financially troubled. But when a TV journalist confronted him with a question about this, Kategaya replied, “That is a very stupid question.”