Last week, a boda boda cyclist ran over and killed journalist and publisher Teddy Ssezi Cheeye. In a more extended article in this paper (‘Cheeye was a son of a gun…our son of a gun’, page 28-29), I look at some of the intricacies behind the founding of Uganda Confidential in 1990, its controversial path, and conflicted life of Cheeye. However, Cheeye apart, the birth of Uganda Confidential in 1990 was not accidental. It happened as a result of a series of events in Uganda and the world.
Over the weekend, with the country, especially Kampala, seemingly besieged by criminals, President Yoweri Museveni, who has based a large part of his legitimacy on ending this type of insecurity, took to Twitter to reassure a nervous nation. He said this spate of crime will be solved, like many others many in the past thought wouldn’t be overcome. “Many people did not believe that we would end shortages of sugar, soap, paraffin, beer, etc. - the so-called “essential commodities,” he tweeted. “All these, however, have been achieved”.
He does not say how the shortages ended. It was through privatisation and liberalisation of the economy. In the first two years of the NRM, it tried to solve shortages through improving production by State-owned companies and barter trade. It was a colossal failure, with shortages of milk, salt, sugar, beer, and soft drinks persisting until into late 1987.
Why did it fail? First, the Soviet Union and eastern bloc were teetering, so the market for barter, rather than for good old dollars, Pounds and yens was not there. Secondly, HIV/Aids began to take its toll, and it began to dawn that new sources of social energy and enterprise needed to enable Uganda cope with the economic burden. Thirdly, rebellion in the north and northeast were intensifying, and the economy couldn’t support both the wars and reconstruction.
So, in 1988, sound economic sense prevailed. Soon State companies were sold off, and the economy thrown open for businessmen and women to take over and provide the services and goods consumers needed, for a profit. The rest, as they say, is history.
Two things happened. At that point, continuing a practice from the past, some NRM big wigs had taken advantage of the shortages to make a fortune getting commodities at government-controlled rates and selling them on the open market.
In the country and within the NRM, there was discontent about the people who were “betraying” the revolution and using the State to enrich themselves. This was the line pushed by the ideological purists in the NRM, several of them in the Movement Secretariat, but they were at their sharpest in the Political Commissariat of the National Resistance Army (NRA), the precursor to UPDF.
Their ideas vehicle was the journal Tarehe Sita (February 6), marking “NRM Day”). Cheeye was working with Tarehe Sita when I first met him through Wafula Oguttu, who was then editor of the NRM-leaning Weekly Topic. I was Waf’s deputy.
Cheeye, like Waf - and progressives in NRM – were troubled by what they saw as the “hegemony of the right wing”, epitomised by the influence of politicians like Balaki Kirya, businessmen such as First Lady Janet Museveni’s uncle John Kazoora, and prime minister, then vice president Samson Kisekka.
Privatisation and liberalisation unleashed a lot of creative economic energy, but also a new round of corruption, and the inequality gap became glaring rather quickly.
He was a regular at Weekly Topic, and his sense of humour and political gossip about goings on inside NRM were always worthwhile. He was disillusioned with the losses the progressives were suffering. When he came up with his plan for Uganda Confidential, it was exciting.
Wafula and I agreed to find some time in our schedule to help Cheeye with Uganda Confidential at the start.
This background is important, because those looking at Uganda Confidential’s burn trail later, wouldn’t imagine that Cheeye was ever motivated by a noble purpose.
There was always a part of him that believed that the political and economic system had to be fairer. He was controversial, but what made him good, his fearlessness and passion, were also what made him disagreeable and led him to errors.
Cheeye didn’t have much formal education. He was mostly self taught.
He overcame odds that would have broken most people in similar situation.
The power that media success grants some journalists, can sometimes be much a politician like President Museveni has. Its temptations are enormous.
Cheeye at one point had the power to make or break. It got the better of him.
The tragedy of his death, then, is that his contribution to journalism might be difficult to tell above the noise of how he lived his life. But we shall try.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3