President Museveni’s eldest daughter Natasha Kainembabazi’s second born was closely followed with a headline in The Monitor. ‘Natasha’s Shs180m jet baby sparks off uproar’, published on September 28, 2003.
It was a special article, spread across two pages, reporting that Ms Kainembabazi had flown the presidential jet to deliver the baby in Germany.
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, who is now the Kira Municipality Member of Parliament, and Lindah Nabusayi Wamboka, now the Presidential Press Secretary, wrote it.
Mr Charles Odoobo Bichachi was then Editor, Sunday Monitor. Presently, he is the Monitor’s executive editor.
The then Samia Bugwe North Member of Parliament Aggrey Awori, who is knowledgeable about aviation, worked out the figure.
Mr Awori arrived at the sum by considering an aircraft’s air fees, parking fees, flight crew costs and accommodation.
Shs180 million, according to the article, could at that time settle the fees for 1, 200 women to deliver babies at Mulago hospital’s private wing.
Were it to be spent on mosquito nets, the money would buy 19,000 treated mosquito nets.
Alternatively, it could buy 36,000 blankets to give to internally displaced persons in northern Uganda.
Mr Nganda says the source of the information was a two–sentence brief in the gossip pages of The New Vision, the government–owned paper.
“I think what The New Vision thought it was doing was that it was breaking a story about Museveni’s daughter giving birth,” Mr Nganda says.
Mr Bichachi would moments later tell Mr Nganda the matter should not be treated lightly; they had to flesh it out.
“What struck me is that we had a health system that everyone was complaining about. Those who should have fixed it knew there was a problem, but they opted to go outside the country using resources that should have helped address the problem,” Mr Bichachi says.
“If the President was using his personal resources, you would not begrudge him. But using public resources when there were women in Uganda dying while giving birth; that struck me. That is what informed the angling of the story.”
Between 1986 when the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) toppled Tito Okello and 2003 when Ms Natasha flew the presidential jet to deliver her baby in Germany Mr Museveni had created the impression that he was not extravagant, Mr Nganda says.
It was during that time that Mr Museveni said the government would be buying items made in Uganda.
Many remember him for saying the government would buy furniture made by carpenters here.
“The [Kainembabazi] story punched a hole in that narrative the President had created,” Mr Bichachi says. It did.
Through a rejoinder in the October 5, 2003 issue of the paper, Mr Museveni said, “…the new myth being spun by Awori, [The]Monitor, Onyango Obbo and their allies about an expensive life–style by my family is not only nonsense but it also shows the desperation of those who have been fighting the Movement for all these years.”
Mr Museveni disputed the Shs180m figure.
According to his calculations, it would cost $26, 000, not $90, 000, to fly from Uganda to Germany.
He said he paid for Ms Kainembabazi’s accommodation and hospital expenses. But he did not say how much he spent.
As to why the daughter was flown to Germany, Mr Museveni said it was part of their survival strategy.
Ms Kainembabazi had delivered her first child at Kololo Hospital in Kampala, years earlier.
Why couldn’t she do the same with the second?
Mr Museveni said it would be unwise to make it a habit.
It is safer to, once in a while use a completely different approach, he said.
The head of state pointed out that his involvement in resistance activities had invited enemies for himself and his family.
Therefore, he said, it was his responsibility when it comes to such vulnerable moments when they cannot avoid submitting to authority and care of doctors for their very lives, that he comes in. He further said that some of the doctors in Uganda’s hospitals were unethical.
Such doctors, he said, mixed their political affiliations with professional duties.
“…we still have some wrong doctors,” Museveni said.
To back up his claim, he gave an example of an army officer who had once been injured.
One of the NRA commanders took the injured to a doctor to treatment.
The unnamed doctor reportedly declared the officer dead.
Not satisfied, the commander took the officer to another doctor, who treated him.
Yet another doctor, Mr Museveni said, wanted to amputate another officer.
Mr Museveni said a person as sensible as him could not expose himself to such doctors.
“I, therefore, do not need Awori or [The] Monitor to demarcate for me the boundary between State responsibility and my personal responsibility in my family matters,” Mr Museveni wrote.
“The only question is the plane and security that the State provides for my children when they are here or abroad.”
But couldn’t Ms Kainembabazi travel to Germany using cheaper means?
Mr Museveni said people no longer travel by ship to Europe.
“Planes are a must, whether commercial or private. My children use commercial jets most of the time,” Mr Museveni said.
So why didn’t Ms Kainembabazi travel by commercial flight?
Her child was overdue, the President said.
As it is widely known, commercial planes do not allow pregnant women to travel beyond a certain time of pregnancy.
Knowing that a commercial plane might not allow her on board; couldn’t Ms Kainembabazi have travelled much earlier?
Mr Museveni said there were certain security considerations that barred the daughter from travelling from Uganda to Germany earlier.
He did not delve into those security considerations.
I am not extravagant – Museveni
Turning to the law, he said the Presidential Emoluments and Benefits Act entitled the first family to an annual holiday – at the state’s expense
He said The Monitor was trying to portray him as an extravagant person.
The paper, quoting Mr Awori, had reported that State House had spent Shs1.2 billion to construct a gymnasium and Shs28 million on two tennis courts.
Mr Museveni said he needed the gym for exercise to shed off the beer belly he had acquired after he became less physically active.
“The Monitor had a field day making cartoons of my newly–acquired fat belly because of ‘eating too well’ in ‘State House’,” Mr Museveni said, probably in jest.
According to the article, Mr Awori also said that each of the president’s daughters had an armoured Mercedes Benz, which the vice president did not have, for their shopping errands.
Surely, a story with such information would create a splash.
Wasn’t the editor scared the government would close the paper?
Ms Kainembabazi’s trip to Germany happened at a time when The Monitor was still smarting from the 2002 shutdowns.
In that context, one would have thought the editor would have feared to run a story touching on the commander-in-chief.
But Mr Bichachi says that while assigning Mr Ssemujju and Ms Wamboka the Kainembabazi, he did not believe the government would shut down the paper.
“At that time it never crossed our minds,” Mr Bichachi says. “At that time, the regime still had many people who could debate issues. We knew the matter would be debated.”
Looking back, Mr Nganda says the story was important.
“I think they became careful; I do not think we have had the presidential jet flying Museveni’s family members again,” Mr Nganda says.
“That story constrained him from flying the presidential jet again and from treating assets that are attached to the President’s Office as private assets.”
The Telegraph, a paper in Britain, would later pick up The Monitor story. In its October 7, 2003 issue, it reported thus: ‘President spends £20,000 so his grandchild can be born in Europe’.
Two days earlier, the Independent, a paper in Britain, reproduced excerpts of Mr Museveni’s rebuttal.
But he adds that Mr Museveni no longer cares about how Ugandans perceive him.
Had it been that Mr Museveni cares, Mr Nganda says, the former would not have carried a sack of money to Kamuli to dish out to youth to reportedly start income-generation activities.
He would not also have allowed the amendment of the Constitution to lift the two-term limit for a president.
Mr Ssemujju and Ms Nabusayi won an investigative journalism award because of the article.