When Ugandans go to the polls in 2016, more than 60 per cent of MPs will not make it back to the August House—that is if the statistics of the last two elections are anything to go by.
For one legislator, however, elections are not something to lose sleep about. He has been through eight competitive elections since 1989, emerging victorious in each one of them.
In fact, when the term of the current Parliament ends in 2016, he will be setting a new record of the longest-serving MP in the NRM regime. Meet Engineer John Nasasira, the MP for Kazo County in Kiruhura District. He has been representing the area since 1989.
When I meet Mr Nasasira at his Naguru home in Kampala, I pointed out to him that by 2016, he would have done 27 years as a legislator—and he quickly quips, “You mean I am a political dinosaur?”
Dinosaur or not, that will be a record. The only other person with such a feat is Dr Crispus Kiyonga, the defence minister and Bukonjo County West MP in Kasese District. Had she not lost the Constituent Assembly election in 1993, current Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga would also be part of this club.
Unity and growing up
So, how has Eng Nasasira managed where others seem to have slipped?
“Being a uniting leader has been one of my strongest points,” says the jovial politician. “If you have been to Kazo, you will know that it is a melting pot of sorts.
It is home to internal migrants from the districts of Kisoro, Kabale, Rukungiri, Bushenyi and Ibanda. As a politician, I have ensured that I serve each of these groups diligently without segregation.”
And the minister for ICT minister would know better about treating everyone equally. His own family migrated from present-day Buhweju District to Kazo although he was born in Ibanda District. They never had trouble settling in with the other migrant groups in the district that is more famed for cattle-keeping.
“We were the royals of Buhweju before Obote abolished kingdoms in 1966,” he says. “I am a prince without a kingdom.” His father, Esau and mother Julia, were settled farmers who also owned herds of cows. His mother, who had gotten born-again in 1943, emphasised Christian values and demanded her children follow them.
“One of those was no alcohol. When growing up I never saw alcohol in our house. It is me who introduced it as an adult,” he says with a chuckle.
The “commoner” Nasasira would then go to Kazo and Ibanda primary schools before joining Ntare School in Mbarara for his secondary education.
“Museveni had just left when I got to Ntare in 1967 but stories about him abounded. He was spoken of as a radical who never agreed with the establishment. He did not accept to be patronised by teachers. Later, we heard he became a socialist.”
Ntare was a hotbed for politics. Besides Museveni, it produced other leaders like Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame. Another person Nasasira would take note of is current Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
“Mbabazi found me in Ntare. He had just come from Butobere College. He was a quiet guy, not very vocal. I was instead closer to a cousin of his.” Whereas Ntare did not light the political fire under Nasasira’s belly, it taught him one thing; responsibility.
“The school had no fence. We would move in and out freely but we did not lose focus of our studies,” says the lanky minister, who now spots a moustache.
Off to Nairobi
Unlike most of his colleagues, Nasasira did not go to Makerere. Upon completion of his A-levels in 1972, he went to Nairobi University under an exchange programme of the East African Community.
“I went to Nairobi with Frank Katusiime, a renowned ICT expert. There, we were more known for rioting. But in 1975, I graduated with a civil engineering degree. Unlike Makerere where engineering took four years, in Nairobi it was three years.”
As the Amin regime ravaged Uganda and more citizens fled to exile, Nasasira instead decided to try his luck at home. He returned to Uganda and found a job with CA Liburd - consulting firm in the city.
“The firm was near the Central Police Station. I would walk from Kibuli daily, to work and later after work. The situation though was bad. One day in 1976, there was a riot by Makerere students. Town was under siege. Jeeps were all over as people took off for their dear lives.”
The decision to go back to Kenya in 1977, however, was sparked off when people in intelligence began asking Nasasira about his connections with his uncle, Grace Ibingira.
Ibingira, an outspoken politician in the first UPC regime, fell out with President Obote causing his incarceration. When Gen Amin took over power in 1971, he freed him and named him Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the UN—a job he resigned from in 1974 as the regime gained currency for notoriety and murder.
“I had to go back to Nairobi for my safety,” narrates Eng Nasasira. “I joined a big company called Sir Alexander Gibbs & Partners. I had done internship there while at university. I quickly grew among the company ranks and was moved to oversee all its operations in western Kenya.”
It was while working in Nairobi and western Kenya that Nasasira made contact with forces that had begun plotting the downfall of the second Obote government. Among those he met were now foreign affairs minister Sam Kutesa and former minister Matthew Rukikaire.
“I became active in the NRM in 1982. I was self-recruited,” he reveals but opts to keep details of his exact contribution in the external wing secret. “I will not talk about that in detail but know that I even chaired the Nairobi branch of the external wing. We linked up with the people in the Bush and we gave them support.”
When President Museveni captured power in 1986, Nasasira like the thousands of Ugandans who had fled to exile, decided to return home.
“I returned to do my part in rebuilding our country. For six months, I volunteered at the ministry of works.
But then, Sir Alexander Gibbs & Partners got a big project in Uganda—the 3rd Highway Project—and asked me to help them. I rejoined them and they actually gave me terms of an expatriate. I was paid in foreign currency and had provision of taking leave in London with my family.”
Foray into politics
The minister notes that by 1989, when he had just become the overall boss of Sir Alexander Gibbs in Uganda, a new calling beckoned.
“We had the first National Resistance Council (NRC) elections in 1989. The elders of Kazo sat and decided to front my name as their candidate,” says Eng Nasasira, who speculates on why he could have been their choice.
“When we returned in 1986, I was asked to sit on the board of Kazo Primary School. So, I went to visit the school one day and found that their cyclostyling machine had broken down. They could not type and print. I offered to fix it.
That alone made me a hero,” he recounts with a wide smile. “I also remember contributing cement to some community project.”
The elders, he says, picked him out as a their choice even when Eng Nasasira thought Mr Jotham Tumwesigye (former IGG and now judge of the Supreme Court) was better positioned to run.
“Tumwesigye rejected my proposal and instead seconded me too. I obliged and joined the race. Voting was by queuing and I won with 87 per cent of the votes.”
Twenty-five years later, Eng Nasasira is still Kazo MP. What began as a reluctant entry into a field he was not familiar with has seen him stay and survive.
What has been the magic?
“It is important to have a mission or an ideologically clear mind on what you want to do for the people,” he says. “One should not be an MP just for the job. I should point out that maybe I was lucky that by the time I was voted MP I had my own money. So I had the money, not to buy voters but to contribute to the development of Kazo.”
“In my maiden term, I began by uniting my people. Kazo was divided along ethnicity, religion and past political affiliations. I embarked on a campaign of unity. I became a leader for all religions, ethnicities and folk belonging to the different political parties.”
After forging unity, Nasasira turned his attention to development in the areas of education, health, transport and household income. One of his renowned policies is that he meets the costs of roofing once a community has erected the shell of a school, a health facility and or a prayer place.
He adds: “But Kazo is also a strong NRM constituency. That has helped me since I have been a true cadre of the NRM. However, my people know me for one thing. I don’t do populist or what I call graveyard politics. You will not find me at every burial and wedding in Kazo simply because I am the area MP. But I sympathize with my people through messages delivered by my personal assistant or I contribute to the arrangements.”
Man at a glance
-1989: Appointed deputy minister for works
-1991: Dropped as minister in 1991 and named presidential adviser
- 1992: Nine months later, bounces back to Cabinet as deputy minister for works
-1994: Named Minister of State for agriculture in
-May 1995: Elevated to full minister of agriculture
-1996: Shifted to works as full minister
-2006: Stays as works and transport minister but communication and housing dockets taken away.
-In May 2011: Named Government Chief Whip and briefly as minister for gender
-In May 2013: Named Minister for ICT
The family man:
Nasasira is married to Naomi, who retired as a director from Bank of Uganda after 28 years on the job. They are blessed with five children; a boy and four girls. One is a lawyer, another an architectural engineer, the third a property manager turned fashion designer (Juliana Nasasira of KWESH), the fourth is at university while the last born is in Senior Four.
“When I was taken to court over those framed-up charges about Chogm. It is a pity those ridiculous cases were brought against us. Like the judges said when dismissing them, they were only meant to tarnish our names.”
“There was a time when I was a star minister. When everything seemed to go well. I remember people asking me to run for a senior party post but I politely refused. My argument has been that as long as the NRM chairman, who is also president, comes from my district, I should leave the other party positions to people from other places.”
“I have an arrangement with my constituents. We agreed that they will never say farewell to me through the ballot and likewise I will never say good bye to them through the newspapers first. As we approach 2016, we shall have a discussion on my political future and whatever we agree on will be binding. That position will be known by January 2015.”