An executive dark-grey Toyota Land Cruiser (VX, eight-cylinder) Prado pulls over at Shell Bugolobi where I have been, waiting for 10 minutes. Someone lowers the tinted window from the backseat and beckons me in. A sharply dressed youthful minister donning a grey suit with a matching striped necktie flashes a smile, revealing an even set of teeth. He opens the door, and moves over to the other side creating space for me.
Richard Todwong, 42, is a man in the news. A year ago, he was appointed by President Yoweri Museveni as Minister without Portfolio in charge of Political Mobilisation. The current whirlwind within the ruling NRM party that places the embattled Prime Minister and NRM Secretary General, John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, at the centre of controversy, has catapulted the Todwong into the limelight.
For the time being, till the next NRM Delegates Conference in 2015, that will meet to elect new office-bearers, key of which is the much coveted secretary general position, Todwong, going by the recent resolution of the NRM Parliamentary Caucus, will continue to assist the Mbabazi in his capacity as minister for political mobilisation.
Beyond the sharp suits and new titles that come with additional roles is another Todwong. He says he loves simplicity and living an ordinary life. “When you don’t know me or haven’t interacted with me, you might have a different image of me until you move closer and see the ordinary Todwong,” he says as we finally settle down for the interview.
“I always tell people around me that as a leader, the surest way to happiness and a life of contentment is to yield to the level of a servant; as a leader, you must keep your doors open to the people at any time of day or night. Some people, once they assume positions of power, tend to live a reclusive life and consider themselves as that important,” he says emphatically. He intimates that the one thing he will forever live for and if need be die for, is to help better the life and standards of the unfortunate people around him.
“It pains me to see young people full of potential waste away in the villages smoking things or taking drugs or engaged in prostitution simply because they have been deprived by poverty. I have decided that I will pay school fees from my salary to help such deprived young boys and girls,” he says with a measure of pain in his eyes. His philanthropy has seen him pay fees for over 60 students whom he picked from Nwoya, his district and brought to study in Kampala. They study at St Michael High School in Wakiso District.
“I want to give these children another chance at life, and I’m not doing this because I want votes, no. I believe that God has created each one of us with a purpose, and for me, my purpose is to help those that are helpless,” he continues as he delves into his childhood.
Affected by LRA rebels
Like many of his peers, Todwong’s childhood life was affected by the brutal insurgency occasioned by Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. His family would spend the greater part of the day and night running away from the LRA rebels. Owing to this, he had to spend four years out of school. “From 1985 to 1988, I was not attending school. I only resumed school in 1989 in P6 when I moved from my village in Anaka in Nwoya district to Gulu,” he recollects.
Looking back, Todwong is humbled by the positive strides his life has taken. “When I consider how fast my life has changed, I give God the glory, because as I look around, I see many of my peers who were going to school, I mean those whose schooling was never interrupted in any way, and see that none of them has achieved the measure of success I have now. I have worked in good positions in government, have been elected to Parliament and right now I’m a minister. This is what makes me humble and thank God with all my life,” he says.
“Some people may think that I come from a rich powerful family background to get to where I am now. My father was a prisons warder who struggled to educate us and look after us. My mother is a housewife. Ours has always been a big family in humble circumstances,” he says.
On how he rose from the shadows to catch the eye of the NRM leadership, particularly President Museveni, Todwong narrates that he first came into close contact with the President when he was a student at Makerere University, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences. “The elections of 1996 found me at Makerere where I was active in politics as a student leader. I was the guild speaker and I was involved in voluntary mobilisation work for President Museveni who was offering himself as a candidate against his main rival, Paul Ssemogerere.”
“In 1996, President Museveni visited Makerere and he was speaking about unity and poverty. To me as a young man who had grown up in poverty, and having grown to witness my people in northern Uganda fight and kill each other, I embraced this message with all my heart, and that marked the beginning of my love story with the NRM and President Museveni,” he adds.
It is through his political activism at university and identification with the NRM that Todwong came to work closely with the late Noble Mayombo, Brig Henry Tumukunde and Bidandi Ssali, among other NRM leaders, carving out a path for himself that has seen him on a steady political trajectory. It was these leaders who would later on introduce him to the Movement Secretariat, where he would start working for the regime that was reviled in his homeland of northern Uganda owing to the debilitating insurgency that had forced many Acholi and Langi into internally displaced camps.
“Talking about NRM or Museveni at that time was taboo in my home area. People were suffering, generations were cut short, the whole of the north became a wasteland because of the war, and I must say that the pain was understandable,” he explains.
His flirting openly with the regime that was being blamed for his people’s suffering in northern Uganda earned him stern rebukes from Acholi elders and politicians. He was considered a sell-out, and one who was not even permitted to move near Acholi girls to seek their hand in marriage. “Parents in Acholi reached the extent of forbidding their daughters from getting to me because of my association with the NRM government. I didn’t mind, in fact I later on got a beautiful girl from Bushenyi who is now my wife,” he narrates as he flashes a smile.
Content with what he has
The youthful minister says he is now contented with what he has achieved. “I’m now satisfied with what I have achieved. I have almost everything that a young man my age would aspire for, whatever comes hereafter will more or less be a bonus to me. One thing I desire is for God to give me long life so that I teach my children good character, and teach them to love other people as I have done,” he offers.
Todwong is passionate about politics. He says there is nothing else he can do apart from politics. It’s this love for politics and his NRM party, that, he says, has prompted the party chairman, President Museveni, and other party leaders to entrust him with national leadership responsibilities.
“My work stands out for me, I don’t fight to get noticed. My people in my constituency appreciate what I have done for them, and the President also appreciates my effort in helping to support the party. For instance, I pay rent for party offices at the sub-counties in my district out of my earnings. A good leader shouldn’t spend his or her time and money on fighting to get noticed,” he asserts.
Todwong says he is not ambitious for higher offices. But the fact that he is a Cabinet minister is satisfying enough. “If the appointing authority (President) elevates me to the position of prime minister or vice president, I would take that as a bonus to the work I have done, but on my part, I’m not fighting or aspiring to higher titles. Honestly speaking, what more would I want after being appointed to cabinet?”
He says in spite of the widespread media reports about the controversies in NRM largely involving Mbabazi and some party leaders, he enjoys a healthy working relationship with the prime minister, and respects him as the secretary general of the party.
“There are misguided reports that I have taken over Mr Mbabazi’s job as secretary general, that is not true. The truth is that Mbabazi is still the Secretary General of the party because he was elected by the delegates conference. It will be the delegates conference to vote him out or vote him again in the next party elections,” he clarifies, and adds: “My role is to assist the secretary general especially when it comes to mobilisation and revitalising the NRM party structures.”
He also denies reports that he is being used to neutralise Mbabazi within NRM. “I’m not in NRM to be used by anyone, whatever I do, I do it for the good of the party. I started serving NRM even before Mbabazi was secretary general, and I have grown serving the party taking additional responsibilities as assigned to me by the government and NRM party leaders,” he asserts.
He says he feels there is nothing else he can do apart from politics, recalling that when he was working in URA as a revenue officer, he felt there was a big mismatch between his calling as a politician and working as a revenue collector. “Inside me, I believed I was a vote collector, but not a revenue collector, that is why I quit my job at URA to join politics,” he says.