I had such a high trust in President Museveni that at no time had I thought that he could either think or dream of ever changing the national Constitution to extend his stay in power. The problem I have found with people like myself, who seem to have a genuine childlike and naive trust, is that the impact of the betrayal of our trust is shattering.
The betrayal does not only make us withdraw our trust completely from those we had trusted; we also tend to withhold it from anybody else in their category. We learn to view everybody with suspicion, which is not good at all. Unfortunately that is what has happened to me. These days I am reminded of the biblical scripture in John 2:24, where it says that Jesus never entrusted His life with anybody because He knew the hearts of human beings.
If there was anybody who had been so deceived and betrayed by the President, it was me. First, I had been a member of the Uganda Constitutional Commission chaired by Justice Benjamin Odoki that had prepared the draft Constitution.
During this exercise, which took us four years from 1989 to 1992, I had very close interactions with Museveni as we discussed constitutional issues. He used to invite me to his office to brief him on how the exercise was going. He gave me the impression that he was committed to constitutionalism because he had once told me that if there was anything that he would bequeath to Ugandans, it was a good Constitution.
So now that we had got the good thing that he had so desired to bequeath to Ugandans, which was promulgated on October 8, 1995, how could I have imagined that he could think of abusing and tampering with it?
Secondly, sometime in 2002, I had a brief telephone conversation with President Museveni on the issue of removing the constitutional term limits, in which he assured me that he was committed to constitutionalism. The telephone conversation was instigated by some remarks I had made at a regional women’s conference on peace and security within the Great Lakes Region. The conference was held in Kampala at Hotel Equatoria. I was invited as the guest of honour to open the conference which had brought together women from the entire region.
The conference discussed the role of women in peace building, conflict prevention and resolution. During that period the region was overwhelmed with conflicts in Uganda, Burundi and the DR Congo. It also coincided with the time when president [Frederick] Chiluba of Zambia attempted to remove the presidential term limits from the national constitution of Zambia. Chiluba’s bid failed after he was vehemently opposed by Members of Parliament, in spite of the fact that many had been harassed, intimidated and others imprisoned.
In my opening address, I told the women that one of the causes of conflicts in Africa was the prolonged stay in power of our leaders who were ready to use any means, including violence against any opposition, to stay in power. They become greedy not only for power, but also for wealth; and, as a result, become dictators who resort to politics of patronage, intimidation, militarism and exclusion. I added that such leaders lose the ability to fight corruption and any other form of injustice because their addiction to power makes them vulnerable and hostage to the corrupt who help to sustain them in power.
I told them that countries that have undergone democratisation processes have taken advantage of these processes to constitutionally limit presidential terms so as to prevent the notion of life presidency. I went on to say that even with this safety net, the African leaders do not seem to learn, as evidenced by Zambia’s Chiluba who was fighting to remove term limits so that he could stay in power.
I appealed to the women to make sure that they fight such a tendency in their countries as a way of preventing conflict. I told the women that in Uganda we were lucky to have a good President who was committed to constitutionalism. He knew the value of a good Constitution to a nation and that was why he had championed its making. He also believed in the term limits.
I went on to say that, however, we can never be sure with human beings. We can never know what a leader can do once power enters his head, since it is said that power corrupts.
‘Should he ever want to remove our presidential constitutional term limits, I call upon you, women of Uganda, to oppose him because removing the presidential term limits would be a recipe for chaos and conflict in this country again. If you women do not rise to oppose him, I will do it myself, even if I have to do it alone,’ I declared to the conference attendees.
As I said all this, little did I know that I was giving news to the press. The very next day, a cartoon appeared in one of the Ugandan dailies showing President Museveni seated in his office, and there I was, holding a bell in his face. The cartoon’s caption was: “2006, Mr President, time’s up.”
At about midday on the same day, when I was in a Cabinet meeting, the Principal Private Secretary to the President, Ms Hilda Musubire, called me out saying that the President wanted to speak to me. I went to her office, picked the phone and said, “Your Excellency sir, this is Matembe on the line.”
As usual, he started, “Matembe, oreire ota? Emirimo wagihitsyahi?” (Matembe, how are you, and how is work?)
“Ndyaho Ssebbo, nemirimo negyendagye,” (I am alright and work is going on well) I said. In fact, most of the time when he called me, we spoke in Runyankore.
He went on: “Beitushi, kandi kanakureeba nondagiira,” meaning he had seen me ordering him around.
“Sir, how can I order you around? These days I do not talk much, I am a bit quiet. I am busy doing my job. So your people are once again telling you lies about me? When did I order you? In any case, order you to do what? Ebyo Matembe ndareebire (I, Matembe, have really suffered).”
When he heard me getting anxious, he said, “No, no Matembe, relax, do not worry; I am just seeing this picture where you are ordering me.”
“Which picture, sir?” I asked.
“The picture in the newspaper,” he replied. I told him I had not yet looked at the day’s newspapers, therefore, I didn’t know the picture he was talking about. I asked him whether it was a cartoon.
“Yes, there is a cartoon here where you are ringing a bell for me and telling me to quit the office of the President because my time is up,” he replied.
I asked Ms Musubire to give me the paper and I checked it, only to find that it was about the statement I had made at the women’s conference the previous day.
“Sir, you know these press people know how to twist things. They are trying to portray what I was saying at the Great Lakes Region women’s conference on peace and security yesterday.”
He said, “Okay, tell me what you said.”
I told him what I said at the conference, about my intention to oppose him if he ever attempted to amend the Constitution to remove term limits, like Chiluba was trying to do in Zambia.
“Why are you imputing bad motives onto me? You think I do not know when to leave office? Should it be you to tell me?”
“Sir, I am sorry. I really had no intention of imputing ill motives onto you. I was only saying that should you feel like you have not completed your programme and you want to stay on a little longer, I would remind you of your commitment to the Constitution. But that was just a statement; I know you know when to leave,” I replied.
“You see, Matembe, I also know this Constitution, and after all, I am the one who appointed you to the Constitutional Commission. Therefore, I am also aware that there is a Constitution and I have no intention of violating it,” he assured me.
Museveni had at around that time just returned from England where he had been interviewed by the BBC as to whether he would seek re-election in 2006, and he had maintained that he would stick to the Constitution.
President Museveni is so cunning in that whenever he was asked whether he would leave power in 2006, he always answered that he would stick to the Constitution because he knew he was going to change it. He never answered this question in the negative or affirmative.
So during the telephone conversation I told him, “Your Excellency, I know you know the Constitution and you intend to stick to it, as you recently said in your interview with the BBC. If what I said innocently at the conference annoyed you please forgive me, I did not intend to hurt your feelings.”
“You see Matembe, when you talk like that, you create an impression that I do not know what I ought to know and it is other people to tell me. I do not have to be pressurised out of office because I too know the law. So there is a need to correct the impression that you have created. Write a letter to the New Vision editor so as to remove the wrong impression that your statement has created about me.”
Immediately after the Cabinet meeting, I wrote the letter to the editor, New Vision. It was published the next day with a heading: ‘Cartoon creates a wrong impression’. In the letter I wrote that: “The cartoon created a wrong impression about the President, imputing that the President wants to amend the Constitution to remove the presidential term limits. President Museveni knows the Constitution very well and he does not need anybody to remind him to stick to it. So he will honour the Constitution and will not in any way violate or abrogate it.” I am sure he read that letter and was happy.
On that day, after my conversation with him, something shocked me about the personality of President Museveni. After the Cabinet meeting, we learnt that Museveni’s mother had passed away. Can you imagine that by the time we spoke, he already knew about his mother’s death, and yet there he was, bothered about a cartoon? And he never told me about his loss at all! One would expect any normal person to take some time to grieve and at least inform his close colleagues about the death of his mother.
So after all this talk with Museveni, which gave me even more assurance and confidence that he meant to stick to the Constitution, how could I not believe that he was going to quit come 2006?
We are not seeking another
term – First Lady assures me
Way back in 1996, the First Lady, Janet Museveni, herself had told me that her husband was not going to run for the presidency again, even in 2001. After the presidential and district women representatives elections, but before the parliamentary ones (at that time there were different voting days for each category of election), the First Lady called me to their home in Rwakitura. We sat alone in a beautiful little hut and had a nice chat.
As born-again Christians, we prayed and thanked God for having been so kind and merciful to her family – for enabling her husband come out of ‘the bush’ alive; for having given him the opportunity to resurrect this country from the ravage it had been in; for enabling us to make a good national Constitution under which we had been able to conduct free and fair national elections, something that had not happened for 34 years by then. We praised God for having granted us success in the elections.
The President and I had already won in our respective elections. The First Lady and I were praying and anxiously waiting for Hon Elly Karuhanga, who had contested for the Nyabushozi MP seat, to also win. He and I were the First Lady’s close confidants in Mbarara District. It was at this time that Janet Museveni told me that since God had been so gracious to them and had now rewarded their efforts with the people’s love and support, by which they had elected the President with an overwhelming majority vote of 75 per cent, they were now satisfied with serving only one term and would retire in 2001.
I said, “Eh, you mean the President will not contest elections again even when the Constitution allows him one more term?”
She replied, “Mbwenu hati ekindi nituba nitwendaki?” (What else would we want?)
She added that they had liberated the country and had started rebuilding it. They would use the next five years to consolidate the gains they had made for this country and then let somebody else hold the mantle. “We also need rest,” she said, “to be together with our family and enjoy the rest of our lives at this farm relaxing, with no worries about running the country.”
“Are you sure of that?” I asked her. She replied that it was true; they had already discussed it as a family. Of course I believed her, especially because she is a born-again Christian. I told her that for that matter, I might also not run again since I shall have done enough, having started serving in 1986 upon the assumption of power by the National Resistance Movement.
Having had such personal discussions with these two distinguished individuals holding such offices of honour, I would have to be a doubting Thomas not to believe them; I was certainly not a Thomas. In any case, I, as a born again Christian, was guided in my trust in them by the principle expounded by Jesus Himself when He said that: ‘Blessed are those who believe without seeing’ (John 20:29). And so I believed what they told me.
Life presidency project
“The man has no plans of going,” Dr [Kizza] Besigye had fore-warned us. Armed with all this unfortunate false assurance, I had told Dr Besigye that he was imputing ill motives on the President to think that he would cling onto power beyond the constitutional term limits. Little did I know that what Besigye had said was right. No wonder he said it; he had been in the bush with this man and had been his personal doctor. He had been close to him, had worked under him holding different portfolios, but somewhere along the line they had fallen out with each other. As for me, who had not known Museveni for that long and had not yet fallen out with him, I still had trust and confidence in him and so was not ready to abandon him. Together with the Ankole caucus and other colleagues, I was ready to give him another chance.
After failing to convince Besigye to give Museveni the benefit of doubt, we parted company with him and he continued on with his bid for the presidency while we went on to campaign for Museveni in his 2001 election bid. At the start of Besigye’s bid for the presidency, many people trivialised it saying Besigye was fighting Museveni because of a personal conflict between them.
But some of us knew that Besigye had genuine reasons for his bid, even though we thought it was not the right time for it. In fact, one problem that has been critical in constraining people’s understanding of the real issues of bad governance in Museveni’s government is the spin of personalising disagreements between Museveni and his opponents, and yet they have disagreed on matters of principle.
For example, when Besigye openly criticised Museveni’s government for veering off the democratic path, people claimed that the real issue was a personal problem between him and Museveni, in particular over Hon Winnie Byanyima, who is said to have once been Museveni’s girlfriend, but later became Besigye’s wife.
Similarly, when I, together with my colleagues Eriya Kategaya, John Kazoora, Richard Kaijuka, Amanya Mushega and Augustine Ruzindana disagreed with Museveni over the issue of presidential term limits, some people from other regions such as Busoga, northern Uganda and Buganda trivialised our disagreement, which was based on principle, as merely being a personal matter between Museveni and his Banyankore colleagues. Some MPs from Busoga and Buganda went as far as to ask us why we were fighting ‘our man’ as if they could not see the wrong things that were going on in the country!
In any case, what personal issues were there that would cause a conflict between us and Museveni? There was and there continues to be nothing personal between us and Museveni. We are simply not happy with the way he has hijacked the country to suit his personal whims. We were duty bound to call out our brother to reason so as to save ourselves from any negative consequences of his undemocratic and unjust rule that would possibly fall on those from his tribe or region in the future. But there was, and continues to be, absolutely nothing personal about our disagreement with him over the removal of the presidential term limits.”