Philemon Mateke. That was one of the most discussed topics this week since President Museveni officially announced his much anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. Who is Mateke? Where has he been all this long? Questions of Ugandans trying to understand the man and put his new job in context characterised the appointment of the new State minister for Regional Cooperation.
And with social media’s limitless freedom of expression, the man was on the receiving end of an avalanche of ridicule, all critics taking a swipe at the digit 92.
That was the age social media and sections of print and broadcast media allocated him. Online news websites and pages on social media would later circulate a photograph of a light-skinned Mateke, with eyebrows that gave way to bare skin and a man whose sad face spoke no more volumes than fatigue and urge to go home and have a good rest.
Hours after debate on his age stirred ripples in the public, his family members called in to newsrooms, seeking to correct the record. Their father, they said with emphasis and contagious passion, was actually 20 years younger. He told this newspaper in an interview this week that he is 72 years old.
When our reporter, based in the western Uganda, visited him at his Kisoro home, Mr Mateke’s voice and handshake oozed life and effervescence that attested to the popular notion that age is all but a number. He was armed with his expired and current passport that confirmed his age is 72.
One can confidently say the age debate, if ever any was called for, is as good as settled. Mateke, unless one can adduce evidence to the contrary is 72, the age 92 can pass for an amateurish job at hyperbole.
But beyond the age, it is important to capture the political undertones in Mateke’s appointment. Clearly, right from last year’s retreat of the NRM Members of Parliament at the National Leadership Institute at Kyankwanzi, things started to fall apart, at least in the ruling party’s ceiling of command.
The MPs’ ‘sole candidature’ resolution seems to have dealt a blow to the 40-year-old working relation between Museveni and Mbabazi. Or so we think?
Former prime minister and NRM secretary general Amama Mbabazi and chairman Yoweri Museveni continue to speak in tongues and subtle body language about their latent contest for the presidency of the country.
Some say Museveni is in early campaign mode disguised as Operation Wealth Creation while Mbabazi’s actions and those of his camp signal a man ready to take on his former boss and political ally.
Every move made therefore, in this rather intricate game of political chess game, has repercussions on the political roadmap of either political player. It is in this context that political analysts have read the recent Cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Augustine Ruzindana, a senior member of the Forum for Democratic Change, for instance, opines that the reshuffle is good for the Opposition since it confirms that the west and Buganda regions are the areas of contention, wherein the Opposition needs to do its homework better. It is through these lenses that Mr Mateke’s ascension to the Cabinet is viewed.
Veteran politician and former minister of marketing and cooperatives in the Milton Obote II government Yona Kanyomozi reads Mateke’s appointment as an attempt by President Museveni to consolidate his grip on Kigezi sub-region where Mbabazi’s influence is traceable. Kigezi sub-region consists of Kabale, Rukungiri, Kisoro and Kanungu districts. Mbabazi is from Kanungu and represents Kinkiizi West while Mateke comes from Kisoro which his daughter Sarah Mateke serves as the Woman MP.
Mr Kanyomozi says, “Like all other ministers appointed, his is a political appointment, Museveni wants to consolidate his position in Kigezi. He wants to keep that region intact where he thinks Amama Mbabazi has a following.”
He backs up his opinion by singling out the appointment of MPs Jim Muhwezi (Bujumbura County in Rukungiri) as Information and National Guidance minister, Chris Baryomunsi (Kinkiizi East in Kanungu) as State minister for Health in charge of General Duties and David Bahati (Ndorwa West in Kabale) as State minister for Planning.
The President, now in power for 29 years, kept his Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda (from Kabale), Henry Banyenzaki (State minister for Economic Monitoring), the Rubanda County West MP in Kabale.
Kigezi has one of the most solid associations. The International Community of the Banyakigezi is a glue among the Banyakigezi that transcends political lines. Mbabazi recently hosted them at his country home where Bahati and Baryomunsi were part of Mbabazi’s audience and guests. There is also the Kigezi Elders’ Forum, though NRM (read Museveni leaning) is a solid association.
You have opinion leaders such as the parish priest for Kitanga in Kabale Diocese, Fr Gaetano Batanyenda, who speaks and moves crowds, whose word on the area’s politics is seen as gospel truth by his listeners.
He has in the past and present issued uncharitable remarks on the person of Museveni and called for his exit from the country’s number one office as soon as possible.
Therefore for Museveni, Kigezi, unlike say Teso sub-region where top NRM leaders remain locked in fights for supremacy and at times premised on petty issues, Kigezi has ability to coalesce and its leaders can cohere for a common cause.
Make no mistake and forget that three-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye comes from the same region and with him is an army of radical youth like Francis Mwijukye whose recent wedding attracted mammoth crowds, a testimony of his following.
Therefore, should corridor talk of Mbabazi putting his name on the 2016 ballot paper materialise, Kigezi, with its sizeable population, is a potential swing vote area, especially considering the influence and following of Besigye and people like Batanyenda.
Museveni, known for not taking chances, appears to have thought through all these realities and possibilities and moved fast to tighten the bolts in his weak points and close the gaps where his intelligence identified, and this brings in Mateke.
Of course Mr Museveni has camped in Kigezi in the recent past and made remarks that sent a signal to his audience that he is still around, chest thumping about the support from his army and not handing over power to ‘vultures’ in the Opposition.
‘Mateke won’t contribute much’
But Kanyomozi says of Mateke: “I don’t see much he is going to contribute, not that age matters because if one is positive they can contribute, he has a bit of a following in that area, that is why he was appointed.”
Makerere University political science don Sabiti Makara finds nothing strange about Mateke’s appointment.
He says, “I think there is no problem, already there are people older than him in Cabinet. He is a well-known mobiliser and you know Museveni has been getting 99 per cent of the votes in Kisoro. He has been very instrumental and so he has been rewarded for his commitment.”
Prof Makara is quick to add, “This is a 2016 Cabinet meant to harvest votes for Museveni in the election so if Mateke in his estimation fitted the bill, he certainly had to appoint him.”
NRM deputy spokesman Ofwono Opondo agrees with Makara and Kanyomozi, asserting that: “Mateke is a bridge builder in Kigezi and a good political mobiliser, the way he brought Shem Bageine is the way he (Museveni) has appointed Mateke.”
Talking of building bridges in Kigezi, Ofwono cites the example of Muhabura Diocese where a bishop was rejected by the church to the extent of being barred from speaking to the congregation. Prayers were conducted and numerous reconciliation meetings held but when Mateke stepped in, his words seemed to have touched and softened hearts of many, ushering unity thereafter.
So at what point did Mateke become NRM’s Mr Fix in Kisoro?
Unlike UPC senior members like Badru Wegulo, Omara Atubo, the late Health minister Stephen Malinga and former ICT minister Aggrey Awori who crossed to NRM in fairly advanced age, Mateke, a former minister of State for Education in the Obote II administration changed his political coat from red to yellow in the nascent stages of the NRM. By the time he did so, he commanded respect in the region.
Ofwono says, “Once he switched to the NRM around 1988 or 1989, the Opposition has never beaten us in Kisoro. We have been scoring close to 98 per cent. He is followed in Kisoro. The President considers how much political support you are likely to bring to the table in his appointments and of course qualities like competence. “
Presidential adviser on literature Prof Timothy Wangusa lectured in literature at Makerere University the same time Mateke taught history. That was in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Prof Timothy Wangusa says, “He was teaching history and I taught literature. We interacted quite a lot. He was very cheerful and friendly, as to whether he impacted on his students I don’t know but I remember him as a nice man.”
Turn down the appointment?
Wangusa adds, “We also served in the National Resistance Council from 1989 to 1996, I represented Manafwa District and he represented Kisoro. He was an effective member of the interim parliament. I recall a live presence of him in the NRC.”
However, Prof Wangusa thinks Mateke should have humbly turned down the appointment as minister. He still has chance to consider Wangusa’s advice since he has not yet been vetted by Parliament and sworn in.
This is why, “At 72 one is in retirement from active service, and he should play more of an advisory role than executive. He brings wisdom that comes with age but not energy to the ministry. One should not have accepted such an appointment since they cannot bring energy and I say this as an adviser myself.”
The last time Museveni’s ministerial appointment was turned down was in 2006 when Tom Butime who was offered the portfolio of minister of State for Karamoja docket wrote to the President humbly rejecting the offer on personal grounds.
Mateke has, however, said he is fit for the job, arguing that, “I am not greedy like some politicians. The position given to me was the right one. I am competent enough to handle it.”
So just how popular is Mateke in Kisoro?
That question is best answered by revisiting the 2006 election where the elderly politician threw his hat in the district’s Local Council five chairperson race.
In the 2006 election, nine candidates in the LC5 race went through unopposed. These included Dr Philemon Mateke (NRM) in Kisoro, Ronald Ndawula (Indep) in Luweero, Ignatius Koomu (Indep) in Nakaseke and Wilberforce Yaguma in Mbarara.
When he asked the electorate to vote his daughter to Parliament in 2011, they answered his call with immense support. Ms Mateke won with a landslide victory.
When this writer contacted Mr Shem Bageine, the State minister for East African Community Affairs, he spoke highly of Mateke, calling him a hardworking man with focus and commitment. Mr Bageine, who has known him right from school days, said: “As a person he is a very hardworking and focused man.
I have known him since ours days in school at Kigezi High School and Butobere. He was ahead of me and was our prefect, contrary to what people are saying that he is 92, he is in his early 70s.”
From what Bageine says, Mr Mateke seems to have cut his teeth of influence in the region during his tenure as Education minister where his contribution is still visible.
In the same breath, Kanyomozi too is full of acclaim for the minister with whom he served the same Cabinet.