The world through the Musevenis’ eyes

Sunday August 28 2011

Janet and Yoweri Museveni both decided to give Ugandans a sneak peek into their lives through their books.

Janet and Yoweri Museveni both decided to give Ugandans a sneak peek into their lives through their books. FILE PHOTO  

By Timothy Kalyegira

President Yoweri Museveni’s memoirs, Sowing the Mustard Seed, were published in Kampala on January 25, 1997. The First Lady, Janet Museveni, had her own memoirs My Life’s Journey published in Kampala on July 6, 2011. The President’s book was published by the British firm Macmillan while the first lady’s was by the Kampala firm Fountain Publishers.

The effort to write books that state their view of events in their lives by the President and First Lady are a challenge to Uganda’s middle class which often is content just to narrate what they witnessed over a bottle of beer, making no effort to write books. That, alas, is about where the credit to these two authors ends.

A weakness common in the books of both Janet and Yoweri Museveni is their tendency to overestimate their place in the world. They have a view of themselves as great historical world figures called upon either by history (Yoweri Museveni) or by God (Janet Museveni) to fight social ills (Janet Museveni) or dictatorship and injustice (Yoweri Museveni).

They sometimes forget that neither they nor their country Uganda are particularly legendary or achievers in any serious sense of the word. They also forget that as authors their books will be potentially read by an international audience. The effect of 25 years as First Lady, in a country where those in State House are either worshipped or feared, has taken its toll on Janet Museveni and it clearly shows in her book.

Because of the way political and economic power has been constructed under the Museveni rule, most businesses are careful to maintain some form of cordial relations with State House. Certainly they avoid as much as possible a confrontation with the Museveni’s, including in this case Fountain Publishers. It is obvious from reading her book that Fountain Publishers did not dare question much of what Mrs. Museveni wrote or presented for publication.

The index of Janet Mueveni’s book was an amateurish work. It lists entries in the form “Milton Obote”, “Natasha Museveni”, rather than the proper indexing format of an inversion of names such as “Obote, Milton” and “Museveni, Natasha”. It also has that very Ugandan habit of adding (RIP) after deceased people’s names. On that count, Yoweri Museveni’s Sowing the Mustard Seed was much more professionally edited and arranged than his wife’s. The fault here with the poor technical editing and indexing, perhaps, lies more with Fountain Publishers than Janet Museveni as the author.

Janet Museveni’s book, much more than the President’s own book, sheds light on who Museveni really is. And the light her book sheds is not entirely flattering.
While Museveni tried to make Sowing the Mustard Seed an intellectual work, devoid of emotion and dominated by a sense of mission and operational details, Janet Museveni’s book is much more personable.

It is in this more personable side that she inadvertently gives her readers a glimpse into the mindset of her husband. Apparently, from her book, we learn that the Musevenis lived next door while in exile in Dar es Salaam in the 1970s, to Col. Toto Okello and his wife Jennifer. According to Janet Museveni, Mrs. Okello was affectionate and helpful.

She treated the young Mrs. Museveni like her own daughter and offered to baby sit the young Museveni children. This would make the informed reader wonder why then Yoweri Museveni betrayed Gen. Okello by abrogating the December 1985 Nairobi peace accords, storming Kampala to seize power from Okello, and in 1993 at Kololo Airstrip referred to the elderly Okello and his predecessors as “swine”.

There are lazy parts to Janet’s book, such as the title of chapter 2 two, “It takes a village to raise a child”, a clear plagarisation of Hillary Clinton’s 1990s literacy campaign effort in America’s schools. Each chapter opens with what sometimes comes across as pretentious quotes, apparently to give the impression of high-mindedness on the part of the author.

President Museveni’s foreword to the book, too, is similarly gushing and uncritical. Museveni is usually at his best when he’s being sarcastic and witty and he could have brought at least some of his wit to this forward, but chose not to. Chapter 6 (“Yoweri Museveni”) of Janet’s book, devoted to her impression of her husband, surprisingly gives little away that would shed light on the personality of Uganda’s future head of state.

There is very little up-close insight into Yoweri from his wife and the chapter is only 15 pages long. Chapter 13 (“Being Mom”) in which Janet Museveni narrates her role as a mother, is as surprisingly sketchy as the chapter on her husband. Even a society reporter or former classmate of Janet Museveni’s children would have been able to give a more up-close description of the First Lady’s children than she does.

This chapter on being a mother gives the impression that Janet Museveni is not particularly close to her children.

Steep decline
Other weak chapters are 14 “Running for Parliament”, 16, “Karamoja” and 17, “Reflections on Africa”. From page 236 to the end, the book goes into steep decline in content and subject matter. Just as it was with President Museveni’s Sowing the Mustard Seed, once Janet Museveni gets to the events of 1986 and the NRA’s triumphant capture of state power, she seems to have little left to say.

The rest of her book, as the rest of Museveni’s book after narrating 1986, becomes about political lectures and in Janet’s case, moralising and preaching. However, there still are a number of important details of public interest to glean from Janet Museveni’s book. She fills in several gaps in Yoweri Museveni’s life story. She tells the reader that in 1980, it was the UNLF strongman Paulo Muwanga who actually sponsored and paid for her flight to London to deliver her baby Diana.

The tendency to deliver babies in Europe that Ugandans saw with the Museveni daughters starting with Natasha, we now see, seems to run in the family. Muwanga is a good man when he facilitates Janet Museveni’s flight to London in June 1980 to give birth, but is a dictator and evil man when a few months later in December 1980 he announces a general election result in which Museveni is not the winner.

According to Janet Museveni, her late brother Henry loved to dance and party a lot, almost as an obsession. He was always out on the night with friends in Kampala and Entebbe. Everywhere she went for a job or opportunity, she got one unhindered, whether it was as a ground hostess with East African Airways at Entebbe International Airport or training as a nurse at Mulago.

Henry also did not seem to have a difficult time securing a job for himself or for his sister Janet. Henry Kainerugaba’s life was one of partying and movement, hardly the image of suffering, political tension and fear that Yoweri Museveni usually likes to claim about Idi Amin’s Uganda. All this, of course, begs the question: if this is what the 1970s were for a family from Ntungamo in western Uganda (and not just for people from Idi Amin’s tribe in Arua, West Nile), where does this idea come from that the 1970s were “dark days” in which only northerners enjoyed any prosperity and fun?

Along with her description of the warmth of the Tito Okellos toward her family in Tanzania, this account of Paulo Muwanga inadvertently sheds light on a much needed area --- the very human and humane side to the Ugandan leaders before 1986 who have for 25 years been portrayed by the NRA-NRM as murderous and evil.
By this, Janet Museveni also unwittingly lets us see the ingratitude and insensitivity of her husband, that men who treated your family well and humanely are rewarded with accusations of being murderers or, in the case of Paulo Muwanga, jailed soon after Museveni took power.

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