I have no problem with my son Bebe Cool supporting Museveni - Bidandi Ssali

Enjoying retirement. MrJaberi Bidandi Ssali during the interview at Kiwatule Recreation Centre in Kampala in October. PHOTO BY KELVIN ATUHAIRE

What you need to know:

  • Issues. Recently, Daily Monitor’s Misairi Thembo Kahungu interviewed Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, a former Local Government minister and former President Museveni’s confidant.
  • He shares his views on diverse national issues, from Constitution amendment, increasing size of government and why the expanding size of Parliament and public administration only serves individual interests. Below are excerpts.

The last time you actively participated in politics was when you were a presidential candidate in 2011. How are you managing retirement?
I was lucky I looked ahead and bought this centre (Kiwatule Recreation Centre). Fortunately, I had a lot of land around, close to 90 acres. I sold many plots and developed the centre by establishing a train system, the swimming complex and different children rides. This has kept me busy.

I understand there is a gym here, do you sometimes go there for exercise?
Yes, I have a gym, a football pitch and I make full use of them. From the gym, I go to the swimming pool and from there, I go to the field and play some football.

How many hours of work do you dedicate to this place daily?
I am part and parcel of it. I just do supervision. The management is done by my son. He is the general manager.

Do you enjoy your retirement by spending most of your time in one place, Kiwatule Recreation Centre?
Very much. I am so free and quite happy with myself.

You are managing retirement better because you planned it. What is your advise to us who are still working?
Once you know that one day retirement will come and you stop what you are doing now, you save and saving does not mean in terms of millions and so on. Just a little bit of what you earn and you buy a plot here or put something there and you go on growing. You must plan the moment you realise that in the future, you will not have the energy that you enjoy now.

When you look at Kiwatule Recreation Centre, how much did you spend in terms of investment?
In terms of money, It is worth billions [of shillings] but I do not know how much. I just put in what came in and used a little bit of the remainder of my earnings. One of these days I will sit down and evaluate it. Next time you come I will tell you.

How many people do you employ here?
About 70.

Is this the only investment you made out of your long time in service?
Yes, but there is another small building in Bukoto which houses offices of the People’s Progressive Party.

There is talk everywhere that ministers and other people, who have served at the top in government have used their position to amass wealth. Were you not seeing where the money is to only have a house at Bukoto and Kiwatule Recreation Centre?
This government leadership and occupation is a service to the country. Whoever is there knows that one time he will be out. He has a life to live, was born to live a life and all these ministries or whatever the case may be are incidentals. Whatever little you get in the ministry in recognition of your services, you invest in your life. No need to be greedy.

Ugandans were worried about your health when you got sick a few years ago. How is your health now?
My health is quite good now. I had a battle of serious illness which took me to Thailand. I was there for more than a year and underwent an operation. Since then, I have been keeping well and my pressure is under control.

When you quit government, you founded the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). How is the party progressing as its name suggests?
I do not know because since I left politics, I also left matters to do with People’s Progressive Party. But of course there are people there who are running it. Otherwise, I have no specific connection, no consultations, no supervision.

When you were a minister of Local Government, the legacy you left was the creation of town councils. After you left the docket, government has gone ahead to create more districts. How does the creation of town councils compare with districts that we see today?
There are conditions that must be fulfilled before a town is called a town. There is a question of population. Any district created outside the provisions of the Constitution does not help the system. The thing is grown from down but not from up. It is the interest of the local population that decides the need for a district but not the interest of the individual or the leadership.
Those which were created as a result of people’s wishes are okay. But they are now so many in my own view, which are not viable as such without government investing money to help them be districts.

This now brings me to the size of the current Parliament. The Parliament in which you sat had less than 300 members but now it is bursting towards 500 MPs; does the bigger number symbolise efficiency?
I do not know. It is a people’s representative body but if somebody is using it in order to achieve political interests, then the purpose is diluted. The bigger number may not affect debate per se, but I do not think even half of that number is composed of debaters. They are representatives of different interests.

Since you left government, quite a number of things have happened in this country. You rejected the removal of presidential term limits, but in your absence, the age limit was removed from the Constitution. The country has been waiting for your thoughts on this.
My thoughts are still the same. I do not think it is fair for the country. It creates the environment for breeding dictatorship.

You participated in the Constituent Assembly which made this Constitution. What do you think about the Constitution which you made and has been amended many times?
The Constitution can be amended and the provisions were there. Definitely we were anticipating that in future, there may be need to amend the Constitution and we put provisions taking into account the interests of the day. But if some people take advantage of that [provision] instead of the interests of the country and propel their own political interests, then that is the problem. That is what affected some of these amendments.

You and President Museveni were known to be very good friends. What was the point of separation between these known colleagues?
I think it was a question of changing the Constitution to allow him to continue serving as a President and in the consequence also amended some areas which were not in the interest of the country, creating that environment which breeds a dictator. So, providing that environment and possibilities was the unfortunate part.

Was it a painful decision to leave the government you diligently served?
It was but I think I had served enough because those people found me there. I started as a young man. So, I said enough is enough and since I am of old school, let us watch and see whether time will prove me wrong.

Since you quit active politics and away from the letters, have you had a one-on-one engagement with President Museveni? And if yes, what was it about?
I think I did write to him when I was in Thailand asking for assistance because it was very expensive for me. Indeed he sent some help. Then, we met accidently at a function but I do not remember which [one]. That is when he sort of talked about my being in Thailand and welcomed me back.

If you got a chance to meet Mr Museveni, what issues would you put to him?
If I wanted to meet him, I do not think he can refuse when I make an appointment. I think he will say, let him come. But it would just be to say ‘hello, well done sir, I just came to say hi’. I do not have issues to discuss with him. Anything to do with politics, anything to do with what, no. It is only on personal issues that I can go and meet him.

Much as you are in retirement, you left Mr Museveni with a family ambassador, your son Bebe Cool [real name Moses Ssali] who is working closely with him. Did he carry on from the father’s friendship with Mr Museveni?
I have lived my life and my children are living their own. I have got many and each one of them has decided to go his or her own way. At no time has anyone of them consulted me to say, ‘may I go this way or may I not go this way?’ And even if they tried [to consult] as some of them did, I said well, this is how I look at it but the decision is yours.

People feel that you are not happy with your son Bebe Cool on the way he moves with Mr Museveni, currently your political rival.
No, that is not a problem for me at all. Even if my wife decided to go and campaign for Mr Museveni, I have no problem.

There is talk that at family level you have tried in vain to stop Bebe Cool from publically backing Mr Museveni and that at sometimes he declined to pick your phone calls. What do you have to say?
No, that is a lie. We are good friends with my son. He normally comes here. He gives me regular maintenance allowance, so I have no problem with my son.

What is your take on the issue of the need for a national dialogue?
National dialogue on what? These dialogues are meant for power sharing. They are not meant for organising the population. I am not an adviser but I am only expressing my views, they may be wrong or right. Let the people talking about national dialogue just go to the people and present alternative policies and let people choose what the best of those policies is.

It looks like what is being organised is a political dialogue. Some political parties insist they are not going for the dialogue if certain conditions are not met. What is your take?
This issue of ‘we are not coming’, to what extent has this leader said such based on the position from the supporters of the party? That is where some people mess up on this question of leadership in parties.

‘I can never do this.’ It is not you who cannot do that. The party members want you to do this and you say ‘for me I can never do that.’

But we have seen even President Museveni attributing all government achievements to himself. “I have done your road…”
That is a language of government. When you are in government, you have got to definitely quote what you have done. If you are not in government, you promise what you are going to do.

Some Ugandans say they have waited too long to see a peaceful handover of power the way it is with our neighbours Kenya and Tanzania. Are we looking at life presidency for Mr Museveni?
It is unfortunate for Uganda that we have that position and situation. But here it is, what do we do about it? We continue hoping for the best wishing that one day Museveni will say ‘alright enough is enough.’

You expect that day to come?
I do not know but everything is possible. He may wake up tomorrow and say ‘alright, I am done.’

Some people say these issues of succession and Museveni’s retirement used to come up in Cabinet meetings. And it is said the President never gave audience to such concerns.
I do not know. In one way, it is unfair for us to expect him (Museveni) to provide a successor other than systems that will produce a successor. But for him as long as he is living, he feels he is still able to continue. He has told us so many times that ‘I am still strong.’

So, should Ugandans just continue waiting until Mr Museveni is no longer strong?
Hmmm. At least for me I cannot bear a proposal or an opinion on that other than what I see.

Do you regret ever being part of this regime that has lost direction of the country?
I have no regrets at all. I made my contribution and much of it is quite evident even today. So, I will never regret. Not even working with Museveni.

To you, who is Museveni as a friend?
He is a normal person like any other man. He has his qualities, attributes. He is a man who speaks his mind. He does not care whether you like what he is saying or not. Sometimes in one’s view, he may be undiplomatic, calling a spade a spade when he would have called it something else. But he is human like anyone of us who has got positives and negatives.
My positive view about Mr Museveni is that he is human, if you know him well and I think he meant well for this country but it is only the methods that we are differing from. Otherwise, he used to be a friend of mine but (keeps quiet)…. I do not know whether we are still friends because we are no longer hearing from each other and friends do not behave that way. We are at a distance.

Anyway, who is Museveni the politician?
He is a person who decides on the basis of what he believes and devotes himself to it. And I do not know, the question is tricky. If he is annoyed, he will not listen to anybody. He may storm out of Cabinet for example but he will come in the next. That is something natural on how to control one’s anger. That is one of the means, maybe he would have banged the tables but just decides to walk out.

We are told there was a lot of debate during the constitutional making process, especially when it came to issues of where the powers would be held in this country.
When I say I do not want to comment about that, it is not that I have no views. But my health situation is such that I cannot exert my brain into such deep arguments. I will be affected for example in my sleep. I will be affected by that because of my nature of ailment.

Are you stressed with the events unfolding in this country?
I am not because I am not following them anymore. I am here on my football (points to his TV where a replay of an English Premier League match was showing). You found me here on football on TV. I do not want situations that stress me.

To anyone out there that is new to the politics of this country. Who is Jaberi Bidandi Ssali?
I am a man who has lived in Uganda. I am an ordinary Ugandan, humble and well brought up. I have not gone into extremes of life as a young man or as a grown up. I have always been approachable and lived with people.
My neighbours in the village, the people around for example know where I am working now, I am always part of them and their activities. They lose somebody, I go there, I lose somebody they come. I have lived as a normal parent and my children have never been “minister’s children.”

If I can recall, just a few years ago, you went back to school for a bachelor’s degree. Why did it take you long to do this?
I got my degree. Politics occupied me a lot but also at that time when I decided, I was still entertaining a lot of participation in politics. Most of the leaders were graduates and and I said why don’t I do a degree? I do these things from my bedroom. They send me work, I do it and send back to the lecturers. I was only going to campus to sit exams. So, I decided to do it.

So what were your qualifications before?
I had an equivalent of a diploma from Pakistan. That was in 1961. I did primary education in Luggala and Budde. My secondary education was in Kibuli SS and Nyakasura School before going for a diploma in Pakistan.

You talked about many children. How many are they?
I had 11 children but nine are the ones living. Some are still at school. But I am happy with all the older ones. They maintain me here because each one does this and that to make sure my welfare is not a problem.