It is one of those paradoxes of Ugandan politics that had Apolo Nsibambi sought an elected national office, he would have probably lost the contest. He was a gentleman, you see, a quality that, we are told, disqualifies one from leading the country.
Yet this quality was one of the main reasons why Nsibambi, a former Ugandan prime minister, who died one week ago, was universally admired and revered. Honesty, integrity, humility and efficiency were his secular creed, not power or even academic excellence.
He had the latter in spades, of course, but like any truly educated person, Nsibambi’s certificates and titles were not cause for bragging. Instead, he used his intellect to push for a better country, to challenge his countrymen to excel and to seek a workable union of what remained a fragile patchwork of ethnic groups more than half-a-century after independence.
In a country where appointment as a Resident District Commissioner (RDC) often triggers acute intoxication with power, Nsibambi remained a very sober occupant of the prime minister’s chair for 12 years. The retinue of minders and protectors that followed him everywhere did not delude him into assuming an aloofness or other behaviours that afflict lesser men in such positions.
Nsibambi remained a down-to-earth sophisticate, a humble man of high class and great tastes, who sought excellence in all he did. He was fallible, of course, and historians and biographers will unearth his failures in public office. However, his failures were not acts of malice or reckless misuse or abuse of authority.
Indeed, his strong belief in the common good, and his desire for a more politically secure Republic were at the heart of his service to our country.
Nsibambi, who served as prime minister at a time of great national distress, political repression and steep descent into a cesspool of corruption, provided much needed moral support to an exhausted people. His presence in the government was an obvious anomaly, but a welcome one.
He was the antidote to the schizophrenic offerings of men and women with whom he shared space at the country’s highest table of government.
For example, where others considered those of us who disagreed with the President to be enemies of the State, Nsibambi relished opportunities to engage in very serious debate of the issues, without ever descending into the gutter of personal abuse and threats.
The position of prime minister was one he enjoyed without ever considering it a matter of life and death. He happily left the job in 2011, at the age of 71, and embarked on a dignified retirement from public life, but not from his moral responsibilities.
His clear rejection of the mischievous scrapping of the presidential age limit one-and-a-half years ago was a welcome contribution to our long-term struggle for freedom. While his statement did not change the predetermined outcome of the debate, he energised the forces for change and put the ruler on notice that not all his (Museveni’s) nominal supporters had been fooled or intimidated by the military invasion of Parliament.
Nsibambi’s physical presence is lost to us forever. However, his conduct in public life shall remain a worthy goal to emulate by those who seek positive transformation of our country. He was one of the good people in the land, of whom there are millions – hardworking, honest people who have been rendered immobile by those who have hijacked the Ugandan State.
When the tears for Nsibambi have dried, our hearts must remain loyal to the ideals for which he stood. He was a loyalist Muganda, who believed in forging a workable Union of Ugandans. We honour him by having an honest conversation that, we hope, will open doors to the emergence of a federalism of equals.
He was a highly time-conscious leader who struggled with colleagues that seem never to look at their expensive watches. We honour him by changing our costly disregard for time and our wasteful love-affair with endless and unproductive social engagements. Parliamentarians and others in government honour him by keeping time and commitments even long after the grief over his loss has lifted. They dishonour him by reverting to business-as-usual after those moving eulogies and tributes that were offered in his honour last week.
Nsibambi applied science and other knowledge to leadership and politics. We honour him by abandoning sycophantic politics of worshiping and fearing fellow mortals, recognising that a president or cabinet minister is not better endowed with wisdom than you and me just because of the label he or she carries. Instead, we must challenge received wisdom, scrutinise the rulers’ utterances and actions and reclaim that to which we all have an equal right, namely, our country.
To Nsibambi’s family, my sincere condolences. To all Ugandans, a call for us to share this dark and cold moment without losing sight of what Apolo Nsibambi was: A genuine patriot; a democrat; a man who aimed high, one who was never satisfied with the superficial trinkets and monuments that some hold up as examples of progress.
Nsibambi often spoke of Uganda’s potential capacity to excel. We must keep that hope alive. Through a collective heave from our various stations all over the world, we can reroute Uganda onto a path towards genuine freedom, prosperity for all citizens, living in a truly just society.