“I remember the first time I met Ms Janet Museveni was around 1979, after the overthrow of Amin, during the UNLF [Uganda National Liberation Front] government. She may not remember that occasion, but we met at my home in Port Bell [Luzira, Kampala]. She had come with her friend, Ms Alice Kakwano, who our family knows very well. They came to see my husband because they wanted to buy beer. By then, Mr Museveni was the minister of Defence while my husband was a brewer at Uganda Breweries in Port Bell.
At that time, there was a desperate scarcity of beer, sodas and other similar commodities. The scarcity was so dire that many people used to forge all sorts of invitation cards for functions such as baptisms and weddings because if you had a function, you stood a good chance of getting an allocation for beer from the breweries and sugar or soda from the factories.
Owing to the scarcity of such essential items, magendo– Kiswahili for the smuggling and illegal trade in essential items on the black market–thrived. My husband was not responsible for the allocation of beer; his responsibility was to brew the beer and declare it to the sales department.
Nevertheless, because he worked at Uganda Breweries, many people, who wanted beer and knew him, would come to seek his assistance in getting them an allocation.
I guess that is the reason why Ms Kakwano brought Ms Museveni to see my husband. Because of this scarcity, some people used to secure allocation chits for beer from the bosses at Uganda Breweries, such as the MD, the marketing manager and the sales manager, under the pretext that they had a social function.
In turn, they would go and re-sell the beer on the black market at heavily-inflated prices. So many people engaged in magendo, got rich and built mansions. Though my husband had access to some of these products that were in high demand, he was never involved in the illegal sale of beer. And I used to nag him that we were dying of poverty while other people made money out of the beer he brewed and had easy access to. Looking back, I am now glad that he never engaged in magendo. And because of his integral worth, we have property of high value and a retirement home, courtesy of Uganda Breweries.
I do not know why these two ladies wanted beer; whether they had a function or otherwise. Anyway, I welcomed them into our home and called my husband to come and see his guests. He came from his office and talked to them, and I believe he took them to the brewery to introduce them to one or more of the big bosses.
I did not find out whether they had achieved their mission. At that time, I had recently got a job as a lecturer in law at the Uganda College of Commerce (the current Makerere University Business School). As a fresh graduate, the status gap between these ladies and I was so wide that I personally did not have much to talk about with them. That was my first encounter with Ms Museveni.
The next time I saw Ms Museveni, her husband had taken over as president and, therefore, she was the First Lady. One of her first social initiatives as the First Lady was to found the Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans (UWESO). I was one of the founding members of UWESO, but I did not get close to her then because at that time, my energies and passion were dedicated to the fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment, and yet UWESO’s main concern was the plight of orphans.
As I have already mentioned in the previous chapters, because of my outspokenness and passion for advocating women and girls’ causes, I quickly became nationally noticed for my work. This drew the attention of the First Lady and she eventually invited me to meet her in 1989.
I had just been elected to the NRC (the equivalent of Parliament then), as the woman representative for Mbarara District. I had also been appointed a commissioner on the Uganda Constitutional Commission. I was extremely surprised, however, when her personal assistant informed me that the First Lady wanted to have an urgent meeting with me.
At State House, I had a long chat with the First Lady. She asked me my details and showed a keen interest in getting to know me. I noticed that she did not remember my previous encounter with her at my house in the days of magendo. Anyway, she said she sought me out because she wanted me to represent her in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she had been invited in her capacity as the founder and patron of UWESO.
I felt that her request was too daunting a task for me. I nevertheless thanked her for the favour and the confidence she had in me, but told her that I was quite scared to take on the assignment.
I said, “Madam, first of all, I don’t think I am the right person for this assignment because I have not yet attained the high profile to fit in your shoes. Secondly, although I am a member of UWESO, I am not involved in its day-to-day work and I don’t know much about its programmes because my main commitment and interest is in the issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment, and, therefore, most of my civil society work has been with Action for Development (ACFODE).”
She told me not to worry about that because I would be assisted by Diana Lule, the then chairperson of UWESO, who was competent and conversant with issues of UWESO. She said my role would be to project the political and public profile of Uganda. Although my big mouth causes me trouble sometimes, it has also enhanced my profile and enabled me to reach greater heights, like in this case.
Ms Museveni had no reservations at all about my ability to articulate the issues well and to give Uganda and UWESO a positive political profile.
I told her that I had yet another challenge. I was not familiar with international travel as this would be but my third trip outside the country. I had made my first two trips out of Uganda in quick succession. My maiden journey and first time on a plane had been in 1988 when I attended the World Congress of Women in Moscow.
I was then the vice chairperson of Nakawa Division and was part of a team that included Ms Janat Mukwaya, who was then the director for women’s affairs at the NRM Secretariat; Ms Florence Nekyon, the then secretary general of the National Council of Women for Non-Governmental Organisations of Uganda; and late Zeridah Rwabusyagara, who was the district administrator (the equivalent of RDC) then of Mubende.
When I returned from Moscow, ACFODE nominated me to participate in an Eastern and Southern Africa seminar for women and politics in Harare, Zimbabwe. At that time, I was also the legal advisor to ACFODE. I reiterated my fears about my lack of experience in international travel, which made me unsuitable to represent the First Lady.
I even suggested that she chooses from some of the female ministers then, who included Ms Victoria Ssekitoleko, Ms Joyce Mpanga and Ms Rhoda Kalema. But she insisted that I must go. “For me, I have chosen you. You are my best choice. Please go and prepare your speech. We shall review it together.”
I was very excited but also unsure about going all the way to America. Nevertheless, I prepared the speech and when she read through, she was comfortable with it.
Up close and personal with Museveni
Meanwhile, while I was at State House for my meeting with the First Lady, the President was taking a walk in the garden. He saw my small Nissan violet car parked in the lot, and approached my driver and asked whose vehicle it was. I understand that after learning that I was around, he told the guards to inform me not to go before he had met me.
As I was leaving after my meeting with the First Lady, I found one of Mr Museveni’s aides waiting for me at the reception. He told me the President wanted to see me and he took me to the President’s office. This was a great surprise to me; I was not in the least prepared to have a one-on-one personal conversation with the President.
In his office, Mr Museveni greeted me and asked me to tell him about myself. I told him everything and was amazed that he knew many people from my place of birth - Rutooma, Kashari. He also knew my father. He asked me what I had been doing all this time. I told him that I was a mobiliser, and had moved through all ladders of leadership from RC 1 to 5 up to the Parliament.
I also got an opportunity to thank him for putting the woman question high up on the Movement agenda. I told him that I was committed to mobilise for the Movement and ready to do my best, especially in the area of women’s rights and empowerment.
Although that was my first one-on-one meeting with the President, I had met him earlier at his home in Rwakitura where I was left a bit disappointed that he could not put a face to my name. In 1989 after I had been elected to Parliament, there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in western Uganda and we were invited as leaders from the region to discuss the issue.
Whenever someone put up his hand to speak, the President called up the person by name. When I put up my hand, he simply said, “Yes, Mrs.. .” I had to tell him my name. He was surprised that it was me. He thought I was Ruhanga-Arinda who worked at the NRM Secretariat. Despite my disappointment that the President did not know me, and yet I had worked so hard for the Movement in the previous four years, still I was encouraged that my reputation had preceded me.
Interestingly enough, just two days after the Rwakitura meeting, Sam Njuba (RIP), who was then the State minister for Constitutional Affairs, called me to his office and told me that the President had directed him to appoint me to the Uganda Constitutional Commission. He also asked me if I preferred being a minister or a member of the Constitutional Commission.
“There is nothing I would prefer better than being on the Uganda Constitutional Commission,” I told him. What had driven me to politics was to get a platform to espouse the case for gender equality and women empowerment.
Now that I was presented with the rare opportunity to participate in drafting a constitution that would work for women, I could not let it go. Here was a golden chance for me to challenge the old laws that were unresponsive and repulsive to women and I embraced it without any hesitation.
The personal interaction with the President at State House came about two weeks after I had been appointed as Commissioner on the Constitutional Commission.
Therefore, it also presented a perfect opportunity for me to thank him for appointing me to such an important and historic commission. When I tell people that I was appointed to the Uganda Constitutional Commission on merit alone, without any prior relation to or discussion with the President, most do not believe it, especially because of the patronage system that has now taken over Mr Museveni’s government.
At our meeting, the President told me that his wife was getting so many invitations to national and international conferences and other events. He said he had advised her to find some brilliant and competent women who could, from time to time, represent her at the functions because he did not want her to become too common. He said he was glad she had chosen me for this particular trip.
That was my first time to interact closely with both the President and the First Lady. From that time, we became close, and I believe I was one of the favourites, in terms of work, of both the President and his wife. The First Lady and I really connected and became close. We grew so fond of each other. I really loved her and I believed she loved me too. She trusted and believed in me and as such, she delegated me to attend a number of meetings, conferences and seminars on her behalf.
Quite often, the President and the First Lady would both require my services at the same time. In fact, when I would sometimes be away on an assignment for the First Lady, the President would call my home looking to send me somewhere too, and my husband would tell him that, “She isn’t here. Your wife delegated her to represent her somewhere.”
Growing fond of First Family
At one time, the President called me to his Kisozi ranch and the meeting took so long and went on beyond midnight, and yet I was supposed to represent the First Lady somewhere else the very next morning. The President asked his aides to take me to spend a night in his son Muhoozi’s hut, but I instead asked the guards if they would escort me to Kampala. They said they would if I gave them ‘fuel’, which I did. I was able to get back to Kampala that night, in time to attend the First Lady’s function the next morning. So you can see what a cordial relationship the President and his wife had with me.
Eventually, I learnt from the President that the First Lady used to lobby and pester him to appoint me to a ministerial position. Though I was an effective worker and mobiliser, it took quite some time for me to be appointed to the Cabinet.
Whenever there was a Cabinet reshuffle and I was not included, the President thereafter called me, I imagine, to gauge my mood, and see whether I was disappointed or not. I told the President that I did not care whether I was a minister or not; all I needed was facilitation to properly mobilise women for their empowerment and development.
One day, as I was coming from a mobilisation meeting in Isingiro, my small car broke down and I got a lift on a lorry ferrying charcoal. This incident was reported in the press and the President read about it. He called to ask what I was doing on a charcoal lorry and I explained my predicament. Then he directed his then Principal Private Secretary Amelia Kyambadde to avail me with Shs15m to purchase a vehicle of my preference - a Mitsubishi double cabin pick-up. Indeed, this vehicle did a lot of work, especially during the 1996 presidential elections.