Henry Kyemba: The man who joined politics by accident

Henry Kyemba, the secretary of the Judicial Service Commission, chats with Justice James Ogoola. file photo

What you need to know:

Isaac Imaka writes about the man who has been doing what he never wished to do, for the last 50 years.

Though he was born in 1937, Henry Kyemba grew up thinking he had been born in 1939. Now living in a 1966 colonial design house in Jinja, Kyemba fits the description of a been-there-done-it-all type.
Starting out as a civil servant, at Independence, Kyemba has served in most governments and has been friends with all presidents that have served this country, including Idi Amin who he later lived to hate and led a campaign against him.
Having a brother serving in the colonial government already, Kyemba thought that his family had sacrificed enough towards, what he calls “a dangerous thing”–politics.

He thought that if he joined civil service – since civil servants were not allowed to engage in partisan politics – he would be able to serve his country in a non-partisan position.
But a different arrangement lay ahead of him.
On the walls inside his 1966 house is his life in pictures, that of his sons and daughters, his grandchildren and that of his close friends too.
“If you are not on here [on the walls] then you ask where you lie in my life,” he jokes.

He is a jolly, hospitable old man – after the two-hour interview, he insists that I take at least a glass of water and biscuits before he escorts me out to the gate.
Kyemba was born to Mr Suleman Kisajja, a colonial chief in Mayuge District, and Ms Sasana Babirizangawo, and is the last born of 11 children.
“I grew up in a disciplined family of honest people. My mother was a disciplinarian. My father was a Gombolola chief at Nambale. From him, I knew that when the district officers found the graduated tax one shilling less, the clerk would be arrested immediately. It didn’t matter if he was ready to replace it from the coins in his pocket because he would have misused the collections. I had to be disciplined and honest too,” he says.
Kyemba says he was brought up by his mother, his father having passed on when he was a boy.

Growing up in the family of chiefs shaped the former Principal Private Secretary to President Apollo Milton Obote into a responsible disciplined public servant. This, he says, explains the patience he exhibited especially with the excesses of Amin’s regime.

“My mother was a strong disciplinarian. She accepted no nonsense whatsoever,” he remembers fondly. “Even when she was about to pass on, she had a cane by her mattress and was prepared to use it on anybody who messed around.”
He went to Masese Primary School in Jinja and then to Busesa in Iganga, before joining Busoga College Mwiri, where his elder brother and role model, David Kisaja Nabeta, worked as a teacher then.

“I was a time keeper, students called me drum boy because I hit a drum to announce tea breaks or lunch time. I enjoyed it. I have grown up with that sense of responsibility and I am uncomfortable with people who don’t keep time.”
A Makerere University graduate of history, Kyemba owes his political success to his brother, who was the first member of the Legislative Council from Busoga in 1955, on appointment by Governor Sir Andrew Cohen. He was also an assistant minister and Permanent Secretary in the ministry of local government.
“David is a very distinguished brother. I owe a lot to him. I was almost like his first born. He loved me so much,” he says looking down in silence as he shakes his head as if to reminisce about the good old times with him.
Although he had been working with the government since 1962, Kyemba insists that he set out as a civil servant but being with politicians on a daily basis gradually changed things. Before he knew it, he had become a politician.
After graduating, he applied to serve as a district commissioner in the colonial government. To his surprise, the Permanent Secretary, then, of the colonial government, and head of civil service, Peter Allen, appointed him Assistant Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office just before the 1962 elections that preceded Independence.

“Getting into the Prime Minister’s office meant getting into the heat of the politics at that time,” he says. “Benedicto Kiwanuka had just been appointed the first premier before the elections to Independence. So, I started seeing more of the politicians I had seen much earlier with my brother.”
Kyemba quickly moved up the ladder to become Obote’s private secretary and later principal private secretary for nearly 10 years till 1971.
“I worked with Obote for many years. At that time, the system was quite clear. Politics was politics. If you wanted to join politics you had to be elected. If you were in the civil service, it became your full responsibility,” he remembers. He describes Obote as a nationalist and a pan Africanist. “He loved his country and he was prepared to play his role. He recognised his shortcomings; he knew the need for compromise and eventually that’s what he strived to do.”

Being a nationalist endeared Obote to many regions, Kyemba says.
“I found out that it was an honour to serve my country in that position. He was a Langi and I was from Busoga. The PS Kalimuzo was from Kabale, Oboth Ofumbi was from Tororo. We had a team of people from all over the country in the civil service, which meant that Uganda was for us all.”
However, he remembers several nasty moments in his service with Obote; attempts to assassinate Obote at Lugogo; the shooting of Babiha when they mistook him for Obote; and plots to arrest Obote in West Nile when he was in Moyo.
It was the 1966 attack on the Lubiri that was his worst moment in the Obote government.

“It happened under my nose. I clearly remember these things as if they happened yesterday,” he says. “I wish some of these things had been resolved through talks rather than through the bullet. It is some of those moments that I looked at as a failure of the system.”
To him, the attack on the Lubiri was “obviously a political decision.” Kyemba believes it all started with the late Daudi Ochieng’s debate on ivory in Congo and the behaviour of the army commander, Amin. The response of the Kabaka of Buganda was to establish how to take advantage of the situation. This was by working with some members of Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) like Grace Ibingira and Nadiope who were opposing Obote.

Kyemba says the situation was brought about by Buganda’s failure to realise that the kingdom’s position had changed from that of privilege to national sharing.
He explains that during colonial times, Buganda as a kingdom had a lot of authority but in agreeing to remain within Uganda as a country they lost some power. “It was that new transition that was going to be a problem to anybody.”
Exit Obote, enter Idi Amin Dada. None of the senior civil servants close to State House expected Amin to ever become president of this country.
“I would swear that Amin in his wisdom, if he had any at the time, would not have said that he wanted to be president of Uganda given the problems that had to be dealt with. But power is sweet,” Kyemba notes.
He narrates that when Amin started out, he said he was a man of a few words but he eventually ended up talking for hours. He said his was a transitional government but then he said he was going to stay for five years.
“All these things were not choreographed for a person who had a plan. Things happened by accident,” Kyemba says. “Amin was an unfortunate accident for our country.”
When Obote and his entourage were setting off to Singapore for the Commonwealth Heads of State Summit, Amin was at the airport to see off his commander-in-chief.

However, at the airport, Obote held a meeting with Amin’s juniors in a separate room, including Col. Oyite Ojok and Minister Bataringaya. This, Kyemba thinks, was an eye opener to Amin that there was something Obote was planning against him.
“I said to myself that it’s not correct for a commander of the army to be away in another room when you are talking to others who are his juniors. However, that was not Kyemba’s conclusion to make but the president’s.
“Obviously by the time we went to Singapore, Amin knew that he was on the wanted list for something to answer and had taken over power before we returned,” he adds.

But the coup didn’t stop Kyemba from returning to continue with his duties. Amin asked him to return and work if he wanted. When he returned, Amin told him to start work in the office he had occupied before the coup – the PPS office.
So, on a Monday Kyemba reported to work like nothing had changed. But when Amin went on a sacking spree, Kyemba was not spared.
He was fired from his position as PPS. And yet, before he could settle down on his dairy farm in Jinja, he was called back.
“For some reason, he decided to appoint me to the Ministry of Culture. After less than a year, he had sacked my minister Yokosofat Engou, former ambassador to Moscow from Lango, saying he was slow.”
Although it was a hard life during Amin’s regime, Mr Kyemba never resigned from service.

“I thought of resigning many times, particularly after the murder of my brother then personnel manager to Nyanza textile. But most of my brothers were still in Uganda,” he said. “So I decided to stay.”
After the ouster of Amin, Kyemba refused to work with the short-lived governments of Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa and Yusuf Lule.
“I knew Lule very well but I refused to work with him. Binaisa was also a family friend but I declined working with him. I needed some time off,” he said. “I remember staying at State House for a week when Binaisa was President. But I never worked while there, all I did was sleep and eat.”
He only came back from the US during Museveni’s government, in 1986, starting out as an LCI chairman.
Asked for a message to today’s politicians, Kyemba says they should engage in politics of tolerance.
He says even if one hates the other, he or she should not deny the other any rights adding that the government should put more emphasis on improving education and health.

“The world is very competitive. Regardless of who you know, you must have good education.”
Kyemba now works as secretary of the Judicial Service Commission. It looks he is stuck with the government because his passion is working for it.

In his own words - how he saw events happen

Working with Obote
“We were all very proud at the time of independence. The British had been thrown out and the Africans had the opportunity to run the country. We had elections and DP lost but then the opposition and those in government were not enemies. We used to have verbal exchanges in Parliament, but at the end, the opposition and government members met at Uganda Club where Obote would join them and argue over a bottle of beer. It is this political tolerance that we miss.”

On Obote shooting at Lugogo
“We were walking out of the conference hall jolly, clapping and singing when we heard a gunshot. I knew it was aimed at us. I didn’t notice blood on my shirt until I went to Mulago hospital. Too many things happened but we had to get Obote out of the danger zone. I jumped into the vice-president’s car in search of the president. I don’t know how the vice president left the place. Everybody was on their own.”

Ministerial appointment by accident
“On my way to a graduation ceremony in Nsamizzi, Entebbe, a radio announcement was aired that the minister with whom I was to attend the ceremony had been fired along with a number of other ministers. By the time I got to Nsamizzi, everybody had heard the news. We waited for a representative to be sent by State House to no avail We decided to start but half way through the function, a policeman beckoned me to answer a telephone call. On the other end was Amin. When I told him that my minister had been sacked and I was at a function without a minister, he said ‘No. You are the minister. Carry on with the function.’ The following year he dismissed all the other ministers we had started with apart from me. He replaced them with many military officers. It became majorly a military government.”