Last week Uganda lost the last member of Uganda’s first post-independence cabinet, Mathias Mbalule Ngobi, 95, who passed on at his home in Namulesa, a suburb of Jinja City, where he had been living in quiet retirement.
I first met Ngobi in the mid-1990s through the family of my in-laws. We were seated on opposite sides of the compound. Ngobi was a close friend of my late father-in-law, Japheth Bagoole Balindhazaawa Isabirye or JBB as he was fondly known.
He was therefore seated on the hosts’ side, while I and my entourage were on the side of the compound that had been reserved for the visiting delegation. As is usually the case at traditional marriage ceremonies in Busoga, there was no opportunity for interaction.
My impression of him was one of a cold and calculating politician who was driven by the pursuit of power. It was an impression created out of mostly what I had read.
Had he not after all been accused along with four other cabinet colleagues including Dr Lumu, Grace Ibingira, Balaki Kirya and Magezi of having been the brains behind an attempt to oust the government of his friend, Dr Milton Obote?
But looks, just like literature, can be very deceptive. It was a hard lesson that I learnt following my election in 2002 as the LCV Chairman of Jinja District to succeed his friend, Mr Sam Muwumba (RIP). I found it necessary to consult widely on a number of issues that I considered critical to the district’s development. Among those whose counsel I sought was the man whose political career started with his election in 1961 to the Uganda Legislative Council (LEGICO). That marked the beginning of a series of interfaces.
We never discussed their attempt to overthrow Obote, but I learnt during five awesome years that he was not who I had always thought him to be. I learnt that if Ngobi sought to acquire knowledge or power, it was never for selfish reasons or self-aggrandizement. He saw both as vehicles through which societal transformation could be realised.
Driving the cooperatives
That is perhaps best manifested in the manner in which he went about developing the cooperative movement shortly after his return from Britain where he had undertaken a course in cooperatives. The return coincided with a surge in the levels of agitation by Ugandans to be allowed to compete with Indians and Britons in the trade in mostly coffee and cotton. Ugandans also had no say in the pricing of their produce.
Ngobi saw the wisdom of getting Ugandans to work together for their good. He sought to create a forum through which they could trade in the same and also negotiate the prices. That was achieved after he and others like JBB Isabirye traversed Busoga, forming and opening primary cooperative societies in the villages and sub counties with Busoga Growers Cooperative Union (BGCU) as the apex organisation.
Cooperatives have the potential of increasing production, productivity and value addition hence very critical for Uganda’s transformation into a middle income country. Looking back now, I see how foresighted Ngobi and his colleagues were.
BGCU had an impact on the incomes of the natives and brought more prosperity to Busoga and other regions where the cooperative model was replicated. That explains why there have been calls in some quarters for him to be recognised as the Grandfather of the cooperatives.
Whereas BGCU is not operating at the same level it was back then, the primary cooperative societies are getting back on their feet even after years of slumber.
The NRM government’s efforts to revive the cooperatives have gained momentum. The cooperatives are being revived for sustainability and survival in a liberalised market. They are being positioned to be market-driven and to be able to compete in the market by offering better incentives, products, and services than the middlemen.
The infrastructure that Ngobi put in place will not only remain a lasting part of his legacy, but one that is critical to the NRM government’s efforts to revive the cooperatives.
Ngobi’s political profile would be the envy of many of us. He participated in the London Conference of 1961; served as Shadow Minister of Minister for Agriculture, Cooperatives and Forestry during the shortlived DP government of Benedicto Kiwanuka and; was named Uganda’s first post-independence Minister for Agriculture, Cooperatives and Forestry in October 1962.
He participated in the 1979 Moshi Conference; served as Minister for Agriculture in the short lived government of Prof Yusuf Lule; participated in the writing of the 1995 constitution; served as Chairperson of Makerere University Council and was a member of the Boards of Directors of many companies including the Madhvani Group of Companies.
Such a profile would have given license to many of us to either chest thump about our achievements or throw our weight around, but he was never the type to draw anyone’s attention to his remarkable political profile.
Loyal to the core
I and my senior colleague in the NRM, the former Minister for Lands and Urban Development, Mr Daudi Migereko, are testimony that Ngobi was loyal and supportive to his protégés.
During my 10 years as LCV Chairman of Jinja District, I was the recipient of lots of wise counsel from Ngobi. I want to believe that I am a better person and politician than I was before our interfaces. I owe that to him.
Mr Migereko enjoyed Ngobi’s support in 1996, but Ngobi was not satisfied that his protégé had captured the Butembe County seat. He kept tabs on him in both parliament and cabinet and kept advising him until his health could no longer allow it.
That is the selfless and humble yet so powerful politician that God graced us with. May his Soul rest in Eternal Peace.
If he proved himself to be a selfless worker at BGCU, he did even better in the world of politics by cutting himself out as a unique politician who rose above tribe and religion at a time when those were the two drivers of our politics.
The Anglican Church was always associated with the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). Anglicans were therefore expected to support UPC. Similarly, because the Democratic Party (DP) was associated with the Catholic Church, Catholics were expected to support DP. But despite being a devout Catholic, the son a Catechist in the Roman Catholic Church and one of the first two Papal Knights in Uganda, he never joined DP.
He first contested the 1961 Legico elections as an Independent candidate. He was a founding member of the Uganda People’s Union (UPC). UPU merged with the pro Milton Obote faction of the Uganda National Congress (UNC) to form UPC.
The downside was that the decision by Ngobi and many others who were active in the cooperatives to join politics created administrative vacuums. I am inclined to believe that this marked the beginning of the decline of the cooperative movement.
Gume Fredrick Ngobi is a Minister of State for Trade, Industry and Cooperatives