Ssemogerere: Why I decided to work with Obote and Museveni

Dr Ssemogerere during the interview. Photo byGeoffrey Sseruyange

What you need to know:

Laying it bare. Former DP president and two-time presidential candidate Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, then 82, talks to Monitor’s Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi in September 2014 about his political struggles, including the1980 elections, working with Museveni, the Constitution process and his projection of where Uganda is headed.

A lot has been said about the 1980 elections having been rigged. What exactly happened?
The 1980 election was on the issues and expectations of all of us who participated. It was an occasion, an opportunity for us to allay our disappointments since independence. We had fought for independence and achieved it but the political results were not as we had expected. And this was evident when we assembled in Moshi, [Tanzania] in 1979. We wanted to have a legitimate government because the 1962 elections produced a government which was conceived on fraud, by the admission of its own architects.
You see the UPC faction felt that they had a wrong partner in KY (Kabaka Yekka) and the KY faction also felt they had a wrong partner. So only after two years of independence the alliance collapsed, the monarchy was destroyed in 1966 and (Milton) Obote sought a new ally in the military.

In 1971, Obote’s alliance with the military also collapsed and he fled to exile. In Moshi, we had agreed on a transitional period so that we would organise a free and fair election in accordance with the wishes of the people. We looked at 1980 as an opportunity to produce a government that was based on the will of the people. There was a lot of support for the Democratic Party from all over the country, wherever. People volunteered to offer free services, people offered money, free housing, whatever they could. And above all there was reconciliation. The gulf that had existed between the Democratic Party and the supporters of KY in Buganda had been bridged.

The most prominent leaders of KY in 1962 became prominent campaigners of DP in 1980. Take the example of Nkonge, the father of Sarah Nkonge, Lutaaya, the father of Brig Lutaaya and others. These were some of the closest friends of Mutesa and they were very powerful leaders. They all came on board. Eldard Muliira, the leader of the Progressive Party in the 1960s, also joined us. Prince George Mawanda, Sebaana Kizito who was Eldard Muliira in the Progressive Party in the 1960s, also joined.

And you would say that was natural given what had happened between KY and UPC …
Oh yeah, that is right. It was reconciliation. And in fact those were the lessons between 1962 and 1980. Many of us had remained in constant interaction with these people. We kept meeting quietly, discussing what was happening and what needed to be done. So there was a meeting of minds. It was harvest time for us.

You have only talked Buganda though…
I am concentrating on Buganda because the weakness for us was here; that is where we lost the 1962 elections. But equally outside Buganda, we got some people, prominent ones, who had been in UPC. Shaban Opolot, the first army commander who had been sacked and detained, joined us and was a DP candidate in Teso. Adoko Nekyon, Obote’s cousin - a very powerful UPC man in the 1960s - also supported us. Actually he tried to stand on our ticket in Lango but he was stopped.

There was Aloysius Ngobi, a very powerful man in Busoga. He was a minister for Agriculture under Obote, one of the five ministers Obote arrested in 1966. He is still alive. Then we had some who had crossed to UPC in the 1960s but came back to DP in 1980, like the elder brother of Henry Kajura. He was the leader of the DP campaign in Bunyoro. So I could see this everywhere.

So what went wrong?
The facts on the ground are these. We tried as hard as possible to minimise risks of cheating; to minimise the influence of the military. We spent a lot of hours negotiating with Mwalimu Nyerere [the president of Tanzania]. He did what he could but he didn’t do enough. He probably couldn’t do enough or it was his wish that Obote should return because he was his friend. Probably he wanted to help him regain power and rule well. Well, that is a long story and we can’t finish it … my frustrations. But at least Nyerere realised later that the course I took helped to save a lot. From the reports we got from all over the country.

From Kapchorwa, Tororo, Kigezi, everywhere, we were headed for victory. And, I should say this, Vincent Ssekkono was secretary to the electoral commission and at some point he sent congratulations to me (that I had won). When the results started coming in and it was all obvious that we would get the necessary seats to win the election, then Paul Muwanga issued Proclamation No 9, which stopped returning officers from announcing results and take all the results to his office. He was the Chairman of the Military Commission, which was in charge of the country by then. He later, of course, announced doctored results.

Do you have a way a scientific way to tell that you were rigged out?
The rigging was in the open. Talk to Mariano Drametu, he is still around in Moyo. He was one of those who were stopped from running. Then you talk to Eng Sam Drale. They stopped him at a road block. They held him there for the duration of the nomination and they released him when the nomination was closed. So these things did take place. And you remember that the presidency that time was won based on the number of elected MPs a party had. That is why they resorted to sabotaging the nomination and election of our candidates. So those things happened in Busia, in so many other places. That was a tragedy and people can freely search into that. They can go case by case and document it.

Did Obote challenge you to parade your generals?
Yes. He didn’t say it many times, he said it once and I had my reaction to that. Again this speaks to how a legitimate government is formed in a democracy. It is very important for your generation. We take democracy to be a government of the people, for the people and by the people. You relinquish power and give it to the people to decide.

If you corrupt the judiciary and the military, they cease to be professional and politically impartial. They side with you and campaign for you. Then you cannot talk about legitimacy. The danger we face even now is that it is being taken for granted that one needs the army on their side to win an election and maintain a government. Obote did it, Museveni is doing it now. It is a tragedy that Ugandans must fight to get out of. So, yes, Obote said that. But that was his weakness, not his strength.

So how come you took up your seat in Parliament after the election?
Yes, we took up our seats in Parliament and I have been vindicated. First of all it was a hard decision to take but it was taken democratically. In my conscience, I had to mull that question. Should we boycott Parliament, should we join? If we boycott, what do we do?

There were very strong voices for boycotting Parliament, and very strong voices for going to the bush. We thought that we had a special role to promote reconciliation and national unity at that very difficult period in our history. We thought that was better for the country. When I look back now, it was the right decision. But I didn’t take it alone, it was a collective decision. I called the National Council and we sat here at Rubaga Social Centre. All the DP leaders and the members who had participated in the elections – those who had won and those who had lost - turned up for the meeting. We decided to take up our seats in Parliament.

Any regrets for having done that?
Not at all. Some people have said we legitimised a fraudulent government. Nothing is farther from the truth because at no time did we concede. But we used the platform of Parliament to do things that would otherwise have been impossible for us to do under those very difficult circumstances. I was Leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for defence and security.

I used the opportunity to interface with Muwanga, Oyite-Ojok and others. We would argue over important things and sometimes I would score points. I don’t know how many lives I saved through these interactions. I would sometimes go with John Kawanga and Henry Ssewannyana to meet Muwanga. And some people would have been dead if we hadn’t carried out these efforts. There are people I got from the Central Police Station when they were destined to be killed. Others I picked from Makindye, there was a go-down there which was very dangerous, and many other things. I think generally we played a historic role. We gathered information, we fed Amnesty International and many of the people whom we recommended were taken good care of.

Are you referring to the famous Black Book?
Oh, yes, yes. It worked very much. It was a device which I found worth pursuing to expose wrong doing. The Black Book was a deterrent; it was to warn you that whatever crime you committed was being documented and that it could all come back to haunt you in the future.

It actually worked very well as a deterrent. I remember some of these members of the government of the time feverishly asking me, now sir what is my number in the Black Book, what did I do wrong? It actually worked very well as a deterrent.
So our decision to join Parliament, even after the fraudulent election, boosted our party internationally. We staged an international colloquium here in 1984 to mark 30 years of the Democratic Party, a big international event like no other political party in Africa had organised before. And we did it against the wishes of the government. Muwanga tried to stop us and I told him that some of our guests were already air-borne. The guests included the Prime Minister of Italy at the time.

Was Museveni on rampage in the bush then?
Ah, no. Museveni was on the retreat at the time. He was fleeing to the Rwenzoris. He only bounced back after the coup by the Okellos.

So how and why do you end up serving in military junta that follows shortly afterwards?
Yes, I justify our participation in the Okello and Museveni governments. I justify it historically. Look at the situation on the ground. We were the force to reckon with, locally and internationally. Our stature had grown exponentially. In fact, the Okellos might have been encouraged to stage their coup by the success of our colloquium in 1984, which showed that we had massive support within the country and internationally.

There were internal divisions within the government and the army and it was clear that Muwanga was at loggerheads with Obote and Chris Rwakasisi. It was more or less like now, with the government divided. Being Leader of the Opposition, I was talking to all these people. So immediately after the coup, the Okellos reached out to us and we entered negotiations.

We gave them our conditions, chiefly to return the country to democratic rule as quickly as possible by organising democratic elections, and to end the fighting as quickly as possible and to maintain rule of law. They agreed to our conditions. The roles they gave us were consistent with our demands. I was made minister for Internal Affairs, for instance. I released all political prisoners, virtually all of them. I said I didn’t believe in detention without trial.

And Bazilio and Tito allowed you?
They agreed. I didn’t do it unilaterally. I made a case for it. When I became minister I brought the issue on the table. Ask Olara Otunnu, he also supported me strongly. He was minister for Foreign Affairs, a very powerful minister because he is a relative of Tito Okello.

One of my greatest supporters was Wilson Toko, who was vice chairman of the Military Commission. He supported me strongly. I made my case, Muwanga warned against it but I took the day. We released about 2,000 of them openly.

Tell us about what have been called the Nairobi “Peace Jokes”
They call them jokes but they were not jokes. Toko was chairman of the negotiating commission on behalf of the government and I later took over from him. As far as I am concerned, we actually finished our job because we got them to sign. Museveni signed on paper to end the fighting and form a government of national unity in which he was supposed to be vice president. We came back as heroes just before Christmas in 1985. Unfortunately, the Musevenis continued with their fighting.

So how do you end up joining forces with Museveni?
When Museveni came he invited me. He sent Winnie Byanyima and Kaka, who is in Kalangala now. He was a DP youth winger from Bunyoro in the 1980s. I went and met Museveni at Nabbingo Parish. He was making overtures that we join them. I was with other members including Sebaana Kizito. So we negotiated. One of the sticky issues was political parties. Museveni wanted to ban parties. Talking to us, he was blaming UPC for the chaos. We told him that if UPC is a bad party, people will shun it and join the good ones. But you cannot use that to ban political parties. We agreed on some minimum points on the basis of which we joined.

When we joined, we set up a negotiation team headed by the late Justice Mulenga. The team had John Kawanga, Sebaana, Robert Kitariko and others. On Museveni’s side was the late Sam Njuba and his wife Gertrude, and others. We agreed on some points on which to work as allies although for the nine years we were with them much of it came to naught. But there were some positives. For instance, I can tell you that I was not inhibited from carrying out my work as minister for Internal Affairs and as minister for Public Service. You can go and find out what I did.

What did you do?
Like in Internal Affairs, I refused to sign a single detention order even when messages came from wherever. I saved the police. Museveni never wanted the police. He wanted the military to take over completely. That was his idea even in the Nairobi peace talks. As minister for Internal Affairs, Museveni put pressure on me to do away with the police but I stood my ground. You can ask (Al Hajj Moses) Kigongo because he led a team which included Salim Saleh and (now Internal Affairs minister Gen Aronda) Nyakairima to prevail over me to do away with the police. They told me that this was Obote’s police that needed to be done away with. I said to them that the NRA were not angels from heaven. I said that we would screen the police. Those who were unqualified would get further training, and so on. And that is how we got to build Masindi Police Training School.

Tell us about the controversies in the Constitution making process
You have to be very grateful to the late Prof Dan Nabudere. We worked with him closely on this project. When we were elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1994, some of us had already identified ourselves as pro political parties. I was still in the government but even Museveni knew it that I was strongly for multi-partyism.

In fact, if you want to know why I left the government, it was on that ideological ground. Museveni sincerely didn’t believe in the restoration of multi-partyism and I couldn’t compromise on that. Those of us who were strongly for multi-partyism discovered one another and we formed a caucus called the National Caucus for Democracy and the secretary general for that forum was Nabudere. In the Caucus was Cecilia Ogwal and many others.

Did the Caucus also include people from NRA/M like the late Sserwanga Lwanga and Kizza Besigye?
They did not come to the Caucus but Sserwanga was coming here. Kizza Besigye was by the time probably not yet very convinced of this multi-party thing. But he was clearly slowly getting tired of the Movement thing. We would talk. But Sserwanga was very enthusiastic. There were other people like Jotham Tumwesigye, he is now a judge. He was very balanced.

People like (Prof George) Kanyeihamba were unfortunately not convinced yet of the evils of the NRM. This (Gen David) Sejusa was on the margin, but closer to our side than Besigye. I used to get information about what happened in the Movement Caucus from Sserwanga. We pushed for the abolition of the Movement system. We presented the case for multi-partyism as strongly as possible and when the CA rejected multi-partyism we walked out of the deliberations during the CA, 68 of us.

DP will be 60 next month. Don’t you get a feeling it is considerably weakened?
You have got to see what has been happening to other parties. Tell me which political party has stood? Look at UPC, the power they had and everything. Where are they now? The reason is that these people don’t want political parties. They do everything to kill the parties, we just happen to survive.

The tragedy in Africa is that whoever takes power has to kill the old parties. Where is Kanu in Kenya? Where is Banda’s party in Malawi? Where is Nkrumah’s party in Ghana? The leaders in government, not all of them, but those who matter, don’t like political parties. You should read (Museveni’s) Sowing the Mastered Seed. He is very categorical. He criticises us for spearheading multi-partism. He is honest about it.

Now as a watcher of developments, where do you see the country headed?
For me, I don’t want that question of where do I see the country going. The point I have been making to you the young intelligencia is that it is a challenge. My role is to analyse things as I see them. I say that the struggle should continue. When I look at what role I have had to play, together with people like Ben Kiwanuka, Mulenga and others, I think we have played our part.

I think the situation would have been much worse if there was no Ben Kiwanuka or Mulenga. If he had been in power, it would have been much better, but what we contributed has been good. For the party, for democracy, for the country. I look at the Constitutional petitions I filed and won; the country would have been much worse if I hadn’t filed them.

Of course there are many pending matters which should be raised by you people. You can change things. Some of you have got friends in the military, in the government and so on. So if you are convinced the way we were, you tell them. For instance, we had a seminar on security in 1984 and I gave a paper on security in Gulu in which I criticised the use of the military for political purposes. The army commander in the area knew of it and he came to my hotel room to challenge me about it. I asked him how old he was and he said 36. He was a colonel. So I asked him, where are the colonels who were here under Obote I or under Idi Amin? He couldn’t show me any.

They had either been killed or they were in exile. I said to him, if you go out there you will find retired priests, retired doctors, retired teachers, why is the life expectancy of you soldiers so short? I told him that I wanted to see him around after 20 years and that the only way he would be around was if he did not allow the regime of the day to use him to do wrong things.

Any clear pointers as to where the country is headed?
Well, let me say this. Whatever we have gained on the democracy front has come at a heavy cost. But, unfortunately, there are signs that suggest that the gains we have made are reversible. I will offer examples. The retention of the Movement Act (1997) in our Statute books is a constant reminder that we could slide back into a monolithic state. Also, the retention, in their present form, of Articles 69 and 74 of the Constitution, which do not completely guarantee multiparty politics, is another sad reminder.

There is also Article 78 of the Constitution which allows serving military officers to become full-fledged MPs with voting rights. There are provisions in the UPDF Act in which the UPDF retains, intact, the composition and powers of its precursor, the NRA, including operating a parallel court system to the civilian judiciary which has powers to even condemn an accused person to death. These and other things worry me.