Todwong’s turbulent rise to NRM helm

The current NRM secretary general, Mr Richard Todwong, addresses the media at the party headquarters in Kampala on December 23, 2020. PHOTO | DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • On NRM faith. “In 1996, President Museveni visited Makerere and he was speaking about unity and poverty. To me as a young man, who had grown up in poverty, and having grown to witness my people in northern Uganda fight and kill each other, I embraced this message with all my heart, and that marked the beginning of my love story with the NRM and President Museveni,” Mr Richard Todwong, Secretary General NRM.

The elevation of Mr Richard Todwong to the post of Secretary General of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) was just part of a journey that has seen him rise through the party hierarchy since graduating from university. 

Mr Todwong has been deputising Ms Justine Kasule Lumumba,  who is the new Minister in charge of General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister,  in the party secretariat.

The soft spoken NRM administrative steward reckons his late father, Savio Ojok Awany,  for opening his eyes to a party that has remained in the reign of power for 35 years.

“His strong guidance helped me to build the love and interest in President Museveni whom he knew way back in the 1970s. Our father was the genesis of our story with the NRM,” he recalls in a recent interview with Daily monitor.

When President Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) junta took over power in 1986, Mr Todwong and his family were living in a rural village of Purongo in Nwoya District, northern Uganda.

“As always, whenever there are political instabilities, Ugandans retreat to their villages for  ‘safety’.  So we left Anaka Town for the village. Even then, we were not settled because the 1985/1986 war had cut off our elder brother Charles Otema in Kampala (now a three star General of the UPDF). This was traumatic because of the bad history that our father experienced in the hands of Amin’s soldiers,” he narrates.

Mr Todwong says his father survived many attempts against his life in the mid-70s as an Acholi prison officer and he [father] knew how dangerous it was for their brother to be locked up in Kampala at the dawn of a regime change. 

“Luckily though, we got information through a family friend that he was alive and busy working with the new forces (NRA). We were happy although the celebration was short-lived because our father, being a senior civil servant then, knew the danger of our brother joining the liberation forces,” he adds. 

Indeed, their brothers news didn’t merit much jubilation. Mr Todwong says their home was attacked multiple times by groups affiliated to the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) as a demonstration to the other families in Acholi that working with the NRA was evil.

“We started living in the jungles in fear of the constant attacks and intimidation from this groups. One evening when our father was listening to the BBC Focus on Africa programme from one of our river-hide outs, he heard that the NRA group had crossed Karuma and moving to Acholi. We were excited about the news but yet not sure of our fate as a family,” Mr Todwong recollects.  

He says their father warned the entire family to keep a low a low profile. 

‘‘He sat us down and told us to find a way of supporting the new forces [the NRA] having confirmed from another source that our brother son was alive and had joined Mr Museveni’s group,” Mr Todwong reminisces.

Later, the Awanys (Todwong’s family) relocated to Gulu Town (now Gulu City) after learning that Mr Museveni’s NRA had taken over power.

Mr Todwong acknowledges that there were some mistakes that were made by NRA fighters that first entered Acholi. 

“They came with a lot of force and revenge attitudes that caused the disquiet in the population. Even then as a family, we remained committed and I remember way back in my secondary school life, I started talking good about the NRA,” he explains. 

“Indeed as expected, I appeared strange among my fellow students because I was a lonely voice among a sea of voices against the NRM regime. But I persisted until I joined Makerere University in 1996,” he adds.

Mobilising against LRA 

While at Makerere, the new NRM secretary general remembers how difficult life was at home after the Joseph Kony war intensified in Acholi. He says the whole population was put in Internally Displaced People’s camps. 

At the time, Mzee Odokwod-pa-Acheng was the Resident District Commissioner of Gulu.

He recalls how as students from Acholi, they couldn’t travel back home whenever the university  went for recess owing to the devastating war.  Mr Todwong rebelled the idea of him and his fellow Acholi students staying at university during holiday and surviving on relief food from the Red Cross.  

The young energetic Todwong wanted to wheel his influence at home and champion the interests of his people.Being the Makerere University guild speaker at the time, he sold a narrative to his fellow Acholi students that their people, who were in the IDP camps, would feel comforted if their own children [university students] reached out and talk to them. 

“At that time, a lot of misinformation was all over the country. Many of my colleagues disagreed with me but I managed to convince three of them with whom we approached the then RDC, who welcomed us to join his team of mobilisation,” he says.

Alienated for supporting NRM

His flirting with the regime that was being blamed for his people’s suffering in northern Uganda earned him stern rebukes from Acholi elders and politicians. 

He was considered a sell-out, and one who was not even permitted to move near Acholi girls to seek their hand in marriage. 

“Parents in Acholi reached the extent of forbidding their daughters from getting close to me because of my association with the NRM government. I didn’t mind, in fact I later on got a beautiful girl from Bushenyi, who is now my wife,” he reveals with a smile.

When the RDC team got scattered because of fear, Mr Todwong remained supporting the NRM party with other volunteer carders who had not finished their university studies yet.  

He says colleagues referred to them as “people from useless families”, among other derogatory statements. 

When he completed his degree course, he embarked on recruiting more young people to join the NRM mobilisation. He managed to get in touch with his friend, Mr Dan Kidega, and others who were willing to work closely with them. 

Mr Todwong remembers during the 2001 General Election when he and Mr Kidega were taking money for the NRM leaders in Pader District (Pader was a newly created district from Kitgum) and they entered an LRA ambush near Pajule Town Council. 

“We fought our way out of the ambush and returned the money for Pader to the late Brig Nobel Mayombo and Mr Bidandi Ssali, who were in charge of President Museveni’s campaign taskforce,” he says.

 First encounter with Museveni

The son from Acholi land narrates that he first came into contact with the President when he was a student at Makerere University. 

“The elections of 1996 found me at Makerere where I was active in politics as a student leader. I was the speaker of Acholi Makerere Students Association (AMSA) and I was involved in voluntary mobilisation work for President Museveni who was offering himself as a candidate against his main rival, Paul Ssemogerere,” he recalls.

“In 1996, President Museveni visited Makerere and he was speaking about unity and poverty. To me as a young man, who had grown up in poverty, and having grown to witness my people in northern Uganda fight and kill each other, I embraced this message with all my heart, and that marked the beginning of my love story with the NRM and President Museveni,” he adds.

It is through his political activism at university and identification with the NRM that Mr Todwong came to work closely with the late Noble Mayombo, Brig Henry Tumukunde and Mr Bidandi Ssali, among other NRM leaders, carving out a path for himself that has seen him rise to the helm of the party leadership.

Todwong’s experience, education

Work, leadership

Served as a deputy secretary general for NRM for 5 years. 

He was a Minister Without Portfolio from 2012 before he was taken to the secretariat in 2013.

A Member of Parliament representing Nwoya in the 9th Parliament. 

Served as a Special Presidential Adviser for Northern Uganda.

A Commissioner on the Constitution Review Commission.

Former chairperson of URA Staff Union.

Was a Guild Speaker in Makerere University.

Education background

Honorary Doctorate of Humanity by the Theological University, USA.

Holds a Master of Arts in International Relations and Diplomatic Studies (MAK).

Post Graduate Diploma in Management (UMI).

Holds a  BA (Social Sciences) in Economics and Political Science (MAK)

Functions at the NRM Secretariat

 1.  Implementation of the decisions of the National Conference and National Executive Council of the party

2.  Implementation of NRM policies, decisions, and directives on a day-to-day basis.

3.  Preparing rules, regulations and procedures for approval by the respective authorities within NRM.

4.  Preparing relevant papers and documents, which will guide NRM organs in decision-making.

5.  Disseminating information from NRM Committee and Commissions to all organs of party.

6.  Enhancing the capacity of NRM for competitive group politics.

7.  Providing administrative and secretarial services to the National Conference and National Executive Council of the party.

8.  Coordination of the activities of all organs of NRM.

9.  Maintaining a national register of party members.

10. Carrying out such other functions as may be assigned to it by the chairperson, CEC or the National Executive Council.