Ssemogerere lost because he was a good man

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

They were wrong about winning a county, but probably right that DP will not win a national election in Uganda - at least in the foreseeable future

Former Democratic Party president, early NRM-era minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, died on November 18, 2022. He was 90.  Ssemogerere was a two-time presidential candidate, leading his party against Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress, Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement, and Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi’s Conservative Party in the controversial December 1980 election. DP won that election, but it was robbed of victory, with the pro-UPC dominant faction in the transitional Military Commission stealing the vote for Obote and UPC. DP was given second place. An enraged Museveni led his comrades to the bush after the vote to start the guerrilla war that would bring them to power in January 1986.

 Ssemogerere led the DP to Parliament as a loyal opposition. In January 1986, when Museveni and the National Resistance Movement/Army won the shooting war, Ssemogerere had earlier, in an uneasy pact, joined the Military Council that had overthrown Obote II six months back in July 1985.

 Ssemogerere joined the NRM in a “broad-based” national unity government, holding various ministerial positions, then the deputy prime minister, before falling out with the NRM/Museveni when in 1995 it used its supermajority in the Constituent Assembly to reject a return to multiparty politics, and entrenched a one-party state.

 He faced off against Museveni in the 1996 elections and lost. While in December 1980, the vote was clearly rigged, in 1996, the ballot theft wasn’t as brazen. Uganda, grateful to Museveni for ending years of terror by soldiers, wanted to give him an electoral victory as an expression of its gratitude. What the NRM and Museveni stole from Ssemogerere in 1996 was not the election but the margin. Keen to give their armed struggle legitimacy through a clear plurality of the vote, the NRM needed to garner 75 per cent of the vote for Museveni. However, with a vast anti-Museveni/NRM vote in a northern Uganda still roiled by war, there was a limit to how much they could rig without rendering the exercise a laughable absurdity. The best they could manage was 74 per cent.

 On his passing, the meaning of Ssemogerere leading the DP into a seeming meek role as the opposition in Parliament or as political wingmen and women for the Military Council and the NRM needs to be properly contextualised The DP has won only one national election, the vote for self-government. Its leader, Ben Kiwanuka, became Uganda’s first prime minister from the start of March 1962 to the end of April of the same year. In the independence elections of April that year, DP lost to the UPC-Kabaka Yekka’s controversial political alliance. In any event, it became the first and last Ugandan political leadership to hand over power peacefully following a general election. In there then lies the often-unappreciated story of DP and Ugandan political history. The DP is Uganda’s great pacificist party. Philosophically, it is a peace and anti-war party. Ssemogerere, perhaps even more than Kiwanuka was its great pacificist leader. Secondly, it has been the most legalist Ugandan party. Thirdly, partly because of those two traits, it’s most accommodationist party. That explains why Ssemogerere led a cheated DP to Parliament as a loyal opposition after the December 1980 debacle. It gives us insight into why it took up ministerial roles in the 1985 Military Council and also accounts for why, as the Baganda would say, it got married “kasufuria” (without a marriage certificate) to NRM from 1986 to the end of 1995.

 Norbert Mao, its current leader (and now minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs), is a leader not just in the Ssemogerere tradition; his political DNA is very much old DP.  Like Kiwanuka, his successors Ssebana Kizito, and Mao, Ssemogerere was the typical DP leader, men who knew when to wear a club or regimental tie. It is said that in his heyday, if you visited him and his more reticent wife, Germina Namatovu, you were likely to be served tea with warm scones. And the teapot would be covered by a tea cosy.

 During Obote II, the Busoga UPC supporters used to sing that: “DP telifuga, ne eSaza telifuna” (DP will never rule Uganda and will never even win a county). They were wrong about winning a county, but probably right that DP will not win a national election in Uganda - at least in the foreseeable future.

 It won’t win, not because of its weaknesses, but its strengths. It will be a while before power is given in Uganda. It will be seized or stolen. DP will not do either. And Ssemogerere, of its leaders, was the least inclined to do so. He spoke to the virtue of centrist politics, fidelity to the law, and the idea that Ugandan leaders don’t have to be punishers. It’s just that we didn’t hear him.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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