A self-proclaimed “expert in studying privately”, Mr Johnson Kwesigabo has overcome numerous setbacks to reach the top, writes Benon H. Oluka
Johnson Kwesigabo, 53, paused after narrating his life story for about one hour. He sighed and said, “I must say I have had a distinguished career. It has been a very wonderful experience.” It was as if, having swam against the tide to the global dining table and taken his share from the buffet, Mr Kwesigabo was at peace with the world.
From 1990, when he graduated with a masters of law degree from Harvard University, Mr Kwesigabo served as general manager of Foods and Beverages; corporation secretary of Uganda Post and Telecommunications Corporation; as well as company secretary and then managing director of Uganda Telecom up to 2000.
Since 2001, he has been the secretary/general counsel of the Electricity Regulatory Authority but that is half the story of Mr Kwesigabo, whose name first rose to national prominence as the second best A-level Arts student of 1982.
Born in a poor peasant family in Rukungiri District, Mr Kwesigabo’s mother put him through Rutooma Primary School after his father left for another woman. After failing to raise school fees for secondary school, he went to St. George Teacher Training College, Rubanda, where education was free but soon felt he was punching well below his weight.
“In my second year of training, I realised that this was not going to be my place; I was not going to end there because I think I was full of energy,” he said. “I decided that as soon as I finished the TTC, I would sit for O-Level and continue my education.”
One of his tutors, Paul Nyakwenega, noticed Mr Kwesigabo’s resolve and started teaching him some of the subjects taught at O-Level, like Geography. In 1978, a year after being posted to his former school to teach primary six and seven classes, Mr Kwesigabo registered for O-Level exams at Makobore High School as a private candidate, meaning he could only sit for six subjects – none of them sciences.
He invested his primary school teacher salary (equivalent to about Shs50,000 today) in books and paraffin. Between 5pm when he left school and 7am when he woke up to go teach the next day, he read for an average of seven hours, eventually scoring 15 aggregates in six subjects – the second-best pass mark in the school.
The 1979 war and a bureaucratic error in which a crucial form was not submitted to the education ministry cost him a place at Ntare High School in Mbarara. That same year, Mr Kwesigabo’s O-Level school, Makobore, started an A-level section and offered him a place. But this brought apprehension.
“We were pioneers. All our teachers had never taught in HSC,” he says. “There was a lot of anxiety whether what we were studying was the right thing and whether we were using the right methods.”
Because of his teaching background, Mr Kwesigabo was given several responsibilities. He served as vice chairman of the school council, food prefect and librarian – the last role affording him 24-hour access to the library since he was the custodian of its key.
After exams, he continued to teach at Makobore High and at a local primary school.
One day, while in his one-roomed house in the school, he heard students ululating wildly. He came out to find them running towards his house. They lifted him off the ground and tossed him in the air several times.
It was their reward to him for emerging the second-best A-level student in the country.
“I knew I would pass,” he says, “but definitely I did not know I would be among the best students in the country.”
Despite his rural reaction to urban excitement when he arrived at Makerere University, Mr Kwesigabo was constantly among the top students and made the Dean’s Honours List in 1984. The “boom” or allowances given to university students and his teacher’s salary that he continued to receive ensured that life was, at last a bit comfortable.
Jumping the gun
In late 1985 while visiting his village before joining the Law Development Centre for the Bar Course, the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels took control of parts of western Uganda and cut it off from the rest of the country.
That kept him away from LDC for a year but Mr Kwesigabo’s previous role as secretary of Uganda People’s Movement in his school meant he knew many of the fighters. He reconnected with old UPM mates and, owing to his knowledge of law, was made “a judge” in Rukungiri which was then under NRA control.
“I was the one resolving cases for about five months,” he said. “I also used to do mobilisation; to distribute essentials like soap, etc, which the rebel government used to get from Rwanda.”
When NRA captured power, he returned to Kampala and completed his Bar Course. He was retained as an assistant lecturer and later won a Fulbright scholarship to study a masters’ in law degree at Harvard University.
“Before I joined Harvard, I went to Georgetown University for an orientation course. That was my first experience to travel out of Uganda and it was really a terrifying experience because, you know the way I was, there was nobody to accompany you. I had never seen a university, library or food like that,” he said with a chuckle.
Harvard found him a host family and he went on to graduate with distinctions in all but one of his courses. He returned to Uganda, completed another course at the Institute of Chartered Secretaries, and has served in the corporate world since.
Mr Kwesigabo, who describes himself as “an expert in studying privately”, has never forgotten his roots.
He attributes his successes to determination, a few strokes of luck and his initial training as a teacher, which he says ensured that he matured ahead of his time.
“Education is a passport. It is a starting point. It gives you the opportunity but it cannot determine where you end up because once you enter, it is now up to your ability; education is no longer that important,” he said.
Mr Kwesigabo thinks there is no clear-cut formula for success. “Your responsibility is to work hard and take every opportunity you can, but you cannot determine whether you will be successful.
You have to do the best that you can and leave the rest to God. I never ever dreamt I would be the best in the country or go to Harvard. I did my best and went there so I think there is a combination of factors but you must work hard.”