Ssemo: Statesman who rarely put a foot wrong

Former DP president Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere (left) signs on a banner after he was given an award for promoting democracy and constitutionalism in Uganda on October 7, 2020. PHOTO / ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • Ssemogerere has been praised as a man of peace and a senior political activist.

Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, the former Democratic Party president and an icon of the pro-democracy movement in the country, passed away yesterday morning in Rubaga, Kampala. He was 90.
Ssemogerere sought the presidency twice, but lost, including the controversial 1980 presidential elections which he is widely believed to have won. In waging a guerrilla war that brought him to power, President Museveni cited among other things the rigging of that election to justify the war.

Ssemogerere, however, chose to stay despite strong calls to boycott and even rebel against the Obote government. In the new government, he became the Leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for defence and security, a role that would give him a front bench to keep the Obote regime in check. He would also secure freedom for so many political detainees, including those who were later killed.

“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,” he told Sunday Monitor in 2014, adding: “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.”
As Leader of the Opposition, he engaged in talks with Bazilio Okello and Tito Okello after they deposed Obote in a coup. He pushed for Uganda to return to democratic rule through elections, and to end the fighting to maintain rule of law.
William Pike in his book titled Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda writes that Ssemogerere joined the junta by the Okellos with eagerness.  

He also played a key role in the Nairobi Peace Talks that was between the junta led by the Okellos and rebel leader Yoweri Museveni, clinching an agreement in which Mr Museveni was supposed to be vice president. Mr Museveni’s NRA continued to fight, eventually taking power.
Through Winnie Byanyima and others, President Museveni reached out to Ssemogerere and the two met at Nabbingo Parish. Overtures were made for the Ssemogerere group to join the new government. This would kickstart the negotiations that saw him join the government. Ssemogerere served in the Internal Affairs Public Service dockets, among other roles.

In an interview with Sunday Monitor, Ssemogerere recalls that he refused to sign a single detention order even when messages came from his superiors in government. The militarisation of the police which started in the mid-2000s would have to wait for his departure.
As Internal Affairs minister and direct supervisor of the police, Ssemogerere revealed that President Museveni put enormous pressure on him to do away with the police by sending a team led Al Hajj Moses Kigongo (ruling NRM vice chair), Gen Salim Saleh and the late Gen Aronda Nyakayirima.
Ssemogerere, however, stood his ground. At the time, President Museveni and some of his bush war comrades saw the police setup as representative of the Obote regime.

“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,” he said in the 2014 interview, adding: “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.”

Multiparty dispensation
It was the quest for multiparty democracy that would see Ssemogerere leave President Museveni’s government.  After leaving government and losing the 1996 General Election, Ssemogerere continued to play different roles—most notably the fight to restore the multi-party dispensation in the country. He filed several court petitions, which resulted in major reforms in the early 2000s. 
Ssemwogere’s quest for democracy in Uganda never wavered even after his retirement from active politics in 2005. He continued to organise different groups pushing for change in the country.
The former DP president-general’s young brother, Mr John Baptist Kawanga, yesterday said Ssemogerere’s health deteriorated Thursday at around 10pm before his doctor was called to check on him.
“But throughout the night, he was not stable until in the wee hours of Friday morning when he returned from the shower and collapsed on his bed,” Kawanga revealed, adding: “He was pronounced dead moments later.”
By press time, Ssemogerere’s remains had been taken to Rubaga Hospital for post-mortem. He will be interred at Nkumba in Busiro County on a date yet to be announced. 

The deceased completed his high school education at St. Henry’s College Kitovu. He received a Diploma in Education from Makerere University in Kampala. In Meadville, Pennsylvania, he attended Allegheny College to pursue a degree in politics and government. At Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in public administration in 1979.

Ssemogerere married Germina Namatovu Ssemogerere, 48 years ago, a Professor in the School of Economics, College of Business and Management Sciences at Makerere University. He has children including: Grace Nabatanzi (deceased), Karoli Ssemogerere, Anna Namakula, Immaculate Kibuuka and Paul Semakula.


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