It is one of those sad weeks in sports when deaths headline news. Football promoters John Ssebaana Kizito and Michael Okiror passed away on July 3.
A little over three years ago, I bumped into John Ssebaana Kizito in the lobby of CBS FM. I greeted him as I waited for the start of my weekly sports show.
Calm as ever, Ssebaana was quick to put me up to pace with the state of Bika football that he headed. Meticulous as ever, Ssebaana was well versed with all the finer details but decried the lack of dedication by some stakeholders.
He also reminded me of my obligation towards the organizing committee, from which I had excused myself. As we delved into the challenges of sports as a whole, I couldn’t help but wonder why Ssebaana still had an unquenchable passion for the game.
Many who have closesly interacted with him can testify to this because when it came to talking sports, the typical Ssebaana never relented, even in his advanced age. Here is a man whose career is best defined by politics, where he served in several high-profile positions, including cabinet minister, member of parliament, Kampala mayor as well as heading the country’s oldest existing political party.
However, Ssebaana’s sports legacy is one of distinguished service. I first came in contact with Ssebaana back in 1987 during the revival of Bika By’Abaganda football tournament. Ssebaana was one of the key architects as a member of the organisisng committee. He passionately talked about how the tournament would greatly endear the Baganda towards their heritage on top of unearthing raw football gems.
Ordinarily, one would have easily dismissed that as sheer rhetoric but Ssebaana already had a track record of promoting sports, far from the limelight many other leaders in sports had in the seventies.
Few may remember that in 1971, Ssebaana was the general manager of National Insurance Corporation (NIC) and used his position as patron of NIC FC to woo dozens of budding prospects. Among them were Ashe Mukasa, Stanley ‘Tank’ Mubiru, Timothy Ayiekoh, Mike Kiganda and Shaban Mwinda, among others.
All these would go on to become national team stars but Ssebaana never sought to claim any part of their success despite bankrolling their education on top of offering them jobs in the company.
Even when he left NIC to pursue private business, Ssebaana remained entrenched in football, especially with Express FC and Nsambya FC, where he was a key financier.
The resurrection of Express FC in 1979 put Ssebaana in pole position to become club boss after being at the forefront of bankrolling the process. However, due to his political ambitions, combining politics and club activities seemed untenable and the club settled for Sam Njuba.
Granted, Ssebaana remained a key figure in the club although he was relatively little-known in football circles. Still, Ssebaana’s immense influence in Bika football didn’t go unnoticed as he, along with James Mulwana and Kaddu Kiberu, headlined the financing of the mighty Mamba clan, which had won the 1989 title.
In April 1992, Ssebaana launched his career in mainstream football when Abbey Kafumbe Mukasa, the then National Council of Sports chairman, appointed him interim Fufa chairman.
Kafumbe had disbanded the John Semanobe-led Fufa executive and picked Ssebaana to lead the transition period due to his unstained administration career. Ssebaana’s key assignment within eight months was to overhaul the Fufa constitution and also prepare fresh elections.
By then, the Fufa assembly comprised of 25 delegates, which many thought was not representative enough of the game countrywide. Amanya Mushega, the then Education and Sports minister, had long cried out that 25 people have no capacity to decide for the entire country.
Still, Ssebaana was also tasked with running the day-to-day activities; including running of the league as well as ensuring The Cranes were a competitive outfit.
Within months, Uganda won the Cecafa Cup in Mwanza, Tanzania. Due to lack of funds, the team returned home by a ferry, something that greatly incensed Ssebaana.
In one interview I had with him earlier, Ssebaana intimated about his desire to stand for the Fufa top job simply because he wanted to move things. He was disappointed that the football structure didn’t have avenues to unearth and groom young talents. So, in the wake of the team’s return, Ssebaana seized the opportunity during the team’s celebratory party at Lugogo indoor stadium by creating a special sports fund.
He said its aim was to accelerate the development and follow-up of promising stars on top of ensuring that the national team is well-funded. Ssebaana opened the doors by personally sinking in Shs 5m while President Museveni, the chief guest, offered Shs 20m.
However, Ssebaana lost interest in staying on after witnessing first-hand the intrigue in the sport. He fulfilled his pledge of organizing Fufa polls free from controversy but opted out of the contest after pleas from the main rivals. He would later tell me that the contestants; Semanobe and Villa boss Patrick Kawooya, were experienced enough to take the game forward.
For your information, Semanobe defeated Kawooya. From then on, Ssebaana kept a low profile as far as Fufa is concerned and instead concentrated in Bika football, where he was appointed chairman in 1999.
I was personally privileged to serve alongside him as a committee member and he, in spite of his eminent status, really gave everyone an opportunity to make a contribution. It was common knowledge that Ssebaana was a wealthy, powerful figure but during our meetings, we were equals and one key thing I will never forget is that he always only took a decision after consultations.
Even in his final days, long after the core of the committee had left or died, Ssebaana’s commitment was unquestionable. His State-wide Insurance Company (Swico) remains one of the key sponsors of the tournament to this day.
So, Ssebaana’s passing on is a celebration of his football legacy but more worryingly, he was one of the few selfless characters remaining in sport.
Michael Okiror may have passed on almost unnoticed after being overshadowed by Ssebaana but anyone with a solid football memory will never forget Okiror’s contribution to Ugandan football. He was neither the darling nor a savior but Okiror had his moments.
You may remember how he engineered the ouster of Twaha Kakaire from Fufa office in 1998 before becoming Fufa treasurer. All seemed well for Okiror but the fall-out with longtime ally Denis Obua greatly cost him the chance to assert himself.
He even contested for the Fufa presidency in 2001, emerging third and his last major act was the unsuccessful attempt in 2005. From then on, he somehow went under the radar and I was shocked to learn about his demise just hours after Ssebaana’s.
The author is operations director of The Observer Media Ltd.