In memory of Teddy Ssezi Cheeye

Fresh from Makerere University, I was approached to work with the newly-founded The Monitor newspaper in 1992.   

Among the seven founding directors was a man no one needed to be introduced to. He was Teddy Ssezi Cheeye, more known for Uganda Confidential, the paper that split the atom. Cheeye was feared for the manner in which he sourced and delivered his news, by championing the fight against corruption and excesses of those in power.

Such was the manner in which he was revered that just mentioning his name would elicit fear and awe at the same time. So, there we were in The Monitor newsroom and he would saunter in with all the bravado about him.

As a director who was not that closely operational on a daily basis, Cheeye would sometimes ask why a certain story was not followed or suggest the more sanguine stories that only Uganda Confidential could publish.

His fights with the then Finance minister Dr Crispus Kiyonga and the World Bank scandals are legendary and opened the door for more investigative stories and journalism in Uganda. The irony of all things came when the crusader against corruption and its attendant evils was caught in the same melee he vehemently fought.

I remember meeting him while he still worked as Director of Economic Monitoring in the Internal Security Organization (ISO). I asked why he had gone into bed with the very people that he for long persecuted for the wrongs they had exacted on the country.

He laughed it off, saying he was in a better position to end what he termed then as chronic corruption. I remember warning him that if he was not careful, the very people he wrote about in Uganda Confidential would get to him.

It was not long before he was caught up in the infamous Global Fund scam with Shs 120 million that he did not properly account for.

Poor Cheeye, unlike the bigger fish who should have been held politically liable for the loss of millions of Global Fund money, was sentenced and jailed for 10 years.  Till his release from Luzira last year, he had come full circle to believe that “there were people behind” his incarceration.

At the height of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Cheeye and I took off to cover the genocide. Because Cheeye had close links with the Rwanda Patriotic Front and had personal rapport with the then Maj Paul Kagame, access to stories was made easy.

I remember one day as we were driving towards Kigali, we suddenly met a heavy convoy of military vehicles heading in the opposite direction. All of a sudden, the military convoy came to an abrupt halt and we were quickly surrounded.

A Range Rover that had its headlights on reversed. There were soldiers everywhere. This was just next to Lake Muhazi, found about 20 kilometres east of Kigali. 

Then we heard the name of Cheeye called out. The lone occupant of the Range Rover opened the driver’s door. A tall and slender man in military fatigue stepped out. It was Maj Paul Kagame. He shouted: “Cheeye, amakuru?” (How are you Cheeye?) He then proceeded to greet us all, including a CNN crew. 

Two guards who had been assigned to escort us to Kigali were quickly arrested. Their guns were taken away and told to sit down. Cheeye, meanwhile, was in conversation with Kagame in Kinyarwanda. I could pick the things he was asking him.

How far is the war? When are you taking over Kigali? What are the exact numbers of the dead so far?  Kagame was about to begin speaking to Cheeye in Kinyarwanda but quickly realized that there were other foreign journalists. 

We set up and quickly interviewed him. He asked his personal assistant to avail him a map and he proceeded to show us where his forces had advanced. For about thirty minutes, this spot on the shores of Lake Muhazi was probably the safest place to be in Rwanda.

As we parted, he told Cheeye to meet him later for a chat. Our guards were given back their guns and we proceeded to Kanombe barracks where we spent the night.  That evening, Cheeye was taken by some people to meet Maj Kagame.

We waited for his return but we were later told he had left us behind and headed back to Uganda. Upon my return from Rwanda a few weeks later, I asked him why he had abandoned us.

His answer was that of a typical journalist of those days. After the interview with Kagame, he wanted to publish and beat us to it.

Cheeye, whose real name was Sezikyeye but changed it, like the many NRA rebels of the time, was a very knowledgeable journalist particularly on economic journalism, which had not been a common field those days.

A man who weathered the storms of life in prison to get killed by a boda boda a year after he regained his freedom is sad, indeed! 

Rest in peace, Teddy Ssezi Cheeye!

The author is a human rights expert.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd