Former Ambassador to USA Edith Ssempala now compares Museveni to Idi Amin
After a 22-year career as Uganda’s top diplomat in the United States, the Nordic countries and the African Union (AU), plus a stint at the World Bank, Dr EDITH GRACE SSEMPALA, 55, has surprisingly joined forces that seek to end President Museveni’s three-decade hold onto power.
She is currently the head of the diplomacy and international relations desk of the Go Forward Pro Change, a pressure group led by Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister turned presidential aspirant.
On Monday, she took on a more visible role on the local political scene when she represented Mbabazi at the 49th coronation anniversary of the Rwenzururu king Charles Wesley Mumbere. In an interview with Sadab Kitatta Kaaya on Monday, Ssempala discussed her long-faded admiration for President Museveni:
For the 22 years you have been in the diplomatic service Ugandans hardly know you. Who is Edith Ssempala?
I am Ambassador Edith Grace Ssempala and I am basically a human rights activist. At least that is how I started in the [NRM] struggle. I was a refugee in Sweden at the time [1980s], and I joined NRM because I believed in the values and the mission of the National Resistance Movement, and I became chairperson of the Stockholm branch of NRM.
What was driving me was like I was contributing to the future of my children; the children of Uganda.
When was this?
I was in Sweden from 1979 to April 1986, and when I arrived [in Kampala], I found I had been appointed ambassador to the Nordic countries. So I went back, this time to Denmark because that’s where the embassy is. In 1996, I was appointed ambassador to the United States (US).
I was there for nine and a half years, and after that, I was sent to Addis Ababa [Ethiopia] as ambassador and permanent representative of Uganda to the African Union [and also] ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti. I was there for two years and then I was taken to the World Bank (WB).
I was taken to the World Bank not by Uganda but I was asked by the World Bank to join [its workforce].
At what stage do you then join forces against President Museveni?
Maybe what you could ask is; when did I see Uganda going the wrong way. The most glaring thing to me was in 2011 [during the walk-to-work protests]. I was still at the World Bank and I saw a policeman banging Dr Kizza Besigye’s car window, and teargassing him - I call it fumigating him.
That was a shock to me because that is exactly what we had fought against. So, I did realize at that time that Uganda was on a wrong path. That showed that we [were] no longer caring for human rights [and] the very values that all of us believed in and made us join the struggle.
After [my job at] the World Bank, I really wanted to be private. I came back in December 2011, I had no intention whatsoever of being in politics, I wanted to do my own things. I mean, I left Uganda when I was almost 19 [years old]; so, I wanted to just do my own private business.
I didn’t think that I would be an activist once again but things started looking so ugly, and the president started doing things, [making statements] that demonstrated that he was no longer the president I knew, that I served, that I loved, that I believed in. Things like telling Ugandans that unless they vote for him, they are not entitled to services, things like; “these people who are against me are after my oil.”
Now the oil of Uganda became his oil, you know; the brutality of the police. There is really something that is unacceptable in this country that I thought was democratic. I thought that the challenges we would be having are the normal challenges of development, but here we are, getting to a situation that is in some way even worse than the Idi Amin [1971-79] and Milton Obote [1980-85] eras.
You saw the other week a woman being dragged on the tarmac by the police, tearing her clothes. [I heard some say] that she undressed herself but I think she was in such a bad situation that she could tear the rest of what she had left [on her body]. I don’t know what could have been going on in her head because she was already ashamed, hurt, so it was like, “I don’t care anymore, see whatever you want to see, because you have seen it anyway.”
So, these kinds of things are signs of a country that is drifting toward disaster. I don’t like these crime preventers… I and [six] others were appointed by the Secretary General of the UN to a do a peace-building architecture review, which we completed at the end of June, and we have already submitted our report.
One of our observations in the countries that we visited, such as Burundi [and] South Sudan, is that always the signs [for violence] are there but either we think that they will go away or we are in denial, or we hope that by running away [from the signs] it [violence] will go away by itself or we will be safe, but no one is safe in such a situation.
And to you such actions/situations make Museveni worse than Idi Amin?
Idi Amin was illiterate; so, in a way, he had no exposure. There were no core values that he had put together to say that these are the values I believe in.
So, when somebody who is more informed, exposed, someone who from the very beginning started off not through a coup d’état but a revolution, who told all of us that we are having a fundamental change, not just a change of guards, someone who said that the problem of Africa is leaders who overstay in power; well, 30 years is overstaying! The children who were born at that time are now men and women with children.
When somebody like that cannot even respect the integrity of women and a woman is just dragged on the tarmac and is stripped naked; surely, there is no way this cannot be worse than what happened during the Idi Amin [regime].
I personally had an incident during Amin’s time. I was coming for half term [holidays] from Nabumali High School where I sat for my A-levels. Amin’s soldiers took me out of a bus because I was wearing trousers and a dress after mini-skirts had been outlawed.
The soldier, a very terrible-looking man, said that they wanted to take me, and I imagine rape me, but by God’s grace, I escaped that. But you know, I wasn’t dragged on the street! In terms of comparison, I see what happened to Fatuma [Zainab Naigaga] much worse than what I experienced.
So, it is the police’s harassment of Dr Besigye that ended your love for President Museveni and the NRM; how did you end up with Amama Mbabazi other than Besigye himself and his FDC?
You really don’t need to be a supporter of Dr Besigye or FDC to realize what is wrong. That is one. Two, I believe in Amama Mbabazi. Actually he and Dr [Ruhakana] Rugunda recruited me [into] NRM in Sweden, and I have had many opportunities of discussion with him, and so I know him as a very diligent, decent, [and] honest man. I know him as a result-oriented man.
I see a Nelson Mandela in him because we are going to need reconciliation after the elections. Our country has been torn so badly into pieces; so, we are going to have to reconcile ourselves in order to move forward.
That is why I joined Go Forward because I know Mbabazi will give Ugandans an opportunity, the leadership we need in order to overcome the very difficult challenges that our country is facing.
Most of your colleagues in NRM who are rumoured to be in support of Mbabazi’s presidential bid are still silent. How did you pick the courage? And the silence of your colleagues isn’t hurting Mbabazi’s aspirations?
I am a believer in God. Actually on July 18, 2015, I had a dream; God put a dream in my heart which I put on my Facebook [page] in a small statement.
My dream was about the fairness, rule of law and the fact that I dream of a Uganda where no woman will die while giving birth because of lack of attention. I also have a dream where I want to see all children having an opportunity [for] quality education.
I was educated at a village primary school [Namutamba demonstration school] where I sat for [Primary Leaving Examinations] and joined Gayaza High School. My primary school was a demonstration school but it is no longer because the primary teachers’ college that made it a demonstration school is now dead. No child is coming out of [that school] anymore going to these good schools, which means [that] we are losing talent.
The children, families and the community are losing because you can’t know what talent they have. They [pupils in rural schools] could be rocket scientists but because they have not had an opportunity, they are not going to be able to [achieve their dreams].
My courage, therefore, is in the inherent trust in my living God. [In the Bible], Esther [4:16] said: “If I die, I die.”
I believe evil triumphs because good people do nothing, and I believe that I am not one to do nothing.
Are you suggesting that your colleagues are cowards?
No, I am not calling anybody cowards because we are all called and empowered differently. Even me, I didn’t come out from the very beginning but I came out on July 18. I think maybe their time has not come, for them to come out.
Do you anticipate a free and fair election?
No, I don’t but I believe that we will overcome but it is too embarrassing for Uganda and for our president because I thought this kind of thing (police brutality) was behind us.
But this is where we are; I think we shall continue to struggle. Throughout history, you have seen that evil never triumphs [and] at the end of the day, we are going to overcome, and we are overcoming this coming year.
Since Prof Gilbert Bukenya made a U-turn, some Ugandans started looking at many of you NRM Go Forward defectors with some suspicion.
I know Prof Bukenya of course, like I know many others in government, especially those who were there before. What I can certainly say is that Mbabazi is not Bukenya. Absolutely not! Mbabazi is extremely principled, and therefore his decision to ‘Go Forward’ is informed by principles and values that all of us see – that the NRM has drifted from what we [struggled] for.
Therefore, there is no turning back because what do you turn back to? The violation of human rights? Dictatorship? There is no reconciliation in what the regime is now doing, and our [NRM] core values. It is impossible to reconcile, and the one who needs to turn back is President Museveni.
You want President Museveni to turn back on what?
He should turn back to the core values of the NRM struggle. The core principles of democracy, respect of human rights, good governance and fighting corruption.