Written and published 16 years after she left the ruling NRM government, a new book by Miria Rukoza Koburunga Matembe, a former ethics minister, sheds new light on the character of President Museveni’s inner circle and his government’s stuttering fight against rooted corruption.
Matembe, the NRM pioneering minister for Ethics and Integrity, appointed in 1998 and dropped in 2003 for opposing the removal of presidential term limits, tells it all in her 250-page memoir titled; “The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Betrayed: Memoirs of Miria Matembe as an insider in Museveni’s government.”
Matembe says in her book that the more she tried to fight corruption, the more she was fought ferociously by people close to the president. She remembers a case of the sale of Uganda Commercial Bank, which involved the president’s younger brother Salim Saleh and the sale of Uganda Railways that involved Enos Tumusiime, a city lawyer.
Other cases involved Minister Sam Kutesa who together with Minister Jim Muhwezi was censured in March 1999 for corruption and influence peddling. Matembe clearly remembers her return from the second Global Forum on Fighting Corruption held in the Netherlands in 2001 and the press conference she addressed in Kampala in the immediate aftermath. She says she was asked by journalists whether it was proper for censured ministers and those accused of corruption to contest in the 2001 elections.
“I said, it would be good if the censured ministers and those implicated in corruption were not elected,” Matembe writes.
This statement drew an immediate storm of backlash from government.
“I got a phone call from Kutesa in the middle of the night while in Mbarara where I had gone to start my campaigns…he was very angry with me saying, I was killing him politically,” Matembe writes.
“How can you kill my political life by saying I shouldn’t be elected? If you’re not careful and if you don’t withdraw the statement, I will finish you. I will kill you; not physically but destroy you politically…” Matembe quotes Kutesa as having told her.
She said she refused to withdraw the statement. She said Kutesa angrily hung up the phone vowing it wasn’t over. The political forces ganged up against her, she says. She said people from the president’s inner circle quickly lined up a candidate, Jovia Rwakishumba, to run against her for the Mbarara woman parliamentary seat.
She says the promoters of her opponent had huge sums of money. The next morning after Kutesa’s night phone call, she says, the president called her and re-echoed Kutesa’s exact message. She says the president began by asking her how she was doing in the campaigns.
“How can you ask me how I’m doing when you must know I’m not doing well since you’re fighting me? Mzee, how could you really fight me after I have worked so hard for your campaigns? To get you to win the elections,” Matembe writes.
In response, Museveni said his people in the Movement were telling him that she has not been working hard in the constituency.
“You abandoned your people; they are not ready to elect you but prefer another candidate…if we support you, we will lose the seat to the opposition. You see Matembe, you have a problem, when I tried to plead for you, I was asked how I could defend you and yet you were also fighting other colleagues. You are fighting the censured ministers and other officials such as Enos Tumusiime …you told the electorate not to vote for them and they are angry with you,” she writes directly quoting the president.
“You see these people are our strong cadres, and they say I cannot defend you when you are fighting them. These censured ministers cannot be punished twice. They were punished by censure and they have already served their sentence. You as a lawyer must be aware of the principle of double jeopardy…” Museveni reportedly told Matembe, according to the book.
After the long conversation, Matembe claims the president asked her to write a letter to The Monitor newspaper, which carried her story, saying it was okay for people to vote for censured ministers because they had already served their sentence and couldn’t be punished twice.
“I said I wouldn’t do such a thing and he responded, Matembe, I’m asking you to kindly do this for me. Moreover, when you do it, I will ask that woman who is disturbing you to step down. Please write the letter now and send it to The Monitor so that it’s published tomorrow…”
She says she grudgingly wrote the letter and a few days later, Rwakishumba pulled out of the race.
“I came to the conclusion that President Museveni was not committed to fighting corruption since his close relatives and confidants were implicated in the malpractice and yet he preferred to work with them and defend them. I started praying that I shouldn’t be reappointed to cabinet… I wanted to remain a backbencher whose role was to critique the government instead of defending it…” Matembe writes.
However, a few days after the elections, which President Museveni won – defeating Dr Kizza Besigye of the Reform Agenda, Matembe’s name appeared on the cabinet list as minister of state. This time round her ministry had been downgraded. She said she thought about calling a press conference to decline the appointment. She said however, she dropped the idea because she thought that would be disrespectful.
“I called the President’s Principal Private Secretary Hilda Musubire seeking an appointment. I said I didn’t want the appointment and I wanted to tell him [president] the reasons,” Matembe writes.
However, when Musubire talked to the president, Matembe claims, the president said he was too busy to see her. He advised her, through Musubire, to strongly take up the appointment or communicate her dislike for the appointment to the parliamentary committee, which vets presidential nominees.
“I told her I would not appear before the committee but I was going to call a press conference and tell them [journalists] the reasons why. Within a few minutes, she [Musubire] called back saying the president would see me immediately,” Matembe says.
In the book, Matembe also claims she was fought by then Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Janat Mukwaya who accused Matembe and the IGG then, Jotham Tumwesigye, of sabotaging government work by raising red flags over corrupt officials at the Electoral Commission.
Matembe also accuses the president of weakening the Leadership Code that aimed at forcing public officials to periodically publicly declare their wealth. The president even swore an affidavit in court that nullified many of the provisions and that took the bite out of the Code, she said.
Matembe also accuses the president of pardoning people convicted of corruption. She lists former permanent secretary and undersecretary in the ministry of Agriculture Prof Gastavus Ssenyonga and Christine Namuddu Kiggundu respectively. Others are former MP Mulindwa Birimumaaso, Nathan Muwanguzi, a local council III chairman of Rwanyamahembe sub-county in Kashari county, who was accused of stealing public money. Matembe claims the president would tell the director of public prosecutions to drop certain cases.
On Muwanguzi’s case, she claims the president invited the DPP then, Ricahrd Butera, and her to order them to withdraw the case.
“You know Hon Matembe, I have called you here and Richard to see how we can sort out this case of the chairman…to see whether the case can be withdrawn.” The case was withdrawn when Matembe was dropped as minister.
On Museveni’s love for power
When Dr Kizza Besigye declared he was running for president in 2000, Matembe says Museveni went into overdrive because he had never been challenged before from within the Movement. As soon as Besigye made the declaration, Museveni, according to Matembe, called a cabinet meeting and suggested some eye-brow raising proposals. One of those was for cabinet to enact a law that would bar Besigye from contesting.
Matembe also tells of a story when she attended a Great Lakes Region Women’s conference held in Kampala as chief guest. The meeting was about the role women should play in ending conflict in the Great Lakes region (Uganda, Burundi and DRC). The meeting also came at a time when President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia tried but failed to amend the constitution to extend his stay in power. In her opening address, she told women that one of the causes of conflict was the prolonged stay in power by leaders.
“I told the women that in Uganda we had a good president who was committed to constitutionalism. He knew the value of a good constitution to a nation; that’s why he had championed its making. I however, said you can never be sure with human beings; we can never know what a leader can do when power enters his head since it is said power corrupts. Should he ever want to remove our presidential term limits, I call upon you women of Uganda to oppose him because removing the presidential term limits would be recipe for chaos and conflict in this country again. If you women don’t rise to oppose him, I will do it myself even if I have to do it alone,” Matembe says.
She said the next day a cartoon appeared in one of the papers showing Museveni seated in his office and her holding a bell in his face, telling him, ‘2006, Mr President it’s time up.”
While attending a cabinet meeting, Matembe says the PPS Hilda Musubire called her and said the president wanted to speak to her. “I went to her office and picked up a phone. Museveni said, I have seen you ordering me around…I’m just seeing this picture where you’re ordering me…there is a cartoon here where you are ringing a bell for me and telling me to quit the office of the president because my time is up. Why are you imputing bad motive onto me? You think I don’t know when to leave office? Should it be you to tell me?”
“You see Matembe, I also know this Constitution and after all I’m the one who appointed you to the Constitutional Commission. Therefore, I’m also aware that there is a Constitution and I have no intentions of violating it…I don’t have to be pressurized out of office because I too know the law. So, there is need to correct the impression that you have created. Write a letter to the New Vision editor so as to remove the wrong impression that your statement has created about me…” Matembe did just that. However, she was stunned to learn after the cabinet meeting that Museveni’s mother had passed away.
“Can you imagine that by the time we spoke he already knew about his mother’s death and yet there he was bothered about a cartoon?” Matembe says.