His death in a night shooting last week drew the most public notice including a presidential confession that the killers of Isaac ‘Zebra Mando’ Ssenyange were security agents.
His shooting on December 30 catapulted Ssenyange to a grandeur national stage and intensified the harsh political criticism of killings of unarmed civilians by security forces during this election campaign period. Ssenyange was one of the most controversial national boxing stars in Uganda’s recent history.
Ssenyange courted controversy inside and outside the boxing ring but was loved in equal measure. Ssenyange’s influence was not limited to the boxing ring; he had over the years shrewdly used his boxing prowess to fight and endear himself to the top officials in the ruling NRM government.
No wonder, less than 48 hours after he was brutally shot and killed in the wee hours of December 30, President Museveni came out to confirm that Ssenyange was killed by security forces. The president also said he was scheduled to meet the outspoken boxer.
In his New Year’s Eve address and on Twitter, Museveni acknowledged Ssenyange was ‘an NRM supporter who was doing so much’ for the party. The president also spoke by telephone with Zebra’s widow and promised to ‘investigate’ his death. So, how did Zebra, a boxer from the slums of Bwaise rise to fame and endear himself to the top figures in the ruling class of this country.
Looking back at his humble beginning in boxing circles, Ssenyange has always been a rubble-rouser, a go-getter and a kind man at the same time. His influence in Kampala ran deep. Zebra had a huge youthful following and the ability to mobilize a unified political force in Kampala.
This made him the go-to-mobiliser for many NRM leaning politicians. Zebra Ssenyange had the power and persuasion to mobilize people around him and come out on top in challenging situations. This clout endeared him to many political figures.
“He has been very reliable in our political covert operations. You only needed to tell him, ‘deploy 100 people and he would
do it in an instant,” a senior Kampala
NRM politician, who worked with the late Ssenyange during the last election, disclosed in an interview earlier this week. This re-enforces a video clip that went viral on social media in which Ssenyange is heard advising Kampala NRM strategists to let him deploy his ‘boys to bring peace in the ghetto other than police….’In pre-election campaigns and on polling days, most NRM candidates in Kampala leaned on Ssenyange’s abilities to mobilize support, protect the vote or scatter opposition networks.
In 2006 elections, Zebra’s handiwork was evident as Godfrey Nyakana, a retired professional boxer, recruited several boxers during his hotly contested race against Charles Sserunjogi for Kampala Central Division chairman. In 2011, he was again at it.
He backed Peter Sematimba (the NRM candidate for Kampala mayor) against DP’s Erias Lukwago. That time the battleground was on the Super FM premises in Lubaga where pugilists and other cadres were cornered by opposition vigilantes while allegedly stuffing ballots.
It was a bloody battle, which the NRM group won but their candidate Sematimba lost the overall election result to Lukwago. Between 2015 and 2018, Zebra superintended the core private ‘force’ hired by former KCCA executive director Jennifer Musisi to get vendors off Kampala streets in her so-called ‘restoration of trade order and sanity’ exercise.
And weeks before his death, he was cited in Kyotera with the entourage of minister of State for Microfinance Haruna Kyeyune Kasolo. He was part of the minister’s private security detail. Kasolo is campaigning for re-election in the race for the Kyotera County MP seat.
Kampala Division chairman Salim Uhuru is the other prominent NRM leader who Zebra mobilized support for during elections.
Before he was felled by security operatives, according to insider sources, Zebra had vowed to help NRM rein-in People Power
“hooliganism” and rehabilitate the security forces’ image.
The security contrived plot was simple. Zebra and his boys would also “eat” from the election after extinguishing NUP. Security circles believe that Kyagulanyi’s inner circle of bodyguards headed by Eddie Mutwe is a close knit unit of amateur boxers and kickboxers.
So they suggested that Zebra mobilizes his boys to infiltrate and confront NUP. Cause commotion and, basically exchange blows on the streets, which would lead to the intervention of security operatives and ultimately the neutralization of Bobi Wine.
Zebra reportedly bought the idea at first but later baulked at the suggestion that security forces would intervene in the street fights. He feared that such intervention would probably lead to beatings and shooting of unarmed civilians. That intervention, he argued, would expose him as the police embedded mastermind and get him in trouble with his people.
His plan was simply to extinguish NUP hooliganism by confronting them without police intervention. Security emissaries lied to Zebra that the president had sanctioned the mission of taking out Kyagulanyi, and it was on that understanding that he was scheduled to meet the president.
The meeting was arranged and Zebra was vetted. But when Zebra developed cold feet, the plotters then concluded that he might wish to confirm details of the mission with the president during the scheduled meeting. He was already seen calling fellow boxers expressing his trepidation on the deal.
The mission changed. He had to be stopped from talking to too many boxers since he was even afraid of the mission. Boxer Robert Mukasa aka Soja-man, the manager of Zebra Boxing club, who was arrested on the night of his boss’ murder, said after his release on Monday that his captors tortured him and interrogated him about his activities with Zebra and why they wanted to meet president, Yoweri Museveni.
The same deal of mobilizing boxers to cause confusion in the Kyagulanyi inner camp in Masaka was offered to boxer Justin Juuko. He roundly rejected it and ended up being arrest.
A sneak peek into his boxing career reveals a highly controversial but admired boxer. A former national middleweight champion, his rise and mainstay on the national amateur team (popularly known as The Bombers) was not devoid of controversy.
For instance, in the run-up to the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, Ssenyange caused a storm in The Bombers’ camp after he was dropped for better pugilists with chances of winning medals for the country. He accused officials of the then Uganda Amateur Boxing Federation (UABF, which has since morphed into UBF) of being biased and haters.
And in protest, he privately processed and paid for his travel to England, only to be denied entry into the Games village because he did not have accreditation. He was so determined to pursue his boxing career. He opted to stay back in England in an attempt to break into professional ranks.
After two years of limited success in the UK, Ssenyange returned home and fought his way back into the Bombers’ fold. First, he allied with businessman Roger Ddungu whom he campaigned for and successfully took charge of the national boxing federation in 2006.
This time round, Ssenyange rallied against his boxing idol Godfrey Nyakana, the former Commonwealth champion, who had majority support of retired pugilists, in favour of businessman Ddungu for the top UABF job. Once in office, Ddungu rewarded Ssenyange with the captaincy of the Bombers in 2007.
However, ‘Mando’ courted controversy again when he commanded national team pugilists to beat up their cook while in a residential camp at Lugogo in the same year. The Bombers were preparing for a trip to the African Championships in Madagascar.
The captain would also help his juniors (who included Atanas Mugerwa, Phillip Adyak, Fred Muhumuza and Sharif Bogere) to sneak out of the camp to nightclubs around Lugogo. Eventually, he was expelled for indiscipline. Three years later, Zebra’s other attempt to return to the Bombers’ fold was harshly blown up by Hamis Ssemakula, who outclassed him in a one-sided welterweight bout during the 2010 National Open Championship.
This defeat locked Zebra out of the national team but not out of boxing. He announced his next stint into professional ranks. He also decided to concentrate on management and coaching duties at his own Zebra Boxing Club. Save for two controversial bouts against Haruna Hassan Ddiba ‘Banabana’ in 2012 and Musa Batantu (in 2013), there’s not much to write home about his professional career.
Both fights were marred by violence in and out of the ring at Lugogo indoor stadium arena. Zebra took on Banabana in November 2012 (eight months after his professional debut victory over Kenyan Patrick Amote) in a much-hyped bout, which was declared a technical draw after Mando’s supporters invaded the ring and beat up officials in the fifth round of a scheduled 10-rounder.
The rowdy fans charged that Banabana should have been disqualified for over holding Zebra and hitting him with low blows, which is against the rules of the game. Ironically, Batantu, who was leading on all judges’ scorecards, lost to Zebra after being disqualified for not honouring a mandatory fairplay gesture of touching gloves before the final round.
When the referee called the two boxers to touch gloves, Batantu instead rained blows on Zebra! In 2017, while coaching Lukanga Boxing Club, Zebra manhandled technical officials during the National Open Championship, accusing them of being biased. He was banned from accessing the ringside.
ADMIRED FOR KINDNESS
Through his boxing connections over the years, Ssenyange built a network that stretched across Kampala’s ghettos. For example, in the late 2000s, he founded Kawempe People’s Voice to unite boxers and rehabilitate the tainted image of their sport, which was associated with thieves.
Indeed, among boxers, he was admired for his kindness; he was always at hand to help with food, money and those in trouble with law enforcers.
“Zebra always stood surety and bailed out our pugilists from police grip then after cautioned them on such (bad) behavior,” Ibrahim Zzimbe, one of the coaches at Zebra Mando Gym in St Francis Zone, Bwaise, said.
Former African champion Badru ‘Mr Crush’ Lusambya fondly remembers Zebra for the initiative that raised money from his peers and well-wishers in the boxing fraternity and cleared his bill when he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Another boxer Abbey ‘Wiser’ Sebyala said Zebra had become the substitute to Police in the ghetto as many parents reported their wayward children to him.
“Mando had a way of counselling such kids without beating them and they never misbehaved again,” he noted.
US-based professional fighter, Sharif ‘The Lion’ Bogere, who was Zebra’s teammate on The Bombers’ squad between 2006 and 2007, described him as a ‘brother, coach, father figure who inspired hundreds of street kids.’
“He got them off the streets and made them somebody in life. He deeply encouraged unity; he treated every fighter equally despite any circumstances and resolved issues between fighters. He has been doing the work that the majority of us couldn’t. I can go and on man. He was a big pillar in Uganda boxing.”
In a 2013 interview with The Observer’s ‘Quick Talk’, he told us that his parents named him Zebra Isaac Ssenyange while ‘Mando’ is the nickname he got from his fight trainer commandos.
“I was trained by Amin’s commandos,” he stated.
He also assured us that he was 32 years old (then), dismissing claims that he had changed his age several times. That aside, Ssenyange got into limelight during the 2001 National Schools boxing championship as head coach of Dynamic High School, which produced some of the most promising fighters in Sharif Bogere. (At barely 14 years of age, Bogere was called to the national team and eventually became a mainstay.
The highlight of his amateur boxing career was competing at the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique. His overall amateur record stood at 214 bouts of which he lost 19 times.
Most of his amateur career was attached to Lukanga BC. He is survived by two daughters; Dovina Senyange, Divine Senyange and son, Isaac Senyange Junior. Before his death, he was a top aide of Uganda Boxing Federation (UBF) president Moses Muhangi whom he helped to win the election to office four years ago.
According to most of his peers and many other people who worked with him, despite his sometimes bizarre actions, Ssenyange never used any drugs or alcohol.
“I don’t use anything that changes my mind. I am bad-tempered,” he said in our 2013 Quick Talk interview.