On January 14, 2021, Fortunate Rose Nantongo, a 25-year-old lawyer, was elected as the new woman MP for Kyotera district.
Ordinarily, this would be a normal story for the simple fact that the 11th Parliament will be one of the youngest in the history of Uganda. In fact, at 25 years, Nantongo is not the youngest. There are others like 23-year-old Frank Kabuye of Kassanda South, a university student who beat Simeo Nsubuga, a former police spokesman.
But Nantongo is one of that rare group of politicians that get catapulted to the national scene by tragedy. In the 11th Parliament, there will be two of them. The other is Kayanga Baroda, who replaced her mother Hajati Rehema Watongola who died in the middle of a campaign due to Covid-19.
Back to Nantongo, her mother Robinah Nakasirye Ssentongo also died in the middle of a campaign on December 18, 2020. She too, it was reported, succumbed to Covid-19.
Ssentongo had just been MP for barely four years, having been elected as the pioneer Woman MP for Kyotera district in 2017. She was a popular figure in her constituency having been at the center of the fight against HIV/Aids that ravaged the district in the 1980s and 90s. Her moniker, Maama Kitovu was given to her, following her Kitovu Mobile Clinic that offered HIV/Aids care.
Although all deaths are normally described as sudden and untimely, Ssentongo’s death was really untimely. It is said that she contracted Covid-19 that forced her off the campaign trail and into hospital for some days, before it overpowered her. Nantongo is her second-last born among five children – four girls and a boy.
Rising from the ashes
After completing her diploma in legal practice at the Uganda Law Development Centre in 2019, Nantongo became her mother’s political handler.
She would manage her finances, do research for her to help in her parliamentary work and also manage projects in the constituency. Basically, she was the bridge between the people and their MP. So, when Ssentongo died unexpectedly, there was not a lot of searching for her replacement. It was like fate had been grooming Nantongo for the role.
“She struggled to take me to law school so that I could help her politically with her work as a legislator,” Nantongo said, about why her mother, out of the five children, had chosen to work with her.
“I was also the most available, because my other siblings are married and the youngest is still at university.”
When family and party leaders asked her to replace her mother, it was something she wanted to do, but not under such circumstances. It was a role she accepted with tears for her mother still free-flowing.
Nantongo says because of the work she had done with her mother and also having political traits from school leadership, she always looked at herself as a potential politician of the future. Maybe in 15 years or so, she always thought.
Yet here, in the middle of her darkest moments, people were asking her to postpone the grief and concentrate on keeping her mother’s political candle burning. It was Joseph Ssentongo, her father, who finally melted the ice.
“My father talked to me and said we should take on the work that my mother started. I felt I couldn’t say no to my father seeing the state in which he was after my mother’s death. That’s how I ended up replacing mummy at a very trying moment; I can say without a doubt that I’m an MP by accident,” Nantongo said.
Two days after the burial of Robinah Ssentongo, Nantongo was nominated to replace her as the Democratic Party candidate. She hit the road running, seeing that there was less than a month to the end of the campaigns.
The emptiness of the common saying that lightning does not strike the same place twice was put to test in Kyotera. Ten days after Ssentongo’s death, on December 28, tragedy struck again. The deceased’s sister who had been very close to her, also died.
A shocked and grief-stricken Nantongo suspended her campaigns to go to her mother’s ancestral home in Buwenda for burial. The following day on December 29, while still in Buwenda, the strength of a human heart was put to the test again, as Nantongo received a distress call from Kyotera telling her that Joseph Ssentongo, their father, had also died.
Nantongo’s heart and those of her siblings had never felt that completely shattered! Yet they kept beating…After the death and burial of his wife of 25 years, Ssentongo had become ill. His pressure went up and the family believes that caused his demise. Nantongo disputes media reports that he too had died of Covid-19.
“It was very tough. I was very confused; I didn’t know what to do. When we lost mummy, we were very strong for our father, but when he also went, we had to lean on one another to survive. You have no idea what it means to lose your mother, father and close aunt in a space of ten days. They say he died of Covid-19 but we don’t think so and we don’t want to speculate. What I can say is, the loss of his wife was really too much for him,” Nantongo said.
This triple tragedy made many voters to be sympathetic to the family. Like it has happened before in other constituencies, the late Ssentongo’s opponent stood no chance; voters looked at voting for Nantongo as condolence for the loss she and her siblings had suffered.
There were four candidates who vied for the Kyotera woman MP seat. Nantongo scored 49,019 votes against her closest rival Rachel Nakitende of NRM, who scored. 26,137 votes.
“People were really sad because she was an icon; so, with me, they had an image of the friend they loved. They were also sure that her promises would be kept by the daughter,” Nantongo said when we had a lengthy talk.
Politician she wants to be
For the time she worked with her mother, Nantongo started seeing herself one-day walking in her footsteps but not to necessarily replace her in Kyotera as the MP. So, she knows what kind of MP she wants to become.
“I want to be that MP that my people are proud of. I want to keep the good relationship that my mother had with them. I believe it’s not age that does the work but the person and the commitment she has. I’m a lawyer and I believe that’s a good foundation to start me off,” Nantongo said.
She plans to enlist the help of a couple of MPs who have stayed in the house for some time to show her the ropes in the house that will have a whopping 529 MPs this coming term.
“I haven’t really studied who those MPs will be because I never used to interact with them. I need to first meet them and understand who I can relate with. I know what my mother’s values, goals and ambition were; so, I seek to befriend those MPs who espouse those values,” she said.
Her mother was just one of six MPs of the Democratic Party that never decamped to the National Unity Platform. The party was only able to win nine mostly new MP seats across the country. Asked whether DP is going to be her political home for the foreseeable future seeing as her mother also at one point flirted with NUP, Nantongo said it was too early to answer that question.
“All I know is that I’m going to serve my people regardless of their political colour. We shall see about parties when we come closer to 2026.”
On the debate of who she will be voting for as speaker of Parliament, Nantongo said she is studying the contenders. Competition for speakership is between the incumbent speaker and her deputy, Rebecca Kadaga and Jacob Oulanyah, respectively. Others are Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda of FDC and Richard Ssebamala of DP.
At 25, Nantongo is going to be one of the most paid Ugandans not only of her age, but generally. A member of Parliament gets an average of Shs 30m a month. They are also given Shs 200m to buy a car at the beginning of their term. How will she handle this windfall, I asked her.
“It’s all about having financial discipline. The good thing is that I was the one handling my mother’s finances. She trained me to handle a lot of money, and not to get excited by it. So, whatever amount one gets, one can do something beneficial for the people and for oneself.”
Nantongo is lawyer who graduated from Uganda Christian University in 2018. She completed her diploma in legal practice in 2019.
She went to St Mary’s SS Kitende for her A-level, Mount St Mary’s College Namagunga for O-level and before that, Bright Grammar primary school Masaka.