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Part II: How Museveni used Obote to defeat Ssemo

Yoweri Museveni

Yoweri Museveni

Former Democratic Party (DP) leader, Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, was perhaps President Museveni’s first direct and most credible political rival in the post-bush war era presidential election in 1996.

Ssemogerere had been part of the broad-based government experiment; initially sitting in cabinet variously as Internal Affairs minister, and then Foreign Affairs minister. But he was reportedly constantly under attack from regime insiders.

It was becoming quite clear even in those early years that the full promise of a return to proper democracy under Museveni would not be. Like Ssemogerere, many pluralists who had also been convinced to participate in the broad-based government experiment were disillusioned and sought to unravel the unfolding deception.

He had also been rattled by the constitutional provisions in Article 269 which proscribed political party activities. So, he left. In the first published report, last week, of this five-part series, we explored how on taking over government in 1986 after a gruelling five-year guerrilla war, Museveni moved strategically to consolidate his power by seeking to integrate and later politically weaken his former foes and allies. He called this experiment a “broad-based” government.

In this second part, we delve into how the president and his NRM regime political machinery dealt with the first credible presidential challenger in Ssemogerere. While announcing his resignation from government on June 13, 1995, Ssemogerere who was then the Second Deputy Prime Minister and minister of Public Service, said he wanted to be in the Constituent Assembly unencumbered as a minister. This would allow him to debate the most controversial clauses in the draft constitution which affected fundamental human rights and freedoms without restraint.

He very well knew that if he didn’t get guarantees in the new constitution, he might never contest for the presidency. Ssemogerere’s declaration that he was quitting government and that he would be standing in the forthcoming 1996 general elections came moments after it had been rumoured that Museveni was going to sack him.

Sacking him would have somewhat affected his standing as a credible Museveni challenger. Many would look at him simply as an angry person, standing against his former boss to get even.

According to Cecilia Atim Ogwal, the former deputy secretary general of the Uganda People’s Congress, none of the people who joined Museveni’s so-called broad-based Movement ever recovered politically after being used and dumped.

“Museveni’s approach from day one has been purely monolithic and militaristic. All the people who joined him were never the same again. You join him normally as a minister, he uses you, compromises you, sucks all the political relevance from you, then after a short while he dumps you when you are absolutely useless,” Ogwal told The Observer.

“Those who resisted ended up in jail like [Obote II government vice president] Paulo Muwanga. Museveni has never changed a bit, never! He is very strategic; knows what he wants, he will be patient until he reaches where he wants to go and nobody will stop him,” Ogwal said.

Ssemogerere’s departure was welcomed by the multipartyists including other independent CA members like Maj Gen David Tinyefuza [now Gen Sejusa] who had distinguished himself as willing to veer off the Movement line.

“I’m satisfied with the timely action of Dr Ssemogerere and my view as Tinyefuza is, Uganda today needs a non-confrontational and longstanding democrat and I view Ssemogerere as that and I have no problem with his candidature,” Tinyefuza said then.

This was some endorsement given that Tinyefuza was quite close to the centre of power and was one of the military nominees in the assembly. Ssemogerere presented a popular and formidable threat to the regime. He had democratic bona fides; had led the DP in the 1980 general elections to what many believed was a stolen victory and he came from the majority Ganda ethnic community.

Although publicly Museveni would put on a brave face, stating that he was not bothered about losing the presidency; that after all he was helping Ugandans, privately his people started planning for Ssemogerere and the multipartyists now united under the Inter-Political Forces Cooperation.

“I will give them an opportunity, if they want me to help them more like I have in the past, I will make myself available. If they defeat me, I will gladly go and look after my cows,” Museveni said.

However, Tinyefuza’s warm reception to the announcement of Ssemogerere jolted the Movement and the army even more. Maj Gen Caleb Akandwanaho, a.k.a Salim Saleh, President Museveni’s younger brother and power broker behind the ‘throne,’ warned Tinyefuza at a press conference that it was useless fighting somebody stronger than oneself.

“This thing of opposing; you should oppose somebody you are better than. And for me I know he [Museveni] is better than me,” Saleh said, warning that Tinyefuza was courting trouble.

Indeed just two days after Tinyefuza’s public declaration of support for Ssemogerere, the National Resistance Army High Command convened for an emergency meeting. High on the agenda was Tinyefuza’s overtures towards the opposition.

In that meeting, Tinyefuza was forced to apologise for taking positions that were in conflict with that of the army and the NRM. The meeting was chaired by High Command chairman, Museveni. Tinyefuza apologised but he was further compelled to put his apology in writing.

“In compliance with the directive of the High Command of the National Resistance Army in its meeting of June 15, 1995, I Maj Gen David Tinyefuza do accept that I disobeyed the directive of the Army Council in its meeting of December 20, 1994, of the role of the army in the current constitutional debate in that I made statements in the CA and the press without the authority of my constituency, the National Resistance Army. I’m requesting Your Excellency as the chairman of the High Command, on behalf of the army, to accept my sincere apology for the above acts of indiscipline,” Tinyefuza wrote in his letter dated June 16, 1995.

“I hereby undertake that henceforth before expressing my opinion on any constitutional or political matters, I shall seek the guidance and authority of the appropriate organs of the army.” 

Silencing Tinyefuza’s support for Ssemogerere also included flanking attacks on his character waged by NRM bigwigs. The then deputy national political commissar, Jotham Tumwesigye, now a Supreme court judge, called Ssemogerere’s declarations a betrayal.

Minister of state for works, transport and communication, Wanjusi Wasieba, warned Ssemogerere that even if he were to win, he might not live long enough to enjoy the trappings of power. He said the unholy marriage that he had entered into with the UPC was a poisoned chalice that he was going to drink from.

“The UPC are using their 99 tricks to use Ssemogerere because they don’t have a following and once the Movement is defeated, they will get rid of him like Obote did in 1962 with Kabaka Muteesa,” Wasieba said.

Two-time former president of Uganda, Dr Apollo Milton Obote is to this day accused by some of manipulating Muteesa, (the Buganda king) at the dawn of independence, defeating the DP after entering into an alliance with his Kabaka Yekka party in order to achieve his objective of taking power.

Maj Gen (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire, then still a colonel and minister of state for security in the office of the president, fired off the irreverent charge that Ssemogerere “failed us when our country needed him most and should pack his belongings and go home to sell cabbages and look after embaata [ducks]!”

Otafiire was quite disrespectful, adding that he had failed to understand Ssemogerere’s election manifesto on the first reading but on the second reading, realised that he had written a lot of rubbish. 

In the 47-page manifesto, Ssemogerere outlined how Museveni’s NRM had hoodwinked the public to believe that it wasn’t a political party.

“This myth must be debunked. The NRM is a political organisation with a name, a secretariat, a chairman, an executive, a policymaking body, set political objectives and political funding,” Ssemogerere said.

In an interview with The Observer, Ssemogerere said that when he decided to challenge Museveni, some people didn’t believe his assessment of the incumbent. Now, he says that 20 years later those people who had given Museveni the benefit of the doubt have belatedly come to realise how mistaken they were not to challenge him when his power wasn’t as consolidated as it has increasingly become over the years.

“I’m now a retired man who is also just following what is going on in the country. We played our part during our time for a better Uganda. Read about my court cases against the NRM, many of which were decided in our favour,” Ssemogerere said in a short interview, promising to give an extended one later.

On top of the onslaught on Ssemogerere, there were also increased politically and financially influenced crossings of prominent people from both the UPC and the DP to the Movement to try and deny the opposition a united front.

Rev Dr Keefa Ssempangi, who was one of the most prominent members of the UPC’s Presidential Policy Commission, caused quite a stir when he suddenly quit the party on September 16, 1995 to join the NRM. He told The Monitor that the main reason for his quitting was that he didn’t see any common ground for UPC and DP to ally.

“That alliance seemed unprincipled…From such an unprincipled alliance, you are likely to get political turmoil,” Ssempangi said.

Cecilia Ogwal, the lead voice for the IPFC in the UPC, also came under virulent attack by the Movementists. She was accused of trying to use the coalition as a ruse to bring back Obote then exiled in Zambia.

The mere mention of the name Obote, especially in Buganda, would send chills down the spine of monarchists especially when the monarchy had just been restored in 1993, 27 years after its violent abolition in 1966.

“There were many forces that used religion; forces that used the past that Ssemogerere winning would bring back Obote; they even came up with a fake cabinet list where they put [Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leader] Joseph Kony as our minister of defence. To any ordinary Ugandan, looking at Kony who was cutting off people’s lips and breasts was too much to imagine but enough to scare away people from the alliance,” Ogwal reminisces.

Early campaigns

Before official campaigns commenced, Museveni set off on a cross-country tour, admonishing his opponents. At a rally in Masaka, Museveni called upon Buganda to through away leaders like Ssemogerere if the region wanted to develop like western Uganda had thrown away leaders like UPC stalwarts Adonia Tiberondwa and Francis Butagira.

Tiberondwa had expressed interest in contesting the presidency in 1995. When the actual campaigns started, the Electoral Commission only limited them to 39 days, giving the president, who had all along been campaigning, an unfair advantage. 

Ogwal says they were not allowed to use state media like the now defunct Uganda Television, which was the only television in the country then. Not even The New Vision was available to them. Yet they were too poor to use private media which had also been intimidated to stay away from the opposition.

“Museveni used state apparatus like helicopters, state media; name it. Instead for us, we were beaten with wire rods, we were arrested, I remember I was locked up in Elgon hotel for one week; I would only talk to the world through the BBC using my telephone. Eventually when I would be released, I would ask the police why they had locked me up and they would say I hadn’t gotten permission to be in that district yet there was no law to follow,” Ogwal says.

But in his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed, the first edition of 1997, Museveni writes that for the obvious achievements the NRM had accomplished, there was no need for campaigns and use of state apparatus against his opponent.

“The difficulty to the opposition was not so much our use of state machinery as they kept saying in the press; in fact our use of state machinery is inefficient. The NRM never uses the radio or newspapers for its causes, if anything, the radio and newspapers are used more by the opposition than us,” Museveni wrote. 

Museveni also returned to his earlier claim that he was just a transitional leader despite being in the seat for 10 years already. On July 20,1995, he told residents of Kisoro district that he was only going to help Ugandans and rule up to the age of 55 years.

“When I reach 55, I will not be in public life anymore, I told you this when I was 48. I’m ready to help Ugandans and Africa in public life up to the age of 55” Museveni was quoted in The Monitor of July 21-24-1995.

With hindsight, this was a clever stratagem possibly designed to portray his opponents as ingrates and greedy politicians impatient to let a man who had already made public his departure date go quietly. It worked.



In part three, we revisit the 1996 general election, the emergence of Hajji Nasser Sebaggala, Dr Kizza Besigye and the unprecedented state-inspired violence during the 2001 presidential poll. 

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