Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Walk to Work - Day 3

Day three of Walk to Work, 18 April 2011, I walked with a group of women including a senior politician and Member of Parliament Hon. Cecilia Ogwal. My group also included opposition activists Sarah Eperu and Margaret Wokuri. We met at the mall next to Lugogo Show grounds on Jinja Road and proceeded to the spot where we knew the usual suspects would be waiting to stop us from proceeding. I had been lucky the last two walking days and I just knew that my luck was about to run out. So that morning while dropping my daughters at school I told them if I did not pick them up by 6:00pm thenI would most likely have been arrested and they were to walk to my friend Olive Kobusingye’s house, which was close by and stay with her until I returned.
We approached the line of women police constables who by now had their act together and they told us to stop and accompany them to the police station. When we resisted they grabbed me by the arms and half lifted, half dragged me across the highway to the police station with Sarah, Margaret and Cecilia Ogwal in tow.
Other Inter Party Cooperation leaders had mobilized their activists to walk that day and police even more determined to demonstrate to the public that walking by opposition leaders and activists would not be tolerated. Even before we had started walking we heard that the President of the Democratic Party, Nobert Mao, and his colleagues Kenneth Paul Kakande, John Mary Sebuwufu, Kamya Kasozi, Moses Biriwa, Kintu David and Tadewo Kalule had been intercepted and arrested. They were charged with assault and inciting violence at City Hall Court where they declined the option of bail and were remanded to Luzira Prison until 2 May. The President of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC;) Olara Otunnu approached Jinja Road Police Station walking from Nakawa with another group of activists as did Hon. Ibrahim Semujju Nganda, Hon. Jack Wamai and Hon. Nathan Nandala Mafabi. As soon as they reached the spot across the road from the Police Station they were all apprehended and brought into the Police Station.
I had never seen a merrier group of detainees as opposition leaders and activists arrived to hoots of laughter and backslapping. Within no time a group of lawyers including the Lord Mayor who seemed to have escaped arrest that day, Hon. Medard Segona, Hon. Abdu Katuntu and others I cannot recall, had arrived to negotiate our release. Our visitors included senior politicians like Amanya Mushega and Beti Kamya. One could be forgiven for thinking there was a top-level political meeting at the police station. None of us were taken to the squalid cells and curiously, away from the glare of TV cameras the police were really polite, offering their seats to us while they stood around trying to figure what to do with us. When we were not laughing and arguing about whether or not to make statements, we were on the phone talking to journalists or relatives to alert them of what was happening inside the police station.
I knew that my elderly parents would be shocked if they received the news of my arrest over the radio and so I called my father. He sounded very upset and told me a Runyankore proverb about a small animal that disrespectfully digs a hole in the King’s front yard. The animal gets crashed. I knew his blood pressure would be rising very fast so I mobilized some church elders in Mbarara to go and explain to him that we were not engaged in any illegal activity and were wrongfully arrested. They must have done a good job because when I called back after a few hours he had watched the news on TV and seen me in the company of eminent politicians and now he sounded proud of what we were doing.
Back at the station we failed to agree on whether to write statements about our arrest or refuse in defiance but I went along with the compliant group and narrated a long story of my illegal arrest and then signed it. I really wanted this arrest on the public record so that future law students, policemen and women could one day read it and shake their heads in wonder and amazement. As evening approached I wondered if we were about to spend a night in jail but then a bus arrived to ferry our large group to Nakawa courts where we were locked up in the holding cells to wait for a Magistrate to read us the charges proffered against us. Chris Opoka suddenly burst into a rendition of the famous protest song that became a key anthem of the US civil rights movement: ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and the court holding cell came alive with song and cheer.
Shortly thereafter we were whisked into the courtroom and the magistrate read to us the charges: Incitement to violence, disobeying police orders and holding unlawful society. The charge sheet included: Olara Otunnu, Cecilia Ogwal, Jack Womayi Wamanga, Nathan Nandala Mafabi, Ibrahim Semujju Nganda ,Anne Mugisha, Sospater Akwenyu, Sarah Eperu, Richard Nvanungi, Ezra Kyalo, Chris Opoka, Robert Mayanja, George Ogwang, Margaret Otim, Eric Sakwa, Gerald Akwedi, Margaret Wokuri and Archibald Agaba. We had supposedly incited some youth to burn tyres in the middle of the road between Kireka trading Centre and Hot Loaf Bakery on Jinja Road; threw stones at police officers, threatened to injure other persons because of their race, origin or political affiliations and disobeyed lawful orders given by police. All this was rather surprising considering that all I had been holding was a bottle of drinking water to sip while I walked peacefully! We denied the charges and were granted bail with a trial date set for 12 May 2011.
The New Vision reported that police had arrested over 100 people in Kampala on that day.
At 6:00pm my daughters told the school gatekeeper that their mother had probably been arrested and they were allowed to walk the short distance to Olive’s home. I found them there late in the evening after we were granted bailed and was completely surprised by my eleven year old daughter’s welcome. Hannah came running to me and asked: ‘Were you arrested?’ ‘Yes,’ said I. Her response? ‘Oh good, because I was starting to think you were a woosie (coward) because all your friends are getting arrested but you keep getting away!’ I shook my head and wondered what kind of kids I was raising and how twisted their minds would be by the time all this was over. I thanked Olive for babysitting and I went home with the kids to prepare for Day 4 of Walk to Work.
At 50 I know that the unexpected result of repression of ordinary citizens is that after enduring the degradation and abuse of their rights they get to a point of immunity where anything the state does to dehumanize them only fortifies their resistance.

— feeling strong.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Walk to Work - Day 2

Our fears that the Walk to Work campaign might not get the publicity we wanted due to campaign fatigue turned out to be completely misplaced. The Uganda Police Force and the military provided the perfect backdrops and drama that makes for excellent national and international news and the Inspector General of Police became our main spokesperson. All we had to do really was to get up in the morning and wear our walking shoes and we were guaranteed the next day’s headlines in the region and quite a number of mentions on international news networks. Correspondents from the BBC, Reuters, Bloomberg and other popular news stations sought me. All I had to do was simply wake up, stretch and reach for my sneakers. A communicator’s dream.
The second day of walk to work campaign was 14 April 2011 and this time the police was better prepared for us. I had resisted arrest on Monday because there were no female constables on duty and would not allow to be touched by the men. On Thursday we saw the women lined up at the same spot we had been stopped the first day as we approached Jinja Road Police Station. On that day I had walked with Maj. John Kazoora and Hon. Wadri Kassiano and instead of walking into the waiting ambush we detoured into the New Vision and Bukedde offices where we talked to journalists about being hounded off the streets by police now in full riot gear. The heavy police and military deployment was very visible in Kampala that morning and while we were still at the Vision Offices we received calls from supporters that the forces were concentrated in Kasangati on Gayaza Road where Kizza Besigye had been stopped from walking and a crowd was gathering. We left the newsroom and headed to Gayaza Road and as we got closer it looked like as though we were approaching a battle scene. Demonstrators had barricaded the roads as we got closer to Kasangati and in some places we had to detour off the tarmac to keep heading to our destination.
On the first day of the demonstrations television journalists had aired the drama as Kizza Besigye attempted to walk to work. He had been stopped and when he refused to obey police orders to turn back he was manhandled, thrown in the back of a pick-up truck and held for a while at a police station before being charged in a court of law and released. On 14 April 2014, police came out in full riot mode to stop a man whose only weapon was his two feet. The police obviously had orders to ensure that KB never reaches the city center on foot and they were prepared to do anything and everything to stop him. The manner in which he had been publicly manhandled on Day one had simply given him the publicity needed to draw crowds around him as he made his second attempt on Day two.
When we finally made our way to Kasangati town the scene was simply chaotic. We found Kizza Besigye holed up in a trench by the roadside with supporters surrounding him so that the police would not reach him to arrest him again. I squeezed my way through the crowd and slid down in the trench besides him and his aides to ask if there was anything they needed. KB had been transformed by the surroundings and his appearance was nothing like the stately figure he cut as a presidential candidate. He was now a street warrior, covered in mud and fitting in well with the street vendors that had formed a human shield around him. The air was still foggy from the tear gas that the police had used to stop the walkers in their tracks. We had been prepared for this and had little surgeon’s masks to cover our mouth and nose and carried water to wash our eyes and reduce the sting of the tear gas and pepper spray. The trench that Kizza Besigye had chosen to dig in, refusing to retreat back to his home; was outside a health center and Red Cross workers could be seen helping evacuate patients into ambulances which rushed them to Mulago Hospital as they too had been affected by the tear gas meant for the activists. Kizza Besigye told me he needed nothing and I climbed out of the trench and headed back to Kampala to do my media and publicity bit.
Later the activists and the crowd decided to try another attempt to walk towards Kampala and all hell broke loose. John Njoroge of the Monitor chronicled the day’s events on Gayaza Road:
10:43 EAT: A group of men dressed in the uniform of Uganda Prisons arrive at the chaotic scene in Kasangati, says our reporter John Njoroge. It is unclear if they are prison warders since they ordinarily do not take part in crowd control or arresting suspects, unless there are fleeing prisoners.
10:53 EAT: Vigilantes barricade access to Kasangati police station. Chaos and heavy shooting still ongoing as more supporters join to block Dr. Besigye’s arrest by police.
12:15 EAT: Besigye pulls out of trench, starts walking afresh: Retired UPDF Colonel and former personal physician to President Museveni is out of the trench and trekking with many supporters accompanying him, reports John Njoroge. The former Inter-Party Cooperation presidential flag bearer first sat under a tree at Kasangati health centre, before embarking on a second phase of the walk he began from his home at 6:30am on Thursday. More details follow shortly
12:20 EAT: Columns of heavily armed soldiers deploy in Kalerwe as situation gets out of hand with crowds joining walk to work protests
12:38 EAT: Dr. Besigye has been shot in the right hand after soldiers, who have taken over from police, opened fire. People pleading that they stop shooting
1242 EAT: Opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye has been taken to Kampala hospital in Kololo
And the BBC report of that day:
‘Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye has been injured after the military opened fire to disperse protesters in the capital, Kampala.
He told the BBC he was not sure if it was a rubber bullet or live ammunition that hit his hand. More than six other opposition politicians were arrested in the walk-to-work protest against high prices. There were then angry demonstrations in several towns where the police used tear gas and fired into the air…for the second time this week, the opposition asked people to walk to work to protest against rising fuel and food prices. Police had tried to arrest Dr. Besigye but hundreds of his supporters surrounded him.
The army then stepped in, charging the crowd and during the effort to arrest him he was shot in the hand.
"I really don't know what hit me. I have a fracture on one of the fingers and a wound," Dr. Besigye told the BBC at the hospital afterwards.
Opposition supporters tried to set up barricades and the police also sealed off many roads in Kampala. The recently elected mayor of Kampala, Erias Lukwago, was among the opposition leaders arrested. Human rights groups have condemned the response to the protests. The Uganda Law Society said the country was being turned into a police state.
The BBC's East Africa correspondent Will Ross says the opposition started the walk-to-work campaigns on Monday, aware that any attempt to demonstrate in one place would be swiftly broken up by police. Those who participated were small in number. But our reporter says Mr. Museveni's government was clearly very worried about the possibility of demonstrations spreading and so opposition politicians, including Dr. Besigye, were arrested.
They were charged with inciting violence and later released.
As well as the high price of basic commodities, the opposition is also angry at government spending.
Reports emerged recently that several fighter jets were being bought from Russia for around $750m (£459m).
Parliament was also asked to approve a budget of more than $1.5m to fund President Museveni's swearing-in ceremony following his recent election victory.
At 50 I know that even out most optimistic forecast was upstaged by the state’s response to our small but determined group and from then on we spent more time reacting to events rather than planning our next move.

feeling shocked

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Walk to Work

When Activists for Change (A4C) was launched in April 2011, the population had just emerged from an election and there was fatigue associated with any type of campaign activity, so it would not be easy to capture and hold the attention of the public with political messaging. Economic messaging was however very close to the average Ugandan’s heart because transport and household costs shot up following a rise in the price of fuel. While the incomes of working class Ugandans remained constant their expenses kept increasing as the cost of essential commodities were impacted by a rise in fuel prices. This provided an entry point for A4C to connect with everyday Ugandans. If the government would not lower the price of fuel then activists and opposition leaders would start walking to work in solidarity with the thousands of Ugandans who walk to work daily because they cannot afford the $0.50cents fare to and from their places of work. The concept was simple and easy to grasp, a communicator’s dream and a ruler’s nightmare.
When we started out on our first activity of walking to pray and walking to work, our expectations were minimal. We did not expect to cause a stir and would have been happy for just a little publicity and just to make sure that the TV and radio news channels did not miss us completely I published our routes on the A4C blog and the A4C Facebook Page that I opened the weekend preceding our walk. The links were then posted to the A4C Twitter account that I had created for this purpose. I had followed the Arab Spring revolutions and knew the useful role of social media in mobilizing people but in Uganda Internet penetration was low and its reach was not likely to go beyond Kampala and a few urban centers. Still we were hooked online and in no time the Uganda Communications Commission would attempt to block our online campaign.
On Saturday 9 April, two days before we walked I made this passionate plea on our Facebook Page:
‘On Monday we shall have a unique opportunity to join thousands of Ugandans who walk to work every single day. We normally drive past them in our cars, taxis or on boda-bodas. They are so many we hardly see them. Life is such that the suffering of one person may break our heart but the suffering of many people overwhelms our sensibilities and we cope by becoming blind to the suffering. Our interaction with pedestrians is usually limited to impatience as they crowd the roads to cross when we are in a hurry. Sometime we slow down to apologize and sometimes we pretend not to see when the car tyre lands in a pothole splashing dirty brown water all over their clothes as they rush to work.
On Monday we shall shine a light on the plight of those Ugandans who now more than ever cannot afford a taxi or boda-boda fare. We shall show our solidarity with the parents who cannot put a meal on the table for their little ones due to the rise in food prices. We shall do this simply by walking together with ordinary Ugandans to our place of work and then we shall repeat the exercise every Thursday and Monday until the government pays heed to our demand to intervene and guarantee affordable food and fuel prices.
On Monday we shall face our fears by walking in spite of the siege that has been laid upon our city for the last two months. We shall walk peacefully with our brothers and sisters and with each step we shall become bolder and empowered. We shall break no laws by walking to our place of employment, we shall walk together because it is our constitutional right to associate with those we please as long as we do not jeopardize the rights and freedoms of others. We know that those who are afraid of our demonstration of compassion and empathy with our fellow human beings are those who have reason to fear. They are the ones with the power to provide solutions but they have neglected to use that power. Instead they will spend a quarter of our national budget on fighter jets to protect themselves from imagined enemies, even as our children go to sleep hungry.
On Monday we shall measure our worth as a people and as individuals by seeing how many cared to walk in empathy and compassion with those in need. We shall know our determination and courage to face those who would besiege our city to keep us silent in the face of suffering. Our courage will come not from our individual determination but from our collective resolve to face our fears and conquer them.
On Monday we shall be so glad that you will be walking by our side.’
These were the days that led to the introduction of the infamous Public Order Management Act (POMA) but even before the law was passed we wanted law enforcers to know that we were peaceful citizens and so on Sunday 10th April 2011, I posted our routes and ground rules online and used social media to disseminate them:
‘Look out for route leaders and join them in solidarity to walk to work on Monday. The walkers will begin early with the aim of being in the city before 9:00 am, so be on the main roads from these locations as early as 7:30 am. Please let us know if you would like to lead a route. Thanks!
The Ground Rules:
 Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful
 No provocation
 Do not be provoked
 Keep your actions lawful and orderly
 Do not attract unnecessary attention to yourself
 Obey any lawful instructions from the Police except any attempt to stop you from walking to work!
 Enjoy yourself, share experiences with other walkers,
 Tell your story on Facebook, Twitter and update it as often as possible
 If you need legal help or first aid call ask any of the route leaders to help. The legal team is headed by Abdu Katuntu

Gayaza Road to Najjanankumbi - Dr. Kizza Besigye, Hon. Semujju Nganda, Wycliffe Bakandonda
Mukono to Kampala - Hon. Betty Nambooze
Namugongo to Kampala - Hon. Alice Alaso
Naguru to Kampala - Hon. Abdu Katuntu
Bugolobi to Kampala - Anne Mugisha, John Kazoora, Owek. Bwanika Bbale
Ntinda to Kampala - Hon. Wafula Oguttu, Hon. Abia Bako, Dan Mugarura, Totelebuka Bamwenda, Ingrid Turinawe
Kyambogo to Kampala - Hon. Nandala Mafabi, Hon. Jack Wamai
Entebbe Road to Kampala - Hon. Odonga Otto, Hon. Beatrice Anywar, Hon. Hussein Kyanjo
Lubaga to Kampala ; Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, Owek. Joyce Ssebugwawo, Hon. Ken Lukyamuzi, Hon. Medad Ssegona, Hon. Mathias Mpuuga, Moses Kasibante, Muwanga Kivumbi
Kawempe, Bwaise, Wandegeya to Kampala - Asuman Basalirwa, Kibirige Mayanja, Salim Angoliga, William Kanyike, Hon. Latif Sebagala’
On Monday 11 April 2011, (the anniversary date of the ousting of Idi Amin 32 years earlier,) we walked out of our homes and directly into a new chapter of police brutality against innocent Ugandan citizens. 12 months later; dozens of Ugandans had been killed while participating or just being near the peaceful protests, many more were injured and hundreds had spent hours, days, weeks or months in jail cells. By then we had also been thoroughly traumatized, physically tortured and abused, labeled terrorists associated with Al Qaeda by the Inspector General of Police, caused the introduction of the Public Order Management Bill in Parliament and finally we were banned by the State and became outlaws.
At 50 I know that the success of a non-violence strategy for change is not so much in the actions of change activists but rather in how the state reacts to their peaceful acts of defiance.

— feeling determined.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Activists 4 Change

The presidential and parliamentary poll of 18 February 2011, was another sham due to widespread bribery, ballot box stuffing and military intimidation but there would be no court challenge of that presidential election. Dr. Kizza Besigye had announced after the Supreme court ruling in his 2006 election petition against Museveni and the electoral commission; that he would never return to court after a rigged election because the court was incapable of providing a solution or dispensing justice in these cases. Instead a meeting of leaders of the Inter-Party Cooperation was called at Nsambya Youth Sharing Hall in Kampala where Kizza Besigye, leader of the opposition Inter-Party Cooperation coalition, called for peaceful anti-government protests, against the outcome of the 2011 elections. The next phase of the struggle for good governance was to intensify non-violent defiance. A new front for change was about to open and I jumped right in. For years now I had immersed myself in literature on non-violent campaigns for change against authoritarian regimes. I had no confidence in the ability of opposition parties to take power through an election in Uganda and in my initial frustration post-2001, I believed the country needed another armed struggle but this fizzled in the face of the indisputable truth that Ugandans were war weary and anyone who advocated for war fell directly into the trap of the regime.
I downloaded books and bought videos on non-violence which I copied on DVDs and distributed to IPC leaders at Sharing Hall on the day KB called for peaceful anti-government protests. They were: 'Bringing Down A Dictator,' a 56-minute documentary film by Steve York about the nonviolent defeat of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. It focuses on the contributions of the student-led Otpor movement. 'Orange Revolution,' which captures the songs and spirit of a unique moment in Ukrainian history -- the 2004 stolen election which brought citizens together on the streets for 17 days to defend their vote and the future of their country and my personal favorite: 'A Force More Powerful,' which depicts six successful non-violent struggles –
• The desegregation of the Nashville lunch counters which helped prove the effectiveness of nonviolence training and preparation to the civil rights movement in the U.S.
• Gandhi’s march to the sea and its nonviolent challenge to the rule of British law and the monopoly on salt.
• The nonviolent South African uprising to end the injustice of the system of apartheid.
• The neutrality of Denmark using national pride and solidarity against the Germans in WW II.
• The Polish Solidarity movement of workers’ strikes, which led to roundtable talks and eventually to free parliamentary elections.
• The nonviolent struggle for Chile’s freedom from the dictatorship of Pinchot. This was carried on through simple work slowdowns and parades of pots and pan- banging demonstrations.
For college and high school students who were interested in participating in our protests I downloaded and distributed Gene Sharp’s ‘How Nonviolent Struggle Works’ from the Albert Einstein Institution website. The principles of nonviolent struggle need to be understood in order for anyone to make sense of the manner in which Kizza Besigye and change activists started walking (literally,) deliberately into trouble and these principles are captured in the Nonviolent Handbook – paraphrased here:
‘Rulers have no power intrinsic to themselves. The sources of the rulers’ power depend intimately upon the obedience and cooperation of the subjects. A regime’s power is in proportion to its ability to make itself obeyed. The reason people obey include: habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest, psychological identification with the rulers, indifference and absence of self-confidence among subjects. Obedience is not automatic, nor uniform, nor universal, nor constant. The personal choice between obeying and disobeying will be influenced by an evaluation of the consequences of obeying and disobeying. Obedience only exists when one has complied with the command. If I walk to jail, I have obeyed. If I am dragged there, I have not obeyed. Physical compulsion affecting only the body therefore may yield some results but it does not necessarily produce obedience. Ghandi figured out long ago that the answer to the problem of uncontrolled political power may therefore lie in learning how to carry out and maintain withdrawal of cooperation and obedience despite repression.’
‘In political terms, nonviolent action is based on a very simple postulate: people do not always do what they are told to do, and sometimes they act in ways that have been forbidden. Subjects may disobey laws they reject. Workers may halt work, which may paralyze the economy. The bureaucracy may refuse to carry out instructions. Soldiers and police may become lax in inflicting repression; they may even mutiny. When all such events happen simultaneously, the persons who have been “rulers” become just other persons. This dissolution of power can happen in a wide variety of social and political conflicts. When people refuse their cooperation, withhold their help, and persist in their disobedience and defiance, they are denying their opponents the basic human assistance and cooperation which any government or hierarchical system requires. If people do this in sufficient numbers for long enough, that government or hierarchical system will no longer have power. This is the basic political assumption of nonviolent action.’
On 7 April 2011, Masaka Municipality MP-elect, Mathais Mpuga launched a pressure group called Activists for Change (A4C), which would embark on a countrywide mobilization of the masses to embrace change in governance. Among the activities the group would engage in was a ‘walk to pray’ and ‘walk to work’ campaign. He stressed that it would be a peaceful and non-partisan campaign. The launch was met by heavy deployment of police which forced us to change the venue of the event from Christ the King Church to Fairway Hotel. The Monitor reported: ‘Police patrol cars with full anti-riot gear surrounded the premises, forcing the administrators at the church to cancel FDC’s booking. The politicians later relocated to a Kampala hotel where police followed them, watchfully guarding the premises. FDC president Kizza Besigye said “It’s time to draw a line between those who want a dictatorship and those who want democracy. I am sure peaceful defiance of the dictatorship can be used to dismantle the dictatorship…If you use the military option, by the time you dislodge the dictatorship all state institutions will have been destroyed and chances are high that you will replace the dictatorship with another dictatorship,” he explained.
The next day I launched the A4C blog athttp://activists4change.blogspot.com/ with the following announcement:
‘Activists for Change - A4C, is a nonviolent and peaceful platform for democratic change in Uganda. We act within our constitutional rights and responsibilities. We are guided by the desire of the majority of Ugandans to exercise their democratic right to elect a government of their choice. Political leaders, activists and civil society will act together to implement programs in a non-partisan space in order to raise awareness of ordinary Ugandans to their rights, responsibilities and duties as citizens. In order to effect democratic change of government we will mobilize the masses and set in motion a process to remove obstacles to free and fair elections through peacefully dismantling pillars of the authoritarian regime and erecting the pillars of democratic rule.’
At 50 I know that activism that is inspired by a deep and profound calling is one, which those who are called find it almost impossible to escape.

feeling inspired.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Polling Day 2011

If the 2001 Movement election victory was beaten out of the electorate, the 2011 Movement victory was bought. I experienced the 2001 presidential election from the seclusion of my apartment leaving only occasionally for a media interview or a Kampala campaign event. The parliamentary elections that followed in which I was a candidate for the Kampala Central seat; happened after the storm of the presidential elections had passed by and they were mostly a low-key affair in Kampala.

In 2011 I experienced the rough and tumble of grassroots campaigning in Mbarara district and saw for myself how elections are stolen. The frontline Movement cadres know that this is the time to cash in for their loyalty and they line up for their piece of the action demanding ‘facilitation’ for their ‘patriotic’ activities, which include many tricks. When FDC’s Kizza Besigye and his wife Winnie Byanyima came to campaign in Mbarara the ‘patriotic cadres’ slaughtered bulls at a stadium near the rally grounds so that the urban poor would rush there to eat meat instead of building up the crowd at an FDC rally. Poverty is a real incentive and some argued that it was in fact a strategy for those in power to ensure that there is always a large pool of poor people for purchase during elections.

I learnt that the most devious operator in a grassroots campaign is also the most indispensible – the ‘campaign agent.’ These are usually young men and women who line up to assist in your door-to-door search for votes. They will sing your praises and assure you of certain victory as long as you ‘facilitate’ them with transport and a daily meal for the duration of the campaign. These ‘volunteers’ promise heaven and earth yet should you skip a single day of facilitation they will quickly disappear but can easily be found lining up to help your opponent search for votes! Moreover, they will now have added to their credentials knowledge of all your campaign strategies, which they will promise to reveal to your opponent for a small fee of course. Agents also have a peculiar tendency to lose nearly all their relatives during campaigns and will regularly come weeping and asking for financial help to bury their aunt, uncle, sister, cousin or grandparent. An election candidate will quickly find that they are held captive and are at the mercy of these unscrupulous agents. This would be somewhat tolerable if they did their work but agents also have the uncanny ability to go missing on polling day – bought to stay away by the highest bidder. I left political campaigning without deciphering how exactly a candidate might manage their agents rather than being managed by them.

The most reliable campaign agents are those who understand your mission and vision and are committed to it regardless of whether or not they are paid. In a district like Mbarara, a Movement constituency, these are few and hard to come by but my experiences with some committed FDC campaigners left me with some hope for the future. These young ladies and gentlemen, some of whom came with me from Nakawa worked long days and nights knocking door to door, taking the message of change to places where it had not reached before. One young woman Phiona Busingye was so committed and recounted her experience on 18 February 2011, polling day in Rwampara; which further enlightened me on how elections are stolen in villages. 

She was up bright and early to monitor elections in her cluster of polling stations and could not believe what she was witnessing. A village chief was stationed at the exit of the polling area dispensing cash to voters as they left the polls. At the entrance was a young cadre who declared which voters needed assistance as they arrived. “This one is illiterate please assist them.” Another cadre would lead the ‘illiterate’ voter to a table where they would ‘assist’ to tick their ballot paper and then accompany them to the spot where the village chief was carrying out his ATM duties. She observed long enough to believe that nearly all the voters at the polling station were illiterate and when she could take it no more she marched over to the Electoral Officer in charge at the polling station to complain. When she raised her voice in complaint a police constable stepped forward to arrest her for disturbing the peace and her complaints quickly turned into pleas for ‘forgiveness’ in order to avoid arbitrary arrest. She returned to report what had happened and was certain of our impending defeat for both the parliamentary seat and the presidency.

At Simba Barracks in Mbarara town where soldiers voted there was some last minute gerrymandering as polling stations that were traditionally in Kashari County were added to the Municipality where Maj. John Kazoora the FDC candidate needed to be taught a lesson. It did not matter for me either way as both Kashari and the Municipality were part of my district constituency. In the barracks too, vote stealing was not too subtle – they simply used their guns to chase away agents of opposition candidates and then ensured that soldiers gave their commander-in-chief an overwhelming majority. Simple really.

When the results came in I was surprised that after only three months of campaigning in Mbarara where I had not lived since my childhood; and after the shameless stealing on polling day, the Electoral Commission counted over 27,000 ballots cast in my favor. I came in second after the Movement candidate and did better than an independent candidate who has lived and campaigned in Mbarara for many years. Speaking to a freelance international journalist Ann Garisson in an interview that was published by the San Francisco Bay View on 19 February 2011, I stated:

“We knew exactly what was going to happen in this election. We complained about the registers, we complained about the inflated numbers of people on the registers, we complained about the use of state resources in the election, but we still agreed to go in and participate. So that’s like walking into a casino, knowing that the guy who owns it has to make a profit. Sometimes a few lucky people make some money. But most of the time people lose. So this time around I lost. A few of our opposition people did scrape through, but the casino is owned by the ruling party and President Museveni and they would definitely be looking to make a profit. So that’s how I see this election – like a trip to the casino.”

At 50 am nearly convinced that whoever coined the adage that people get the leaders that they deserve had a point.

feeling disgusted

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rediscovering Mbarara

I visited Mbarara to attend my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in August 2010, and while there, I met Stanley Katembeya the Chairman of FDC for Mbarara District. He and Major John Kazoora, who was preparing to vie for the Mbarara municipality seat; took me aside and asked me why I was fighting the party in Kampala while Mbarara, the district of my birth; had no FDC candidate for it’s women’s parliamentary seat. This is the seat that Miria Matembe lost in 2006 when she run as an independent candidate against the Movement’s Emma Boona. Mbarara District had always been Movement territory and even the municipality voters who exhibited more progressive tendencies by voting Winnie Byanyima, Kizza Besigye’s wife to Parliament in 2001; did so while she stood on the Movement ticket. The thought of an FDC candidate getting enough votes to carry a seat at the district level was unthinkable. To try and do it in three months was a fool’s dream. Yet in this seemingly impossible Movement constituency I found my escape from being the next ‘Beti Kamya:’ another arrogant activist who thought her political ambition was greater than the interests of the party. I had not traveled from the United States to cause havoc in the opposition ahead of an important election so I abandoned the fight for Nakawa and went to contest in Mbarara.
Once again people asked me why I simply did not walk away from the party and the election campaigns after being so poorly treated in Nakawa. The easy answer would be that I had to save some face after pulling it out from the humble pie that it had been rubbed in by my colleagues. But there was no easy answer. There were so many factors that kept propelling me forward and one was that the issues we raised in 2001 were still relevant even more so in 2011; and I still had it in me to lend my voice to a cause for which we started striving ten years earlier. All the internal drama within FDC was diversionary and if I succumbed to it then our detractors would have achieved a major victory. The platform and space that the election period offers to highlight governance issues in Uganda is temporary and any activist would want to use it effectively. It did not matter whether my voice was heard in Nakawa or Mbarara so long as it added a ripple to that wave that would bring change. Winning was important but it was only the icing on the cake and if I lost, which was almost certain in Mbarara; at least I would have taken the message of change to villages and towns in the District where they had never known that there was an alternative to the Movement. At a very personal level I had reason to continue campaigning because I had accepted money from supporters in a fundraising drive and I felt obligated to follow through with the campaign.
On November 26th 2010, I was officially nominated by a Returning Officer of the Uganda Electoral Commission, thereby becoming FDC’s candidate for the position of Woman MP, Mbarara District. I put Nakawa behind me and embarked on the campaign trail with gusto. My Movement opponent however was not about to let me forget Nakawa and one fine morning we woke up to find that she had plastered my Nakawa campaign posters across Mbarara town! My team quickly pulled down the posters and I wrote a letter of complaint to the Electoral Commission accusing Emma Boona of stealing my property and using it in her campaign. We had witnesses who saw her showing the posters to voters and telling them not to be confused because I was running for the Nakawa seat. A smart move on her part, and one that I would have to continuously address throughout my campaign in Mbarara.
I discovered that Mbarara District was much larger than I thought and my campaigns were constrained by limited funding against the money printing election machinery of the Movement. Where I could only pledge UGX 50K towards a worthy cause my opponents pledged UGX 1 million and above. I suspected that we were all breaking the law in some way or another because this was an indirect way of buying votes and if it continued many opposition candidates would be broke before the Movement stopped printing money. Luckily for us the Electoral Commission announced that all candidates should stop making financial pledges of any kind to voters and so this became my favorite line at meetings where candidates were invited for the sole reason of fundraising, better known as ‘de-toothing’ in Ugandan speak.
Traveling from the poverty stricken villages with no roads in Bukiro to the beautiful mountainous landscapes of Mwizi in Rwampara, from the open plain, grazing lands and rolling hills of Bubaare to the slums of Kisenyi in Kakoba; from Kashaka town to Biharwe town and crossing Kashaari county from Mile 4, to Bwizibwera, Rutooma, Rubindi and to the last town before Ibanda District; I fell in love with my home again. I spoke my native Runyankore and rediscovered my people and their way of life. I sang songs with them, prayed with them, danced with them and spoke with them. Many times I was frustrated by the begging bowl that was extended at every campaign stop, but I learnt to ignore it and they came to know me as the ‘poor’ candidate; which I was. Still people opened up to me in women’s groups and youth groups as I stopped to join them in their gardens to harvest millet kernels and drink the obligatory glass of milk when it was offered. I discovered a serious alcohol problem among the men and youth in the small village towns. When women got up to go the fields to work, men arrived at the local bar as early as 9:00am and waited for election candidates to fill their glasses with the local brew. It was sad to see their bodies wasting away and the resignation of their women and elders to this alcoholic lifestyle that had taken over the villages.
At times I was shocked when I arrived at a campaign stop and was welcomed as the Movement woman candidate! There were really places in Mbarara where people had never heard of FDC! Mary Kabateraine and I broke out in laughter when somewhere deep in Rubindi women welcomed us with songs praising the Movement and President Museveni and their men who were a little wiser, were so embarrassed they chased the poor ignorant women away from the meeting as we protested. Many people doubt me when I tell them that I did not care whether I won or lost the election and perhaps at a certain level it does not ring true but the satisfaction I got from immersing myself into these conversations with the people of Ankore were well worth the effort whatever the outcome of the election.
At 50 I know that my love for Uganda runs deeper than my zest for activism and politics and am forever grateful for the time that I spent engaged with the people of Mbarara.

feeling satisfied

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Painful Politics

After it was established that I was now truly disgruntled with the FDC party leadership in 2010, I started hearing tales that I would never have been told during my honeymoon phase with the opposition. I heard of backstabbing stories between and amongst party stalwarts that would put Brutus to shame. I listened and I hurt and then I listened some more. I thought of the decade spent fantasizing about a glorious future when the forces of change finally realized their goal. I had been such an idealist and unapologetic optimist but now started wondering if my ten years of poverty-stricken activism abroad had been wasted. My advocacy writing was immediately impacted because I could not advocate for any cause in which I did not have confidence. My regular opinions in the Ugandan press had been inspired by the unwavering belief that the opposition and its allies could deliver good governance and equitable opportunities where the government had failed. After experiencing electoral malpractice laced with gleeful malice within my own party, the seeds of doubt were planted that moderated my confidence and naivety. My writing became more cautious and less frequent. The positive outcome of this process was that I now clearly appreciated why we needed to build strong democratic institutions that could protect us even from the very individuals who build them.
Two women came to mind as I weathered the primaries storm in FDC. The first was Miria Matembe a former Minister of Ethics in President Museveni’s government who had fallen out of favor for opposing the removal of presidential term limits which paved the way for the incumbent to run for the presidency for as long as he wished. Following her falling out of favor, Miria Matembe not only lost her ministerial post she also lost her Parliamentary seat as women’s representative for Mbarara District in the 2006 elections. She had run and lost as an independent candidate against Emma Boona the candidate of the National Resistance Movement party.
In the Spring of 2006 Miria was awarded the Reagan-Fascell Fellowship for democracy activists and practitioners and she came to Washington DC at the time I was working in close by Bethesda, MD with the Womens Learning Partnership. We interacted with the same group of democracy activists, attended the World Movement for Democracy meeting in Istanbul, Turkey and spent a lot of time together both professionally and socially. She invited me to share the podium and comment on her final presentation at NED: “Participation in Vain: The Betrayal of Women’s Rights in Uganda”
During our many conversations I asked her why she had not embraced FDC like some other dissenting legislators and why she had decided to go it alone as an independent Parliamentary candidate. I tried to convince her that there was room for her in FDC women’s leadership if she would only join us. Miria told me that I did not understand FDC and it was no longer the Reform Agenda that I dreamed of. She told me she was not prepared to engage in petty squabbles for leadership positions in an opposition party. When I seemed not to grasp her meaning, Miria explained using an analogy, that when a woman goes through a bad divorce, she should not rush into the arms of another man. She should take her time to understand the reasons that caused her first marriage to fail before getting betrothed again. I understood the analogy alright but still did not fully grasp why she was being so cautious about joining the opposition party that stood for all the issues that she expounded so passionately. My tribulations with FDC colleagues in Nakawa finally helped me fathom what her wise political mind had discerned years before when I had no clue.
The other woman who came to mind was Beti Kamya my old time buddy from the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force. Beti had fallen out of favor with the FDC leadership in 2009 and been formally expelled by the party in 2010. I followed the saga from my US exile in pain and disbelief. Beti had stayed behind and weathered many storms after the 2001 elections when some of us fled the country. Beti Kamya, like me served as special envoy in Dr. Kizza Besigye’s office and was a strong activist during the Reform Agenda days. She had held the Reform Agenda banner high and remained an outspoken activist when most people disappeared from the opposition scene. She was rewarded with a Parliamentary seat by the people of Rubaga North in 2006. She had failings like all mortals and one was quite familiar. She assumed that everyone in the opposition appreciated her hard work and contribution and therefore she had earned the right to be recognized and rewarded by her peers. It is a threshold that is unconsciously crossed by many ardent activists – a sense of entitlement sneaks up on us and we fail to appreciate the resentment that this causes some colleagues. Their natural reaction then become to pull us back down to earth where we belong and in Beti’s case they executed sweet revenge with such brutality it left her wounded and the party scarred. Beti fell out with FDC in 2009 after a bitter row over the succession for party chairman, after Sulaiman Kiggundu died and she sought to replace him. Her ambitions were gleefully thwarted by party colleagues and she left.
When Beti learnt of my woes in Nakawa, she invited me for a cup of tea at Protea Hotel in Kololo. She had a wry smile on her face as she reminded me of the numerous phone conversations in which I had begged her not to leave the party. She may not have verbalized it but her eyes were saying: ‘I told you so!’ She spared me the sarcasm and we enjoyed a good laugh and catching up with each other’s lives. Then she invited me to join a party that she had founded after being expelled from FDC, the Uganda Federal Alliance. She advised me that it was time to step off the FDC bus as it had taken a new direction from the one we originally thought it would take. Now I understood this analogy and I knew exactly where she was coming from, but I was weary of jumping off buses that were losing their course and I told her as much. It was time to manage the navigation of the bus I was on without necessarily jumping off. We parted with a hug and went back to do whatever we could to try and steer the course of our respective buses and hopefully make a contribution towards good governance; the issue that had brought us together in the first place.
At 50 I know that political engagement can be brutal in a very public and unforgiving way and I salute all those women who step up to participate in politics in our chauvinistic and patriarchal society.

feeling pained

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

FDC Acrimony

The first challenge I faced when I returned to Uganda in June 2010, was finding a place to stay. The home that I owned jointly with John Bwomezi was leased out to tenants after John retired to the farm at Karwera in 2007 so that was not an immediate option. There was also the matter of my political objective, which in the short term was to register as a party candidate in a Constituency where I could run for a Parliamentary seat. From the beginning my political objectives came together as a result of what some would call reverse engineering. Instead of identifying the issues in a constituency where I lived, I would start exploring local issues after identifying where I would be staying. It did not seem of great consequence to me at the time as the issues at the national level where I had my primary focus had not changed but had rather intensified in the intervening 10 years.
I had returned home with a few suitcases filled with clothes for me and the girls and hardly anything else. There was no shipment arriving soon with furniture, household items and a vehicle. Our most treasured household items were kept in storage in Lake Mary, FL where we hoped we would retrieve them someday. We had nothing besides the clothes on our backs and in our suitcases as well as some money in the bank. Yet, I arrived to the Ugandan belief that anyone coming from ‘outside countries’ must have plenty of money. New words had entered the ‘Uglish’ dictionary while I was away and I got enough of people telling me ‘Well be back,’ which apparently was the new way of saying welcome back. 7 out of 10 times this welcome would be followed by a conversation suggesting that I assist with funding anything and everything from a political campaign to an upcoming wedding. I found it mildly odd that this had become standard behavior for my people, that there was no shame in asking directly for money and not for charitable causes but for personal use. No one seemed to think there was a problem with begging from someone who ‘appeared’ to have money. We had become a begging nation and had no qualms about it.
One person who knew that my pocket was really shallow and thin was my father. He knew that I needed help more than many of the people who were extending their hand to ask me for a few dollars and he also knew that I was too proud to admit it so without waiting for me to stretch out my own begging bowl, my father offered me a roof over my head. Before he retired to Mbarara my Dad had built investment homes in Kampala, which he let out to tenants. The house in Bugolobi was currently vacant and the search for a tenant was immediately abandoned as he opened its doors for my daughters and me. The house had basic furniture but no electrical appliances so Dad bought us a cooker and later a refrigerator. I was thus installed at a high-end residential address on Luthuli Rise and after registering at the polling station down the road at the Bugolobi flats, I felt ready to continue pursuing my political objectives starting with becoming the FDC candidate for Nakawa constituency where my new home happened to be. And so with my father by my side I arranged a press conference at a school compound in Nakawa and announced my intention to run for Member of Parliament in the 2011 elections only a few months away.
It did not cross my arrogant mind that there would be anyone within the party who would not support my move to represent FDC in Nakawa or anywhere for that matter. I had last run for elections in 2001 when opposition Reform Agenda candidates were so rare that we had to look around for people to fill too many vacant constituency seats. Well guess what? While I was away, the opposition had grown, created structures and actually had more candidates than vacant seats in the more opposition friendly districts like Kampala. So party leaders had to engage in a delicate balance of egos and cautious negotiations before endorsing any internal candidate for a seat. Oops, well no one had warned me so I had stormed in on the wings of my enthusiasm and belief in my credentials; and announced my candidacy without proper consultation – the quintessential activist assuming party support for whatever action I took. This however was not 2001 when Beti Kamya and I decided nonchalantly which party posts we held. This was 2010 and I had just stepped on some delicate eggshells and ruffled enough feathers to ensure that from then on any action I took, any statement I made had enough critics within the party that I needed no external opposition.
I had heard about tensions within FDC between Reform Agenda activists and the seasoned PAFO legislators who had come together to form the FDC party. The legislators scorned RA activists calling us seasoned election losers while RA activists regarded PAFO legislators as soft armchair activists who feared the streets. Then there were tensions between the older political hands and the young activists who were anxious for change. There were also regional issues and competition within regions, which had led to the exit of Beti Kamya. From serving on a team in 2001 where I had no need to look over my shoulder to ascertain what any of our activists were saying – we were all facing one adversary – the Movement; I now found that in order to navigate my way within the party I needed my eyes focused on the rear view and side mirrors to see where the next blows would come from. My adversaries were not necessarily outside the party they were sitting right there on my team. The relationships had become so complicated that I never, ever managed to own or associate with the FDC party leadership as I had with Reform Agenda activists.
So that is how I found myself running against a party electoral commissioner Michael Kabaziguruka, a youth activist who had been eyeing the Nakawa seat and working towards becoming FDC candidate for the area. My arrival meant that he would no longer be unopposed and we would need a primary election to decide. At first I was not bothered about competing with Michael but then I started hearing stories, true or false about electoral irregularities that mirrored the ones we were fighting at the national level. Moreover, the party leadership not only avoided discussing Nakawa issues, they avoided meetings with me altogether! Before long I was writing letters to the party leadership similar to the ones I had written to the Electoral commission in 2001 and I was instructing lawyers to sue my party for electoral fraud. The primaries battle for Nakawa FDC candidacy became so acrimonious that in the end it was more personally hurtful to me than the 2001 Parliamentary election where I had faced only external threats. I was in total disbelief when a senior party leader told me I had no idea how much a number of FDC leaders, including women leaders were enjoying my pain in Nakawa. Nothing had prepared me for these challenges within the party and I felt disoriented and incapable of focusing on wider campaign issues.
By and by my old activist friends Daudi Mpanga, and Conrad Nkutu picked me up from home one evening towards the end of 2010; and drove me to Kizza Besigye’s farm in Gayaza. KB was still President of FDC and also presidential candidate for the forthcoming elections but because presidential and parliamentary elections were now held on the same day, I had not given full time assistance to his campaign and helped only where I could. We met Besigye at his home and after spewing my venom and accusing them all of abandoning me to the wolves I realized that my friends were gently telling me to let go of Nakawa before it swallowed me into political oblivion. I cursed them a lot and threw a tantrum but I knew at the back of mind that David, Conrad and KB would never act against my best interests.
At 50 I know that the acrimony of FDC elections in Nakawa in 2010, liberated me from blind and blanket support of the opposition party enabling me to look critically within our fold and support selectively only those issues and candidates that I believed deserved my support.

— feeling disappointed.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Heading Home

One thing that I learnt in the United States was that no matter how much more money I made it would only barely provide what I needed and certainly never be enough for what I wanted.  I completed my MBA at the University of Florida in 2005 and the education loan companies were quick to send me my first loan installation payment bill.  At American Express I had started to earn above the low income mark required for free medical care and food stamps.  I celebrated getting off state charity but was now faced with more bills in addition to rent, child care and the car note.  My weekly grocery bill went up and I had to buy medical insurance for the family.  I found that while I was earning more money at my new job I was actually spending more and saving nothing.  I had stopped working two jobs but quickly realized that I was going to need to work additional hours and weekends to meet financial obligations.  American Express offered overtime hours regularly in those days and so after I picked the girls from after care, I dropped them home found someone to take care of them and headed directly back to the stressful job at the AMEX service center to take more calls.  The ladies at AMEX told me about going into business.  If I could afford a good computer with an Internet connection I could go into business for myself so that instead of returning to office to take calls, I could sign up with ‘work-at-home’ companies that take overflow calls for customers after hours and on the weekends.

It sounded like a great idea since I would then not need a baby sitter and could tell the girls to behave while I took calls in my bedroom.  So I went to the City of Plantation’s chamber of commerce and registered my company – Global Management Services – a big name for a small work-at-home business.  Within a few weeks I no longer needed to go in to work overtime, instead I was taking orders for Pizza Hut, selling ‘As-seen-on-TV’ miracle products from golf balls, to hair products, sharp kitchen knives and women’s stretch underwear that promised to hide all your flab.  It all seemed good for a while but after a year working phones from 9am to midnight it starts to get old.  Too much work for just enough money.  The business helped me to pay off my car note, and I consolidated my education loans and found that the extra money in my pocket could pay for a ticket for one of my parents to visit Plantation while my brother paid for the other parent's travel.  When they came to visit us a second time in Plantation, my father was appalled by the hours I was working but even more so the fact that I seem to have accepted this quality of life.  He reminded me that this is not why he had sent me to college to become a lawyer and then settle into what he regarded as hard menial labor.  He probably had said the same things the first time he came to Plantation but I was too stressed to listen.  This time I listened and realized that as long as I had time to engage politically, write an article for the column I wrote for the Observer in Uganda, I had no care about how I lived.  I had tried to find jobs in international development and in international organization but they simply were not responding.  A part of me did not want to work for any organization that did not allow me to do my political work.  I feared to lose my political voice.

That is when an old friend Herbert, who was working with the United Nations in Sudan stepped in.  When I told Herbert the work I was doing in the USA, he asked me why I chose to do work that I should leave for less qualified people.  That got me thinking.  He patiently showed me the strings of how to apply for international jobs teaching me the difference between consulting jobs, national positions and fixed term appointments in the international civil service.  Herbert introduced me to career websites that I did not know existed.  When I started filling the lengthy forms it started to feel like looking for an international position was like doing a job in itself.  I submitted application forms in Galaxy, Taleo and other recruitment software for organizations like the World Bank, United Nations Secretariat and Agencies, IMF, IFC, IRC, Red Cross and for a year nothing, not a response.  Then I got a break with the Global Fund in Geneva and traveled there for an interview but then was not successful in securing the position.  That was a big blow to my hope and I started to waver and think that maybe I had stepped so far out of sync with an international civil service or NGO career, that I could never fit back in.  I almost gave up hope but in 2009 I started receiving letters informing me that I had been placed on a roster for various positions, which still meant I had to wait for a hiring manager to find my experience interesting enough to offer me a position when they had an opening.  But now there was hope.

2011 was approaching and my circumstances were not getting better.  I had made one last move from Plantation after the housing finance crush in the US, which caused job losses and meant less income from my sales position.  Once again at the instigation of my brother who always wanted to help with the kids we moved to live with him in Lake Mary, Florida.   I found that life was not getting easier no matter where I lived in the United States, so I decided it was time to go home.  Joannah had started to demand that she wanted to see her Daddy after nine years.  I had all the immigration documents I needed to travel anywhere and I also applied for Ugandan passports for the family, which the Embassy in Washington granted without question.  I saved some money, sold my car and on 10 June 2010, we boarded a Delta Flight to Amsterdam headed for Entebbe.

Enough time had passed since I left Uganda for me to feel safe.  I could not fear persecution and hope to make an impact when I saw new activists being mistreated on the streets of Kampala.  My voice was becoming faint with the passage of time because of my distance from the political scene.  It turned out that I had grossly overestimated my own influence within even my political party and would be taught more difficult lessons in humility when I returned.  The country, the party, my activist friends had moved on to a new political era and I was stuck in the past.  Someone once said a week is a long time in politics; I was about to find out that in political activism a decade is an eternity. 

At 50 I know that the decade I spent abroad helped me put in sharp perspective the meaning of poverty and a life without privilege, which I had never known.  The experience caused a positive change in the way I understand and treat people that are less fortunate than I.

— feeling tired.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


When I returned to Plantation, Florida in October 2006, I continued working for Blockbuster until I got a job working with American Express the credit card company during the same month.   AMEX had one of its large servicing call centers located less than a mile from where I lived and also close to Mirror Lake Elementary, where my daughters went to school.  I worked there for just over three years.

At AMEX I learned new skills in sales and new lessons in accepting rejection without taking it personally.  If you think it is difficult to hassle a sale out of a tough customer to whom you are talking face to face, try selling credit to a voice over the phone.  I spent one year on the customer service floor at the Call Center and after months of training on a rigorous Leadership Path Program became a team leader.  The job of a telephone sales and customer service representative for a credit card company is not glamorous but the skills I learned there have held me in good stead and helped to temper my knee jerk reaction of snapping back at others when am displeased as well as holding my peace even with the most abusive and arrogant clients I have worked with.  AMEX taught me the unthinkable:  I could actually take a situation where someone who called me to have a fight left the phone not only feeling they had vented but also in the process committed to spend more with the company which was never their intention in the first place.

Take for example the customer who carelessly gave their card to their teenage daughter for a routine grocery transaction and then later discovers charges on their bill for virtual computer games.  The teenager went online, entered the parent’s credit card information and then went to town buying additional lives, virtual points and money worth hundreds of dollars over the month.  So when the customer called to complain and wanted the charges removed as fraudulent they were genuinely unaware of who accumulated the charges and they blame the company for not protecting their card from fraudulent transactions.  This is usually a very angry customer.  My job on the floor would be to calm down the customer, get permission to access their account, explain what the charges were and then get them to answer questions that would jog their memory of who had their card that day other than themselves.  Usually after they complained about my accent not being American (and could I please transfer them to the USA;) they would start to remember and once they realized it was their kid who stole from them they were not keen to pursue the fraud process because we would pursue it to the full extent of the law.  At this point it would be safe to point out to the caller that they could add a feature to their card to secure their credit rating and give them access to monthly credit reports through independent credit bureaus for a small monthly fee.  The embarrassed caller at this point is calm and ready to listen instead of scream.  By the time they leave the phone they are happy with the company again and I have earned a commission for selling an additional AMEX product.  Everyone is happy.

Nonetheless, most calls did not end that way.  I was abused, called all kind of names and may be 8 out of 10 calls my offers for additional products were rejected.  This was a lot of rejection considering that we took hundreds of calls a day and at the end of the day I was tired, worn out and psychologically messed up by people I had not even met.  The stress was unbelievable and many times I wondered why I did this day in and day out but I earned a lot more than I had earned at a decent NGO job in Bethesda and there were hardly any international development jobs in South Florida.  When I became a supervisor and listened to recorded calls for my team I realized that in addition to dealing with stressful customers whose issues the first line of service had failed to handle, I now had the added task of human resources management in a work environment where the turnover was unbelievably high.  Keeping a team together even for one month was challenging.  And so I acquired skills in people management of both internal and external clients that I am still using to this day in an organization that supports world peace and security.

At 50 I know that some of my best lessons in humility were learnt on the phone at a customer service center proving that there is no job, however humble; that does not impart skills, some that many in high paying white collar jobs will never acquire.
feeling accomplished

Friday, June 19, 2015

Mr. President

When I first met President Museveni in person in 1991 I was in awe. This man sitting in the tent across from me at State House had taken the young gangly odd-balls from my village and turned them into fighters fit to remove a sitting government in five years. He had convinced some hitherto unheard of nameless teenagers and young men to sacrifice their lives and limbs for good governance. Their remains are strewn all over the savannah because he convinced them to fight to their death after an authoritarian regime had used the military to steal an election in 1980, in which he had not even come in second place. You had to be overwhelmed by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni when you were 25 years old and heard of his achievements.
So I sat quietly in his tent at State House trying not to stare at him as I took notes of this important meeting. I was doing protocol duty that day as a young Foreign Service officer, on the Southern Africa and OAU Desk of Africa Department. The job would be my ticket to meeting and being in the presence of both great and infamous African leaders like Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe. I accompanied Pascoal Mocumbi then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mozambique to State House and sat there talking to him for hours as Museveni did his usual thing of keeping them waiting. Mocumbi later became Prime Minister of his country. I accompanied Chris Hani a former commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC to meet the President and had the pleasure of taking him to a cocktail in his honor at Fairway Hotel in Kampala. He was assassinated two years later and I remember being overwhelmed with grief. I was protocol officer for the President of the Pan Africanist Congress Clarence Makwetu when he called on Museveni and I was struck by his resemblance to Nelson Mandela. All these men left an impression on me. My job had led me into the corridors of power as a young woman and it may have eroded any lingering fear of authority, because I chatted with world leaders the same way I chatted with my friends. Still I was in awe of Museveni.
On the day that I was taking notes and staring at the president I had accompanied Alfred Nzo, Secretary General of the ANC to meet the President. My boss the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Tarsis Kabwegyere was with me. Museveni would allow note taking while discussing official state business then he would dismiss state officials for a one-on-one with his visitors so he asked us to leave. As I approached the exit of the tent he called me back in my native Runyankore and asked me who I was. ‘Anne Mugisha, Sir.’ ‘Which Mugisha is that?’ ‘Sir, you may not know him but I know you went to school with his brother Dr. John Iraka at Ntare School.’ ‘Oh, that Mugisha, George, I know him of course. Okay you may leave.’ I had heard that Museveni had a photographic memory and never forgets a face and I knew it was true because he never forgot who I was after that and a decade later I would give him many reasons not to forget.
That was me in 1990 to 1995 mingling with Heads of State and Government. The last time I met Museveni was in Washington, DC and I run away from him.
In November 2003, he was a guest speaker at the National Press Club in Washington DC at a time that I was a Reagan-Fascell Fellow. I got wind of the fact that he would be there and used my NED connections to get myself an invitation to attend. The rooms at the Press Club are small and there was no way he would miss me and if he did miss me his security detail, which would later stare me down at a demonstration in Seattle; would certainly not. If they saw me first, they would ensure that I never entered the room where the President was speaking. There were questions I wanted to ask this man in 2003. How could he have forgotten so quickly the harm it caused when an election was stolen in 1980? Had he not gone to the bush to fight the election thieves? People had died so that he could be president and ensure that such an abomination would never happen again. Surely, his memory could not have been erased or his brain transplanted. There must be a reason that only he could give.
So I had a plan. I woke up bright and early and as soon as the National Press Club opened its doors, I searched for the room where he would be speaking and took the front seat facing the lectern. I sat for hours, not moving because I might not get back in. Then his entourage arrived. The PPU guys recognized me instantly but it was too late the president was walking through the entrance. He did not see me at first but all the others did and they all had the same reaction: Surprise followed by a look that said ‘I don’t know you.’ Mary Karoro Okurut who used to visit our home in Nakasero as a student at Makerere, she walked straight past me. Diana Rwetsiba Karuhanga, Hope Kivengere. Wow! The president was introduced by Uganda’s Ambassador to the United States Edith Sempala who had about had it with my antics, petitions and protests on every electronic Ugandan forum I could find.
When he got up to speak at the podium he finally saw me and acknowledged with a smile. And off he went into his usual lecture talking about relations between the U.S. and Uganda as well as economic development in Africa, exporting processed versus raw materials, privatization, and future economic strategies for growth. If I was expecting to hear anything on democracy I would have been disappointed but then I was not expecting him to speak about it and I was fine waiting to raise my hand during question time. I shot it up in record time and kept it up, but Ambassador Sempala managed to call on everyone else who had a question except me! When he was done speaking he got up to go and at the door he suddenly turned around and called out to me. All the people who had not recognized me, even the Ambassador now suddenly smiled pleasantly as they allowed me through the small crowd around the president.
Again he spoke to me in Runyankore ‘Anne what are you doing here why don’t you come home?’ ‘Sir, I am fighting the bad things that you are doing at home,’ was immediate response. Now no one can accuse Museveni of lacking a sense of humor and I had never seen him laugh so hard. Luckily for me (or him) as I was struggling to put my thoughts in order to ask my questions his hosts came and told him that there were members of a Foreign Policy Commission waiting to see him in the next room. He told me to stay around because he wanted to talk to me. This was the time that opponents of the regime were being bought with jobs and money and I had no intention of soiling my reputation with a private meeting with Museveni. I returned to my seat to pick up my bag and Amb. Sempala and Hope Kivengere followed and told me not to leave because the President wanted to see me. My new found friends had no idea! I stormed out of the room past the smaller room where he could clearly see me making my escape and as I reached the elevators a PPU guy came running, grabbed my shoulder and told me to wait because the president has asked me to stay. I looked at his hand on my shoulder like it was a piece of dirt and he removed his sleazy fingers and off I went.
At 50 I have never met Museveni in person since that cold November day in Washington DC, but I still have these questions that I would like to ask him.

— feeling amused.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Return to Plantation

I returned to Plantation in the Fall of 2006 after a two year hiatus during which I completed the Reagan Fascell Fellowship Program in Washington, DC and worked at Women’s Learning Partnership in Bethesda, MD. My hopes of returning to Uganda had been dashed after Uganda’s opposition lost the 2006 election and it became apparent that my external relations efforts would still be required. Frankly, I had no desire of returning to a country where the main opposition leader had campaigned for office while either in jail or on bail. Kizza Besigye had returned from exile in South Africa in 2005 to contest for the presidency in the first elections that followed restoration of multiparty politics in Uganda. When he arrived to a rousing welcome and looked set for electoral victory, the government was faced with a dilemma that they solved the traditional way. The incumbent President could no longer play the HIV/AIDS card because his prediction in 2001 that Besigye had HIV/AIDS and was dying had been trumped by time. KB was alive, well and kicking up a lot of dust. So the government found a new idea of managing his political ambition and humiliating him all at the same time.
The old allegation that KB was linked to terror groups like the Peoples Redemption Army and the Lords Resistance Army was revived and he was summarily charged with terrorism before a military court martial in Kampala and locked up in the maximum-security prison in Luzira. And if that was not enough to keep him and his legal team busy, the government also accused Kizza Besigye of treason and rape spiced up with a tinge of intentional spread of HIV/AIDS. The charges would later be thrown out of court – after the election of course. Following his arrest, KB’s legal team focused on fighting challenges against his nomination for president because of the charges leveled against him. A shameless Attorney General, Khiddu Makhubuya, alleged that even though the courts had not yet found him guilty, the charges leveled against KB were sufficient to block his nomination. The nomination battle was won in the courts of law but when nomination day 2006 arrived, Kizza Besigye was still in the cooler and his wife Winnie Byanyima carried a large portrait of the man to represent him at his own nomination. When the legal team won the battle to bail him out of jail; the court still required KB to appear before it in Kampala weekly. That meant that for the duration of the campaign Besigye spent 24 hours on the road either trying to get to the next campaign rally or rushing to a Kampala court to fulfill the terms of his bail. And still the election was rigged and the Supreme Court threw out KB’s second electoral petition.
On 4 April 2006, one Jennifer Aryemo (JA) of the infamous headgear - whom I cannot recall ever meeting, appeared before the High Court in Kampala as the prosecutor's witness in the treason case against Kizza Besigye and stated under oath: (New Vision 5 April 2006)
‘JA: After Reform Agenda lost elections, one officer called me and told me that Col. Besigye wanted to see me at his office at Crest House.
BM: Who called you?
JA: Maj. Salambwa.
BM: After receiving the message what did you do?
JA: I agreed to meet Dr. Col. Besigye and went to Crest House.
BM: Do you remember the date, month and year?
JA: I do not remember the exact date, month and year but it was after RA lost elections to Museveni that is when I met him.
BM: What time did you get to Crest House?
JA: I do not remember the exact time but it was during the day.
BM: Where did you go exactly while at Crest House?
JA: Col. Besigye's office.
BM: Was anybody present in that office?
JA: Yes there were people.
Kagaba: How many people?
JA: I remember some names.
Kagaba: What was the number?
JA: Around three.
BM: Do you know the names of those who were present?
JA: Three people.
BM: Okay tell us.
JA: Anne Mugisha, Kizza Besigye and another called Byaruhanga.
BM: So those are the three.
JA: I remember those because we entered with Salambwa.
BM: Did you know these people before?
JA: I knew Mugisha, Byaruhanga and Salambwa during campaigns and Opoka is the one who introduced them to me.
BM: Did you know Opoka before.
JA: Yes My Lord, I knew him.
BM: So you and Salambwa get into Besigye’s office and find there other people. What follows?
JA: When we reached Kizza Besigye’s office, Salambwa introduced me and told Besigye that this is the person I told you about.
BM: What were these people doing in office when you went there?
JA: I found them seated and talking.
BM: What about you and Salambwa. Did you sit?
JA: Yes, we were given seats and we did sit.
BM: After you were introduced what followed?
JA: After I was introduced to Besigye, he told me that the election were not free and fair. They were rigged.
BM: Did he talk to you alone or with other people?
JA: He was talking to all of us and he said he would take government to court.
BM: Did he say anything else? (Aryemo pauses and gives a long explanation that Alaka objects to, saying she was not answering the question but giving an explanation.)
BM: Can you answer the question
JA: Col. Besigye said I should help him get connected to LRA.
(The audience bursts into laughter.)'
I was already a green card holder or permanent resident in the USA as I followed the unfolding drama in Uganda and could have easily traveled to Uganda but the manner in which Kizza Besigye was welcomed home by the government made me think hard before taking that decision. I had adequate motivation to go home because life as a single mom was tough in America. The salary I received as a program associate at WLP was barely enough to keep my head over water. The rent, car note and child care bills took up almost my entire monthly pay check and I fell into the infamous American credit trap. While waiting for my immigration status to be resolved, my brother Andrew had encouraged me to return to college and study Business. I enrolled at the University of Florida and started their Online Master of Business Administration course, so between 2003 – 2005, I traveled to Gainesville, Florida every semester to write exams, take some classes and receive the books and software I needed for the next semester. When I was in Plantation I had no car and the first time I took a train from Fort Lauderdale and it took over 10 hours of stopping and starting to get to Gainesville. Afterwards I made friends like Humberto Carlo who were also from South Florida, they kindly gave me a ride on the long 5-hour drive north. From October 2004 – April 2005, I lived in Maryland and when it was time to be a Gator, I took a flight to Orlando, FL, hired a vehicle and drove three hours north to Gainesville.
It was a tough life and that is how I discovered the tempting joy of the education loan. Having no credit history and still unemployed at the time of applying for admission at UF, I needed guarantors for the loan. Dr. Muniini Mulera my uncle through marriage and a fellow democracy activist; and VOA journalist Shaka Ssali were generous enough to guarantee the loan and I went to town, accumulating nearly USD $50,000 in education loans. I eventually built my own credit history and released my guarantors from their obligation but it would take me more than one decade to pay off that loan.
At the time I moved back to Plantation, FL to live near my brother I was working two jobs; at WLP during the day and at Blockbuster, a video rental company in the evening just to pay my bills. So why did I not return to Uganda in 2006? Uncertainty, fear and lack of hope. I knew the stories of harassment of opposition activists and deliberate impoverishing of those that were not harassed, to a point where they went begging the president for forgiveness so that they may get a job, a loan or just be left alone. I was just not prepared for that kind of humiliation and for me it would have been like jumping out of a frying pan into the fire. Years later I would be forced to write a letter to the same president guaranteeing that I was not a security threat before being recruited by an international organization. But that is a story for another day.
At 50 I smiled knowingly when a disgruntled General, our persecutor of yesteryears; revealed in the media in 2015, that Kizza Besigye won the 2006 presidential election at the polls but was unable to convert his win to power.

— feeling shocked.