Friday, June 5, 2015

2001 Elections Campaign - Al Haji Nasser Sebagala

During the period that the middle class slept, happy that the guns had fallen silent where they lived and unaffected by the poverty and human degradation of others, a controversial political figure had risen out of the political debris and silently built an army of street followers (seyas) who had yet to taste the fruits of the NRA's 'bush war.' Al Haji Nasser Sebaggala was a streetwise DP leader whose power of mobilizing the downtrodden on Kampala’s streets was fortified by his inability to speak fluent English. The unemployed and illiterate Kampala masses identified with him as he spent hours on the streets talking to them. He would sit at a shoe shiner’s stall on a busy Kampala street and within minutes a crowd would gather to listen to his message of change. He castigated government for ignoring the plight of the illiterate poor and awakened them to their power as voters. One day in 1998, we woke up and found that he had won an election and was mayor of Uganda’s capital city.
Haji Sebaggala's easy walk to the Mayoral seat of Kampala city gave him confidence to believe that he was ready to be president of the country and in 2001 he attempted to get nominated. His hopes were dashed when the Uganda National Examination Board determined that he did not have adequate education qualifications to qualify for the presidency. His rejection was followed by riots in the city but these were quickly quelled and Nasser Sebaggala then turned to the business of choosing the candidate behind whom he would throw his political weight and deliver the ‘seyas’ votes. When he decided to campaign for Kizza Besigye he did so with pomp and drama. I was at the campaign headquarters at Crest House when a sea of ‘seyas’ led by Haji Sebaggala marched through town headed for Crest House. The approaching noise made a considerable difference to the hitherto quiet campaign office and the drama of the street lads was completed when at the end of their visit we were missing three cell phones. Hon. Winnie Babihuga was there to receive him as the candidate was not in office and the press covered his statement pledging alliance to the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force. From the start he made it clear that it was his influence and structures in the central region that would deliver the votes for Besigye in the area. He was positioning himself for a big office if Kizza Besigye was to become president.
At this stage of the campaign it had become apparent that high powered political endorsements by dissenting legislators and big business would not be forthcoming. The ruling party moved fast to block potential funders from sponsoring Dr. Besigye. The legislators who had given him backing like Hon. Stephen Chebrot started making public statements denouncing Besigye. Youth activists who had earlier on crowded Crest House staged an enmasse defection led by Idlly and Amanda. One activist from Karamoja who had been given T-shirts and posters for the whole region was shown on television handing over the items to the ruling party. It was a sieving process and only the core activists who were committed to the vision of the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force remained on board. The Task Force was therefore excited about the potential increase in the number of votes brought in by Hajji Sebaggala.
Not everyone on the Task Force was pleased though. Hon. Winnie Byanyima (MP Mbarara Municipality,) and the candidate’s wife was appalled that Hajji Sebaggala was positioning himself to play a prominent role during the campaigns. Her apprehension was validated by the fact that we were campaigning on an anti-corruption platform and Sebaggala was tainted by an international fraud scandal that had earned him a jail sentence in the United States. He had been arrested in the United States on eight counts of fraud and for lying to U.S. customs officials. In February 1999, he received a 15-month sentence, but was paroled in December 1999. He returned to Kampala in February 2000 to a thunderous welcome by seyas and considered a bid in the 2001 presidential elections. Winnie knew that the ruling party would pounce on this criminal background and damage the credibility of the Task Force. She was right. As spokesperson for the campaign, I spent a great deal of time defending our decision to campaign alongside Nasser Sebaggala and in many ways this debate watered down our anti-corruption credentials. None of us was prepared for the ugliness of the ruling party’s tactics. In one print advertisement, graphics experts merged the portraits of Besigye and Sebaggala creating a hideous looking creature with a caption of the dangers the country would face in the hands of such an alliance.
Those who remained with the Task Force to the end were committed to a point of fanaticism. We may have started off with the benign idea of challenging the monolithic Movement government, creating awareness about the social injustices we saw around us and other high ideals, but our resolve and determination came near fanatical after we realized that this was a fight for the survival of our fundamental beliefs and basic human rights ideals. The realization that democracy was not only under threat, it was being deliberately buried, that human rights abuses were not being punished, but rather rewarded when used against government’s opponents; made this a defining race for me. I woke up each day more determined than the last to make this election a reawakening of the conscience of a sleepy nation. The challenges seemed insurmountable but our spirit as a team was invincible.
The Task Force continued to grow organically shedding off those who had been interested in positioning themselves for some political gain and retaining those who saw no future without change. We campaigned tirelessly with small numbers but determined personalities. Each day there was a radio talk show to attend, an open public debate (Ekimeeza), a news item to respond to, a jingle to compose, an opinion to write, an interview to give, a cameraman to deploy. I had found my niche in the publicity department and realized my calling as a democracy activist.
The enthusiasm with which we took on tasks with the limited resources at our disposal meant that we took on whatever role needed manning for a day. A lot of our planning and working was adhoc depending on needs that arose that hour, that day or that week of the campaign.
At 50 I know that along the way I confused the role of activist and politician and while I was a natural at being an activist, I never really had it in me to ever become a politician.

— feeling confused.

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