Monday, June 1, 2015

2001 Elections - Inside Crest House

The Monday after I appeared on my first Capital Gang show in November 2001, I decided to visit the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Offices at Crest House off Jinja Road and volunteer my time.   I was clueless about how campaigns were run and did not know what to expect.  Coming from a civil service background I thought I may have to interview with someone for a role and then assume responsibilities if appointed.  At the top of the narrow stairway at Crest House I entered the offices of the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force on for the first time.  I met a few of the volunteers that I had seen at my first meeting with the candidate, I also met Winnie Babihuga MP for women Rukungiri District and James Musinguzi a Kampala business man.  The optimism in the offices was tangible.  Everyone had a mission and no one wanted to be bothered with the details of organizing. The task force was growing and working organically.  

What the campaign lacked in organization they compensated with enthusiasm.  I started learning the names of people who were involved in running the Crest House operation.  There was Obote in the reception area near the entrance who appeared to be in charge of security, An elderly gentleman dressed in a cream Kaunda suit in the most crowded room was Louis Otika the campaign administrator, the serious looking short man who wore his shirt without tucking it in was Salambwa a security official, the young man who spoke loudly and with enthusiasm brimming over was Robert Ndyomugyenyi a youth mobilizer.  The youth organizers already had issues and wanted a separate office where they could organize their activities, they included a man named Idilly and a young lady called Amanda.  Esther Mugarura was pointed out to me as a strong women's leader.  The elderly Arthur Bagunywa was on the manifesto committee.  The candidate was on an upcountry tour and there seemed to be no one in charge, but everyone was working or doing something that was of importance to them.  I left with a date for the next task force meeting, which would discuss the design and printing of our campaign poster but I left without getting a sense of a well organized operation. 

The first Task Force meeting I attended at Crest house was chaired by Joseph Tumushabe a researcher who was always preoccupied with statistical trends.  He would head the campaign's research department charged with running a tallying center.  At that meeting I also met James Opoka, the candidate's political assistant for the first time.   The issue at hand was the design of the poster and the campaign motto.  This was a campaign run under the constitutional requirement of 'individual merit'.  There was no party platform but rather a candidate whom we were selling to the electorate as 'The President who will Listen.'  We had come to the agreement that what went wrong in the Movement was a result of leaders who acted on national matters on their own volition and shunned advice from any quarters, hence the slogan.  As discussions progressed participants came up with another slogan that broadened the candidate's platform to include issues that better defined our aspirations.  While there was disaffection with the Movement's complete control of the political space many of us did not believe at the time that the Movement was beyond redemption, we believed there was still room for change through political reform.  And that is how the second and better know campaign  slogan came into existence 'Reform Now!'  Everyone seemed happy with that slogan and James Opoka pointed out that it was easy to translate to Luo where it became the handy phrase 'Aloka loka.'  A follow-up meeting to start discussions on substantial aspects of the election manifesto was scheduled and we left. 

I do not recall making a conscious decision to start working at Crest House full time.  It started off as a part time assignment but I remember one day walking into the office and knowing that there was no way I could leave if I even hoped to make a small impact with the team.  My first full day as an Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force member came when I walked in and found the place in near chaos.  Joyce Acan the receptionist and Obote the security man were simply overwhelmed by a crowd of people with all kinds of requests.  It was a challenge just to hear what anyone was saying.  The candidate was upcountry but there were all walks of people: some genuine supporters, others government informants, others simply trouble makers who wanted money to take the message to their village, to appear on a radio talk show, and even some wanted money to consult with mediums on the future fortunes of Kizza Besigye and his campaign.  I slipped behind a desk outside Kizza Besigye's office and marked my territory.  The next thing I knew I was answering calls from the press, fielding questions on behalf of the campaign task force, setting up appointments for people trying to meet the candidate and trying to get appointments for the candidate to meet with foreign envoys and local opinion leaders.  The next day I simply walked back to the office sat in the same spot and continued doing what I had been doing the day before.  The official campaigns had not really started in late November and early December 2001 but Kizza Besigye was on a meet and greet tour in different parts of the country.  One afternoon he returned from one of those tours and found me comfortably seated in his outer office working without an appointment letter.  He expressed no surprise to see me there but like everyone else simply discussed the next assignment.  I called meetings and press conferences, took minutes, drafted letters, edited speeches, answered the phone and did anything that needed to be done to get through the day.

I would look back and think how simple everything seemed then and how our concerns at that early stage paled in significance with each passing day. 

At 50 I know that the most rewarding work I have done is not what paid the most but rather it is the work that I engaged in passionately with conviction and purpose, work which stirred a sense of giving to a greater good.

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