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.

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